Legendary architect Philip Johnson is best known, in New York City at least, for his skyscrapers and cultural contributions: The Seagram Building, 550 Madison Avenue, the Lipstick Building, and the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center are some of his indelible contributions to New York’s cityscape.
But Johnson also created smaller, less attention-grabbing buildings during his lengthy career, including one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it jewel box on East 52nd Street: the Rockefeller Guest House, the architect’s only private home within the five boroughs.
T Magazine recently got a peek inside Johnson’s modernist treasure, which author Sadie Stein calls “a living piece of history, hiding in plain sight”—which is a fair descriptor, considering the building sits mid-block on 52nd Street, sandwiched between two more typical New York apartment buildings.
The tiny structure has a fascinating backstory: It was constructed between 1949 and 1950 for Blanchette Ferry Hooker Rockefeller, the wife of philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III. (The family was in the news this week, when John’s equally philanthropic brother, David, passed away at the age of 101.) The guest house was built, according to Stein, “as both a creative expression for Blanchette and a space to safely quarantine her baffling collection of Willem de Kooning and Clyfford Still” (which John was, apparently, no fan of).
The Rockefellers purchased the 25-by-100-foot lot and commissioned Johnson, who had recently completed his iconic Glass House in Connecticut, to design the two-story home. The total cost was $64,000; the home last sold at auction in 2000—the same year it was named a New York City landmark—to an as-yet-unidentified buyer for an astonishing $11.1 million.
The location was, of course, key. It’s a short walk from the Museum of Modern Art, where Blanchette was a patron and Johnson worked as a curator for a spell. After the home was completed, it became “an extension of MoMA, a space to woo potential donors, to entertain artists and to display Modernism in its purest and most impressive form,” according to Stein.
It’s also close to some of the architect’s other notable buildings, including the Seagram Building—home to Johnson’s gorgeous, and now denuded, Four Seasons Restaurant—and the postmodern 550 Madison. Johnson himself lived in the space in the mid-’70s, according to the venerable AIA Guide to New York City, which refers to the home as being “from Johnson’s period of Mies van der Rohe-isms.”
The exterior is simply clad in brick and painted steel, with a gorgeous wooden front door. Inside, it’s all clean lines and Zen serenity. There are two rooms on the main floor that are separated by an interior courtyard with a pool—not so dissimilar from the one within the Four Seasons, really—and unsurprisingly, the home is currently kitted out with modern furniture, including a desk by Mies.
Many of its elements remain unchanged, including the wet bar hidden behind a cabinet, but in other ways it’s gotten modernized—a kitchen, for instance, was added not too long ago.
“What’s most extraordinary is how little has been changed, from the house’s framing to the white vinyl tiles on the ground floor,” writes Stein. “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.”
T Magazine has more photos inside this tiny modernist dream home, along with a video tour that you can watch below: