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America's Nazi Architect

America's Nazi Architect

He was a brilliant creative and a fixture in New York’s art scene. In wrestling with Philip Johnson’s legacy, there’s opportunity and serious responsibility.

Carolyn Stewart

For as long as I’ve kept a bucket list of must-visit architectural masterpieces, Philip Johnson’s Glass House has always been at the top. Located in the Connecticut countryside, the small modernist house from 1949 is completely transparent thanks to the clear sheets of glass that form its exterior. The walls are as audacious as they are elegant, offering both man and nature an unadulterated view of each other. Johnson would eventually install shades. But when he first built it, the Glass House’s namesake feature was a declaration of innocence by a man with much to hide.

While seventy-three years have passed since Johnson built the house, the darker aspects of his life still remain hidden in plain sight, as I discovered on a visit to the house earlier this summer.

The 2018 biography The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century by architecture critic Mark Lamster marked a new chapter in our understanding of Johnson and his political engagement during the years leading up to World War II. Drawing on letters, diaries, FBI files, and other primary sources, Lamster offers a nuanced and difficult-to-swallow image of Johnson: Not just the celebrated modernist architect, but the Hitler sycophant who attended Nazi rallies and watched a Polish town burn; a presumed spy who was the focus of at least five FBI investigations; and a man who quit his leadership role at the Museum of Modern Art to travel America espousing eugenic concepts like race suicide.

When Lamster’s book was published, it helped bring an "open secret" of the architectural world into the mainstream. As a friend of mine who is an architectural designer and historian noted, “There is so much re-examination happening, and in certain circles, calling out problematic behaviors and practices has become the norm.” A critical eye is being turned to the behavior of lauded cultural icons, architects included.

Now four years later, Lamster’s research has had plenty of time to percolate through the institutions tasked with preserving Johnson’s legacy. And yet, many institutions continue to sweep his troubled history under the carpet, offering the public a whitewashed rendition of Johnson that is as inaccurate as it is shortsighted.

As a fan of Johnson’s Glass House and modernist buildings, I find Lamster’s revelations a hard pill to swallow. But as Johnson himself once remarked, “we cannot not know history.” It’s too late for us to turn a blind eye to the wrongdoings of the Man in the Glass House. As political movements based on intolerance and authoritarianism undergo a global resurgence, Johnson’s actions offer a warning and cautionary tale to modern audiences, one that becomes increasingly relevant each day.

“Johnson laid down the gravel path so that he’d hear visitors approaching the house,” the tour guide told us as we approached the entry to the single-story Glass House. The glass panes shimmered a luminous green from the late summer foliage. It’s hard to understand why Johnson needed to hear his guests approaching, since he could, anywhere in the house, just crane his neck and see the front pathway. Fresh off of a six-hour drive from Washington and with the highway still ringing in my ears, I wasn’t about to challenge the tour guide’s assertion.

As I stepped through the front door, I entered a modernist dollhouse. All of life’s domestic necessities, on a smaller scale, were laid out and within reach: to the left, a kitchen counter rising to hip height; to the right, a plush white carpet that signals the “living room,” coupled with slim, camel-brown leather furniture designed by Mies van der Rohe. It was an exceedingly gracious move by van der Rohe, given that Johnson’s Glass House was “inspired” (to put it mildly) by van der Rohe’s own Farnsworth House.

The Glass House during the author's visit.

The living space is completed with a shockingly unmodern touch: a French Baroque painting attributed to Nicolas Poussin, The Burial of Phocion—a discordant choice by a man who worshipped at the altar of utility and once put a toaster on display at MoMA.

At this point, the tour experience diverged from what it could have been. The fine brushwork of The Burial of Phocion depicts an Athenian politician who was unjustly banished and executed for supposed crimes against the state. As Lamster notes in his biography, the painting was chosen by Johnson because it paralleled his own circumstances, a “failed politician now exiled to the Connecticut hinterland.” Yet, during the tour, the painting’s significance went unmentioned.

Nor did the tour guide relay how the fireplace—a tall nook integrated into a brick column that also hosts the bathroom—was used by Johnson for more than cozy ambiance. As Ian Volner, another Johnson biographer, notes,

Following his notorious pre-war flirtation (closer to a full-blown romance) with Nazism, [Johnson] was careful to cover his tracks, burning the bulk of his incriminating letters and articles in the brick-clad fireplace of his landmark Glass House.

Also omitted by our guide was one of Johnson’s particularly gruesome sources of inspiration. The brick column of the Glass House was inspired by, in Johnson’s words, “a burnt wooden village I saw once where nothing was left but foundations and chimneys of brick.” The inspirational ruins in question are those that Johnson had witnessed on a Nazi-sponsored junket to Poland.

But why talk of such things when we can hear about Johnson’s glamorous cocktail parties and friendship with Andy Warhol?

In autumn of 1932, thousands of young Germans hiked across their country to reach the airfields of Potsdam. They were there, like Johnson, to hear Adolf Hitler speak, the leader of a fringe party that was increasingly gaining prominence. With swastika flags flying over the airfield, Hitler rose on a dais surrounded by eighty thousand youth. It was Johnson’s first direct experience with Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers Party’s use of pageantry to project power and foment fear. “You simply could not fail to be caught up in the excitement of it,” he noted in a taped interview later in life, “by the marching songs, by the crescendo and climax of the whole thing, as Hitler came on at last to harangue the crowd.” Four years later, as an acolyte of antisemitic broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin, Johnson would draw on his memories of that day to create a stage for a mass rally of equal size and similar purpose.

On the heels of Potsdam, Johnson traveled to Rome to visit Benito Mussolini’s Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution. Marking Il Duce’s tenth anniversary in power, the purpose-built exhibition hall embraced an aesthetic that appealed to Johnson’s modernist tastes. Soaring columns of concrete and steel made up the façade, “clean vertical lines … of domination, audacity, and empire,” in the words of Mussolini mistress and journalist Margherita Sarfatti.

It’s difficult to know whether Johnson’s love of modern architecture led to his interest in fascism, or vice versa. Regardless, by the time he reached twenty-seven in 1933, his political and architectural ambitions fed off each other in extreme ways. The year prior he had curated MoMA’s first architectural exhibition, a popular display credited with introducing the American public to modernist architecture. He now sought to use his architectural passion as a gateway into Germany’s fascist politics. In an article titled “Architecture in the Third Reich” that he wrote for Hound & Horn magazine after the Potsdam rally, Johnson argues that the Nazi Party should adopt modernism to “satisfy the new craving for monumentality” and demonstrate that “the new Germany is not bent on destroying all the modern arts”—this “new Germany,” that is, which had just months earlier sent forty thousand political opponents to concentration camps and passed a law prohibiting the creation of new political parties.

Inspired by all that he had seen and felt, Johnson decided it was time to start his own political movement back home. He resigned from MoMA so that he and his childhood friend Alan Blackburn could devote their efforts to building a paramilitary populist movement in the United States. Whereas Hitler’s paramilitary forces wore brown shirts and Mussolini’s wore black shirts, Johnson’s group would wear gray shirts. The group comprised Klansmen, members of the pro-Nazi German American Bund, populist reactionaries, and the Black Legion, a white supremacist movement active in the Midwest. Here, Lamster brings these nebulous years of Johnson’s life into crystal focus, offering rich context on the homegrown political movements that flirted with pre-war fascism, aspects of American history that are chronically overshadowed by the march to war.

Johnson’s grassroots ambitions eventually fizzled out, and he swapped Midwest Klansmen for the rarefied social circles he had left in Manhattan. He began hosting pro-fascist meetings at his apartment, meetings that took a decidedly antisemitic turn according to testimony offered by participants to the FBI. Some within Johnson’s orbit tried to turn him away from his new interests, as Lamster notes. His friend Lincoln Kerstein, who later co-founded the School of American Ballet with George Balanchine, confronted him on the street one afternoon. In his diary, Kerstein wrote that Johnson insisted he wasn’t an antisemite, but that his gatherings were “merely a group of young men interested in ‘direct action’ in politics, who believed in a totalitarian state and leadership instead of democracy.”

Attending Nazi rallies and serving canapés to supremacists in New York wasn’t enough for Johnson. He longed for more. In the summer of 1939, he offered his services as a no-fee foreign correspondent to pro-fascist outlets Today’s Challenge and Social Justice. His writing caught the eye of Joseph Goebbel’s propaganda ministry, and he was invited on a high-level press junket to Poland–the experience that would later inspire the brick column in the Glass House.

Along with a group of professional reporters (including CBS correspondent William Shirer, who wrote in his diary that Johnson was likely a spy for Germany), the junket was led to an observation post overlooking a port town in Poland. The Luftwaffe soared overhead. The group watched as Germany’s combined naval, air, and ground forces flattened the city, and in particular a school building where Polish forces had sheltered. The experience stunned the professional reporters. For Johnson, it was something altogether different. Writing to a friend within the Nazi Party, Johnson recalls how the “German green uniforms made the place look gay and happy. There were not many Jews to be seen. We saw Warsaw burn and Modlin being bombed. It was a stirring spectacle.”

Following America’s entry into the war, Johnson could tell the tides of public opinion were shifting. He enrolled in Harvard’s architecture school while he rehabilitated his image, attempting to establish his patriotic credentials as the federal government prosecuted his old friends one by one. How sincere he might have been in his efforts is up for interpretation—FBI informants reported that he was still meeting with Nazi officials in the months before his enrollment. And Johnson scholars note that he never fully apologized or seemed contrite for his nine years as a Nazi booster. As his architectural career took off, family friends including Nelson Rockefeller helped Johnson secure generous architectural commissions that helped him shed the identity of failed fascist.

Johnson’s “stirring spectacle” was on my mind as I walked the green lawn surrounding the Glass House. Listening to the tour guide wrap up her remarks, I waited for Johnson’s dark years to be addressed. But the architect’s fascist foray remained notably absent from the narrative.

Before I could raise the topic, another visitor beat me to it. Visibly tense, he asked the tour guide why the tour avoided any mention of Johnson’s connection to the Nazis. A few others in the group nodded their heads in agreement. The tour guide looked a touch sheepish and said, with a shoulder shrug, that the Glass House is still closely tied to Johnson’s surviving friends and mentees.

To give credit where it is due, the Glass House website offers a sentence acknowledging Johnson’s “pro-Nazi and American fascist sympathies,” but there are no other such references. While the gift shop does not offer Lamster’s biography, the house staff did host the author for a discussion of The Man in the Glass House and their website features two event recordings from the talk.

The Glass House is a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and, as such, a statement on its website notes that “with equal conviction, we believe that historic sites must serve as powerful spaces for learning, reflection, and truth-telling.” Great! Just point me in the direction of the symposiums, the white papers, the discussions, the blog posts, the podcasts. Too bad these resources do not exist. In response to my query, a spokesperson for the National Trust for Historic Preservation noted that a new grant from the Marder-Vaughn Center for Historic Sites Interpretation is funding the development of a civics-focused teaching curriculum geared toward high schoolers that will address Johnson’s fascist past. It’s a step in the right direction, but neglects to address how the Glass House’s tour and programming can do more to educate the general public on Johnson’s “inglorious detour” (to use the website’s euphemism).

How do we solve a problem like Philip Johnson? Whitewashing his past, as the Glass House has, is a bit of institutional slight-of-hand. The erasure of Johnson’s nearly decade-long pursuit of fascism reflects a cultural institution that is very uncomfortable addressing the full range of the architect’s legacy. By omitting Johnson’s fascist past, the Glass House staff tacitly acknowledge the severity and seriousness of it—and their own fear of marring Johnson’s carefully kept image.

On the other end of the spectrum there’s cancellation, that heady combination of public erasure and performative virtue. Shall we “cancel” Johnson?

It is tempting to view the past through the moral lens of today and succumb to presentism. It might even be tempting to seek some sort of retributive justice and reduce our own cognitive dissonance by “punishing” a figure like Johnson with erasure. But this approach, if adopted wholesale, can only obscure our understanding of history and deny life’s intrinsic nuance.

Taking a wrecking ball to someone’s reputation is easy; taking a wrecking ball to the Johnson-designed skyscrapers that span America’s skylines is another thing. There would be plenty of collateral damage, including the erasure of the work of the architectural drafters, engineers, and builders who did the lion’s share of work on buildings attributed to Johnson.

Admittedly, there is no simple solution here, and at most I can offer a compass, not a map. Our understanding of history is an ongoing negotiation with the present, and what seems like the right approach now may not seem so in the future. More details may come out. Social values will continue to change. When luxury brand Louis Vuitton wrapped its purses and flagship Manhattan store in a nude painting of one of Paul Gauguin’s underaged sexual victims, I struggled to find a path forward that acknowledged both his artistic contributions and his deplorable behavior. Yet we have much to lose if we punch holes into our representations of history and culture like so much pasteurized Swiss cheese.

A middle path exists between whitewashing and cancellation, and it leads to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Jefferson inherited the five-thousand-acre estate at age twenty-six; it was his primary residence and was maintained by four hundred enslaved people during his life (he owned a total of six hundred in his lifetime). In recent years, the staff of Monticello have shifted how they present the house, embracing the paradox of Jefferson as the man who could draft the Declaration of Independence and assert the inalienable rights of man while simultaneously depriving hundreds of men, women, and children of freedom.

At Monticello, it’s all there: the good and the bad, the impressive and the repulsive. And in that intermingling, the staff create room to tell a richer, nuanced story. Exhibits at Monticello explore the mid-Atlantic slave trade along with the Declaration of Independence’s role in spurring abolitionist movements. In the salons and grounds of Monticello, historical interpreters take on the roles of men and women enslaved by Jefferson and his family. By adding a human presence to a painful aspect of history, the interpreters create space for human-to-human empathy.

The staff of Monticello are stewards not only of Jefferson, but all those tied to his story—and this approach offers valuable opportunities to enrich history. Monticello retains some of the most complete records about the enslaved families who lived and worked at the hilltop plantation. Its Getting Word project has conducted over a hundred oral history interviews with the descendants of African Americans enslaved there. In the words of the program’s manager Andrew Davenport, it is “an archive of freedom because it traces the family histories of those who were once enslaved through the joys and challenges of freedom in the century and a half since the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in 1865.”

Had Monticello attempted to erase this component of Jefferson’s legacy, we would have never captured these priceless stories. The six hundred women, men, and children enslaved under Jefferson are not adjuncts to his story, but six hundred separate legacies. Monticello had the courage to adopt their lives and stories as part of its historical mandate.

I don’t mean to imply that the Glass House is a direct analogue of Monticello. It’s safe to say that the Glass House should avoid hiring a historic actor to be present when visitors walk through the house, reenacting Johnson as he burns Nazi correspondence in the fireplace. But Monticello does offer a lesson in how a historical figure’s transgressions can serve as an entry point to even more relevant and constructive discussions.

Let’s contextualize Philip Johnson, not cancel him. By acknowledging the architect's disgraceful past, we can put his legacy to work for the greater good.

Carolyn Stewart is the managing editor of American Purpose.

Images: 1963 image of Philip Johnson by Carl van Vechten (Library of Congress), author's image of the Glass House in New Canaan, CT.