Next month, the very first sunken conversation pit will open to the public as a museum. The Indianapolis Museum of Art plans to open a private residence designed by Eero Saarinen for industrialist J. Irwin Miller as a design and architecture showcase, featuring interiors (and the conversation pit) by Alexander Girard.
To celebrate, we’ve collected the best of American’s modernist houses turned museums, magnificent private residences now made public. There’s Philip Johnson’s Glass House, of course, but also Richard Neutra’s Neutra VDL, Louis Sullivan’s early Charnley-Persky House and Richard Meier’s epic bachelor pad, the Rachofsky House.
Get ready for real estate envy — but take heart, you can go visit any of these homes through public tours. Various museums, institutions and foundations have pledged to preserve these landmarks so that everyone, not just the homes’ original occupants, check marvel at the architecture.
Architects: Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright
The Charnley-Persky House, located in Chicago and completed in 1892, was designed by one of the early pioneers of modern architecture, Louis Sullivan. Wright worked with Sullivan as a junior draftsman in the architect’s firm, working on residential commission such as the Charnley-Persky House. Originally commissioned by James Charnley, a Chicago lumberman, the house was bought and restored by architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in 1986. In 1995, Seymour Persky purchased the house and donated it to the Society of Architectural Historians. The Charnley-Persky House displays Sullivan’s move away from Victorian architectural styles to a more abstract vocabulary that would become a touchstone of Modernist architecture.
Check it out: Public tours of the Charnley-Persky House are available on a regular basis on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Architect: Mies van der Rohe
The Farnsworth House, built in Plano, Illinois from 1945 to 1951, was designed by Bauhaus architect Mies van der Rohe for Dr. Edith Farnsworth as an escape from city life in Chicago. Embracing the essence of high modernist architecture, the Farnsworth House is a long, flat transparent prism with glass curtain walls from floor to ceiling. The story goes that even the house’s occupant felt a little too exposed — Farnsworth had curtains installed in the house, met with much complaint from the architect. After a history of private use, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Landmarks Illinois were able to purchase the house in December 2003 for a reported $7.5 million and turn it into a public museum.
Check it out: The Farnsworth House is open for public tours from April through November seasonally.
Architect: Philip Johnson
A controversial aesthetic relative to the Farnsworth House, Philip Johnson designed the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut as his own private residence, holding parties and hosting guests including Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground. The structure was completed in 1949. The Glass House itself is similar to Farnsworth in that it is a minimal structure clad in glass curtain walls. The interior bathroom is the only area shielded from view. Johnson created several buildings on the site’s striking landscape, a guest house as well as a separate home for his partner David Whitney, an art gallery, and a personal library.
Check it out: Public tours are available at the Glass House from May 1 through November 30 annually.
Architect: Richard Meier
Moving towards the apex of modernist architecture, Richard Meier takes the vocabulary of architects like van der Rohe, Johnson and Le Corbusier and elevates them to a more Baroque version of austerity. Completed in 1996, the Rachofsky House in Dallas, Texas is blazingly white, a hallmark of Meier’s work, and explores the possibilities of different materials and textures rather than the glass transparency of earlier buildings. “A visit to the Rachofsky House unfolds as a kind of procession through a series of zones, taking one from the outdoors to indoors, and then back outdoors again,” Meier writes. “All of the spaces of the house, works of contemporary art, and vignettes of the surrounding landscape combine to animate the interiors of the house.”
Check it out: Tours of the Rachofsky House are available, but you have to let them know two weeks in advance.
Architect: Richard Neutra
Richard Neutra’s Van der Leeuw House (VDL Research House) is a visual and philosophical icon of American architecture that also happens to be a public museum. Designed as a home and studio for the architect and his family early on in his practice, the VDL house (name for its patron, who loaned funds for its construction) is an attempt to reconcile modernist architectural principles with urban density and affordability. The property is currently owned and managed by Cal Poly Pomona, maintained by its College of Environmental Design. Neutra VDL is the only private residence designed by Neutra that’s consistently publicly accessible.
Check it out: Tours of Neutra VDL are held every Saturday from 11 to 3 pm and are given by Cal Poly Pomona architecture students.