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A Glass House renovation

Philip Johnson’s masterpiece replaces its ceiling

Glass House
The Glass House, not in renovation mode.
Thomas Nemeskeri/Flickr

Philip Johnson’s Glass House, built in 1949, is one of the most iconic works of architecture in the world. It’s a modernist masterpiece, instantly recognized by its sublime composition of glass, steel, furniture, art, and nature views. So you probably have never seen it like this.

The Glass House, covered up for renovation—note the rather out-of-place temporary door.
Photo by Michael Biondo courtesy The Glass House

The horror! What’s happening! Where’s the glass? The glorious transparency? As the sub-headline of this article indicates, the scene above is all thanks to a months-long project that would completely redo what’s probably the most overlooked, least photographed face of the Glass House—the ceiling.

As it turns out, after some 68 years, the Glass House ceiling was sagging all over, with stains from roof leaks visible from one end to the other. Furthermore, the top coat was found to contain asbestos, and the damaged ceiling had begun to impede on two of the four doors in the house.

These problems all emerged when the Glass House, a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, initiated a ceiling sag stabilization project in 2015. Since then, it’s raised $230,000 in funds—including grants from the Bank of America 2016 Art Conservation Project and the State of Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development—which made it possible to finally replace the ceiling entirely.

To that end, the Glass House enlisted Brooklyn-based EverGreene Architectural Arts, a veteran of landmark restorations, Silman Structural Engineers, along with Glass House staff and Ashley Wilson, the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, for a once-in-a-lifetime kind of project.

What followed is a feast for all the construction and preservation nerds out there. This is not your average before and after.

Interior of the Glass House, pre-renovation; stains are visible in the ceiling.
Photo by Michael Biondo courtesy The Glass House

The project officially kicked off in December 2017. Before anything could be done to the actual ceiling, the team had to relocate the art and furniture collection, which had precise placements in the floorplan and was pivotal to the intended experience of the Glass House. The time lapse video below captures that process.

Time-lapse video: Removing the art and furniture collection for protection.

Then it got real. Off came the ceiling, which covers a total area of 1,800 square feet. While the roof framing was still structurally sound, an outdated system that uses ring nails to attach the ceiling to the roof timbers was no longer strong enough to support the weight of the ceiling.

“The nails were pulling out of the wood frame ceiling,” EverGreene Architectural Arts’ senior project manager Toland Grinell tells Curbed. “Once that starts, it’s like peeling paint.”

The old ceiling removed, exposing timber roof framing.
Photo by Michael Biondo courtesy The Glass House
A closeup.
Photo by Michael Biondo courtesy The Glass House

Time-lapse video: Framing, lath, and mesh installation.

According to Grinell, when the existing ceiling was removed, his team took away large samples so they can document the exact texture, color, finish of the original plaster and do everything they can to reproduce every single component of the ceiling.

This means using the same exact species of wood and dimensions for the ceiling framing, but this time installed with stronger mechanical fasteners, aka screws. The team also reverse-engineered each of the three layers of custom-blended plaster to get as close to the original as possible. The only layer where they deviated was the third one: the top coat, which proved to be the trickiest part of the whole process.

A ceiling mockup.
Photo by Michael Biondo courtesy The Glass House
Prior to layering on the plaster, the team installed expanded metal laths with bent metal edge beads, which was “very fussy, detailed,” according to Grinell.
Photo by Michael Biondo courtesy The Glass House

The top coat contained asbestos, a known carcinogen that was sometimes used in midcentury homes for fireproofing or aesthetic purposes. Grinell says the asbestos content in the top coat was “very low,” but the asbestos fibers in there did contribute to a distinct rough texture, almost like an European stucco.

“The fibers stand up...some of the fibers curl over, which makes a very soft appearance,” Grinell says. “Having to reproduce that faithfully without asbestos was one of the reasons why it took so many samples to get it right.”

It took six tries, to be exact.

The ceiling replacement in progress, shown here with various plaster mockups.
Photo by Michael Biondo courtesy The Glass House

Time-lapse video: The first layer of plaster goes up.

“We did on-site ceiling mockups of all the different test finishes, painstakingly reviewed them in different light, times of day,” Grinell says. “Lots of conversations, photographs, compare and contrast.”

The formula they settled on was a complicated, “unusual aggregate” that delivers ideal results using what Grinell calls “the most boring stuff in the world.” As he puts it: “Two cooks can make a completely different meal from same ingredients, a stew versus a three-course meal.”

Well, here’s what the Glass House ceiling looks like after a three-course meal.

Revealed: spankin’ new ceiling as seen in March 2018.
Photo by Michael Biondo courtesy The Glass House
See it from another angle.
Photo by Michael Biondo courtesy The Glass House

Time-lapse video: The final top coat wraps up the project.

The Glass House, currently closed for the winter, will reopen with the brand new ceiling in May. The next time you visit, remember to look up!