ON A QUIET BLOCK in the East 50s in Manhattan, set between a music school and a prewar apartment building a coin’s toss from the noise of subway construction, sits a discreet, Modernist marvel: Philip Johnson’s 1950 Rockefeller Guest House. One of several private New York residences the architect designed, the house is a designated historic — as well as architectural — landmark. Yet one would be forgiven for overlooking the unadorned brick-and-glass facade; the house doesn’t give up its secrets easily.
New York is not a city that always protects, much less values, its architectural heritage. For evidence, one must only head west on 52nd Street, to the recently shuttered Four Seasons restaurant, designed by Johnson with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, his “guru.” Yet the Rockefeller Guest House stands virtually unchanged, the best preserved — and yet least known — of Johnson’s New York works. Inside, the brick walls could recite a firsthand history of the 20th century’s art world.
The two-story building, one of Johnson’s earliest New York commissions, was built for Blanchette Ferry Hooker Rockefeller between 1949 and 1950, and was intended as both a showcase for her modern art collection and a space for entertaining. The neighborhood of Turtle Bay — described as the East Side’s “riverside back yard” by the 1939 Work Projects Administration Guide — had since the 1920s been an artistic hub of the city, combining a quantity of affordable housing, dedicated studios and elegant enclaves like Beekman Place. Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst lived nearby; in the 1960s, the neighborhood played host to Andy Warhol’s Factory. Here was a natural site for the collaboration between the fashionable architect and his patron.
Blanchette Rockefeller, the wife of oil scion John D. Rockefeller III, was from a young age an impassioned and knowledgeable art lover. She and her husband shared a liking of Asian and traditional art, but her personal enthusiasm was for more modern work; her collection contained such pieces as Alberto Giacometti’s “Man Pointing” and Robert Motherwell’s “The Voyage.” Both works wound up in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, and indeed the Guest House became a mini testing ground for several cornerstones of MoMA’s holdings. Blanchette Rockefeller twice served as president of that museum and, in 1948, founded MoMA’s Junior Council. The Guest House would come to function as an extension of MoMA, a space to woo potential donors, to entertain artists and to display Modernism in its purest and most impressive form.
At the time, Johnson had only been practicing in New York for a few years, but he’d already established a reputation as an advocate of the International Style. Although not a licensed architect until the mid-1950s — associates signed off on his projects until he managed to pass the exam — by 1949 he’d built his iconic New Canaan Glass House and had become an unofficial architectural adviser to MoMA, whose department of architecture he’d helped subsidize. Despite his outspoken fascism in the 1930s and early 1940s — with an FBI dossier to prove it — Johnson had remained an art-world social fixture, an in-demand guest at dinner parties and salons who was known for his sophistication and wit.
Blanchette Rockefeller’s primary residence was on Beekman Place; her husband, although an art patron himself, had more conservative tastes and regarded the Guest House as both a creative expression for Blanchette and a space to safely quarantine her baffling collection of Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still. (By the time the house was designed, he’d already put the kibosh on one proposed collaboration with Johnson at the family’s Pocantico Hills estate.) The 25-by-100-foot plot of land she acquired was located conveniently between her apartment and MoMA; the $64,000 project was — almost unbelievably — technically classified as an “alteration.”
Walk through the towering door now, and Midtown falls away. The transition is not abrupt; a visitor is met first with a The main room provides an unimpeded vista through 100 feet of natural-lit openness, a glass wall, a courtyard and pond, and a small separate structure beyond. The effect — of muted light, of air, of cleanness — is moving.
It takes a moment to begin to take in other details: the long, unbroken eastern wall; the radiant heat from the tiled floors that keeps the room so warm; the massive, sculptural fireplace; and the path of large stones that lead across the pond like stylized lily pads. What’s most extraordinary is how little has been changed, from the house’s framing to the white vinyl tiles on the ground floor. This is a space made to display art as generously as any gallery. And yet it’s a work of art in its own right.
We live in a time when space is perhaps the ultimate status symbol. It’s certainly true that this much raw footage, in this part of the world, would be unimaginably expensive today. (And, indeed, was. When the house sold in 2000 for $11.16 million to an undisclosed buyer, its price per square foot was the highest in New York real estate history.) But seeing this room is a reminder of why this is desirable, and how rare and crucial such perfection in minimalism is. We seem to think the point is lack; when you’re in this room, spare though it is, it is full.
Of course, in a literal sense, it has always been sparsely furnished. Today, there is a kitchen in the basement, and the upper floors are heated. When it was built, there was only a small bar concealed within those front cupboards — manned in the early days by a butler named Charles. The second floor was uninhabited. (“The top of the house doesn’t exist for me,” Johnson told an interviewer in the 1970s.) There was little concession made to practicality.
Rockefeller didn’t require much more than a few tables and chairs and copper-threaded chenille draperies woven by Anni Albers to provide a modicum of privacy. At a time when art collectors’ money and so much talent was homegrown, this would have been one of the most sophisticated rooms in the world.
FOR JOHNSON’S DETRACTORS, however, the space would have been emblematic of all they disliked. (The critic Hilton Kramer once described Johnson’s work as “publicity, showmanship and the exercise of power.”) Naysayers have always charged that Johnson’s committed minimalism had none of the political and social gravitas of his European influencers — indeed, his later-renounced support of Nazism would haunt him all his life. He was a social creature, a party boy, and the Guest House was a monument to ego, money and establishment, not to mention a place that lacked any conventional domestic comforts.
Throughout his career, Johnson was bemused by the claim that one could not live in his spaces. He certainly could — and did. In 1958, Blanchette Rockefeller (at the irritated urging of her husband) donated the Guest House to MoMA, who occasionally used it as an auxiliary event space, and then resold it in turn. In 1971, Johnson and his partner, the art dealer David Whitney, leased the house from Mrs. Lee Sherrod, and proceeded to inhabit it for the next eight years.
Johnson replaced the blocky furniture with sculptural Gaetano Pesce chairs. He rotated his art collection — Roy Lichtensteins, Frank Stellas — on the east wall. He slept in the small room across the pond, and bathed in its bare-bones bathroom. And, twice-yearly, he entertained friends like Warhol and Fran Lebowitz. The lack of kitchen was not a problem; the Four Seasons restaurant was nearby, and was Johnson’s default location at which to dine and conduct business.
Johnson’s life at this point was something of an exercise in completist Modernism. Nothing, from the house he lived in to the dishes he ate off at the Four Seasons (designed by the critic Ada Louise Huxtable and her husband, Garth), jarred his aesthetic sensibilities. Of course, many remnants of this lifestyle are now lost or scattered. Although the iconic interior of the Four Seasons was landmarked in 1989, the entire contents of the restaurant were sold at auction in July 2016. The preservation of the Rockefeller Guest House feels even more remarkable — and crucial — by comparison: a living piece of history, hiding in plain sight.