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21 First Drafts: Philip Johnson's 9 Ash Street House

Franziska Barczyk

First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there's often more to learn about their first acts.

Philip Johnson
9 Ash Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Date completed: 1942

Getting the Gig:
Most architect's early careers are littered with unbuilt concepts and experimental dead-ends, a paper trail of ambition that finally comes together for a long-awaited first project. Philip Johnson was the rare architecture student who was not only able to realize his thesis project, but see it finished before graduation. Of course, few students could boast of the credentials and connections he had in the early '40s, when the then 35-year-old was enrolled at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. A critic, writer and early advocate of Modernism who had already worked at MoMA, Johnson had coined the term "International Style" and sponsored Mies van der Rohe's first visit to the United States (and got him to design his New York apartment). Few could also claim to have the means to purchase land and fund construction. Johnson's father had bought stock in ALCOA, the American aluminum company, when he was young, and the proceeds from that investment, along with his family's fortune, gave him incredible freedom (he was a millionaire in his '20s). If that didn't make him stick out enough among his classmates, his plan to purchase an acre lot on Ash Street and construct his thesis project, a small home inspired in large part by Mies's court house concepts, was soon going to set him apart even further.

Description and Reception:
When approached from the street, one lined with otherwise traditional designs from colonial to shingle-style, Johnson's first work teases, hidden behind a high fence with no suggestion of what lays behind. The home at 9 Ash Street was both an open courtyard home based on Miesian principles of simplicity as well as a secluded suburban escape, lined with 9-foot-tall walls that frame the yard and join with the building itself. Where the Glass House celebrated the surrounding unencumbered landscape, the home at 9 Ash Street turned away from its dense Cambridge neighborhood, hiding behind its own walls like a turtle retreating to its shell. That's not to say this is an unsightly piece of work; viewing the courtyard through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows from atop the Mies Barcelona chairs that originally graced the living room, it offer the closest thing to the Glass House experience as you can get a short walk from Harvard Yard. Essentially a dry run for his signature work, Johnson's first private home may make an even more intriguing statement about transparency, since it attempts to create openness where none existed. Johnson reworked the design many times, challenged in part by wartime material shortages (he ended up landing on a prefab design using Weldtex hollow plywood panels). Johnson's home was celebrated by his teachers and peers, not the least because it was a great place for afternoon drinks, though the architect later admitted that it was a first efforts filled with rookie mistakes.

Impact On His Career:
After the home was completed in 1942, and before Johnson was called away to serve in WWII in March of 1943, the home served as a center of the Harvard architectural community's social circuit. Ever the gracious host, Johnson, assisted by a Filipino servant, entertained luminaries such as Professor Walter Gropius and George Howe. A young MIT student, I.M. Pei, even made it over once for cocktails. During Johnson's service, the home was featured in Architectural Forum, and described as "the best example in America" of Mies van der Rohe's attitude towards architecture. While he sold the home after the war, it remained an important first step that would inform his later residential masterpieces. Johnson has said that his Glass House was an attempt to "solve the same problem" as 9 Ash Street.

Famous Future Works:
Glass House (New Caanan: 1949), Four Seasons Restaurant (New York: 1959), Amon Carter Museum (Fort Worth: 1961), Kunsthalle Bielefeld (Bielefeld: 1968), John Fitzgerald Kennedy Memorial (Dallas: 1970), IDS Center (Minneapolis: 1972), Crystal Cathedral (Garden Grove: 1981), AT&T Corporate Headquarters (New York: 1984)

Current Status:
A blue plaque currently stands on the corner of Acacia and Ash, marking the site of Johnson's first project. After decades of disrepair, it was purchased by his alma mater in 2010 for $1,250,000 with plans to restore the home and create a salon and showpiece for the Graduate School of Design, in keeping with Johnson's original intentions. Thomas Pfifer and Partners are working on the restoration.

Philip Johnson's Elevated, Exceptional Wiley House Asks $14M [Curbed]
The Half-Glass House, Philip Johnson's First Creation, Hits Market [Curbed]
On its 50th Birthday, a Look at the Starchitecture of the '64 World's Fair [Curbed]
Johnson's Glass House Stages a Misty Disappearing Act [Curbed]