Alexandra Lange | Essays

FT Weekend: People in glass houses

Usually it feels churlish, biting the hand that feeds, to draw back the curtain on reporting. But in the case of my story, “People in Glass Houses,” for FT Weekend, every step of the process of spending the night in two National Trust properties was such a contrast to my assignment to experience living in a glass house and an 18th century plantation, I just can't help it. If the lovely women who organized my tours are reading this, be assured, I enjoyed my nights thoroughly. But I couldn't turn the irony off.

Food, for example.

At Belle Grove the dining room, faux-finished with a mahogany burl, is set with pearl-handled knives and plaster food: a roast, haricots verts, spiced apples. Meanwhile I microwaved a frozen dinner in the real kitchen just adjacent and ate it standing up. I would have gone to the porch, but I was afraid to carry sticky food across the Venetian stripe carpet.

Philip Johnson also had a cook and used the Glass House kitchen (gray Formica counters) as a bar. I brought my own sandwich to New Canaan and the caretaker practically sighed with relief when I said I would eat outside. It was lovely to sit on the warm stone ledge by the pool, watching the sun set. But it would have been nice to do so with a martini.

Breakfast in Connecticut was a Connecticut Muffin. In Middletown, a McDonald's sausage biscuit with egg also eaten al fresco. It was kind of the caretaker to bring it to me, but hearing of its passage to me, destroyed the 2010 pastoral illusion. He lives five minutes from Belle Grove and the Golden Arches are on the way.

Also, bathrooms.

Belle Grove has a period bathroom (circa 1900, when it was an inn), but the dried-out green fields outside were dotted with blue port-a-potties for a weekend shepherding event. I had to erase them from my imaginary rich person's view.

I was asked not to use the Glass House bathroom. I stood in Philip Johnson's bathroom (leather ceiling tiles!). I lay on his bed. I peeked in his medicine cabinet. But I did not flush his toilet.

Or people.

It was spooky as hell to be at Belle Grove by myself. After it got dark I could not wait to get in to the canopy bed, which felt like a refuge and thought better of taking a shower. It would have been different for the original owners, the Hites, who always had at least four children asleep across the hall and guests who stayed for weeks. Johnson hoped most of his visitors would take the last train back to New York; the Hites held them close, probably needing the company.

Which is all a long way of saying what I suspected all along. What I really wish is that I could have gone to one of Philip Johnson's parties in the 1960s. The house today is lovely, but houses are more than just architecture.

Posted in: Architecture

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