Philip Johnson's Booth House Threatened and Seeks New Custodians

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Damora family

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Threatened, Philip Johnson

Philip Johnson’s 1946 Booth House, in Bedford, New York is threatened and in urgent need of new custodians. Award winning architect and pioneering architectural photographer Robert Damora (1912 -2009) and his wife, architect Sirkka Damora, moved into Philip Johnson’s Booth House in 1955 thinking of it as temporary housing until they could build a home of their own design. The spare elegance of the Booth House evoked a simple, informal, unencumbered life style that suited them: they never left. When you find environment that soothes your soul there is little motivation to move on. Now 62 years after arriving at the house, at age 93 Sirkka finds the rural life there difficult to manage physically, and she is financially unable to continue in the house. The house must be sold. Sirkka is more concerned with finding appreciative stewards who will preserve the house than she is with the financial return from its sale. Unfortunately the future of the house is threatened unless she can find those custodians to pass it on to in rather short order.

Built in Bedford, NY for a city couple as their country retreat, the Booth House was Philip Johnson’s first constructed commission. Precursor to New Canaan’s Moderns, including Johnson’s personal residence the famous Glass House, it was erected in 1946 just as private building resumed after  World War II and before the Harvard 5 (Johnson, Breuer, Johansen, Noyes, & Gores) moved to Connecticut just a few miles away.  While Johnson built a house in Cambridge, MA as his thesis project while still a student, the Booth House is the first built structure attributable to a graduate of Harvard’s influential Graduate School of Design program led by Walter Gropius  ̶  truly a landmark in the history of Modern Architecture. 

The house includes many design features that are similar to the Glass House.  With the assistance of his associate Landis Gores, Johnson studied the two projects simultaneously. Both houses are situated on broad grass covered podiums; their plans revolve around massive brick fireplaces which impart order to areas of differing function in large open spaces; and both designs stem from an appreciation of large walls of floor to ceiling glass. Sirkka Damora, who worked closely as an editor with Katherine Morrow Ford at House and Garden Magazine in the 1940’s, has written: “The Mies hallmark of reductive rectilinear design with minimal interruption in the flow of space within a building and out to the exterior landscape was clearly evident in Johnson’s architecture of the period”.  Johnson himself commented to Robert A.M. Stern: “It’s funny, you get an idea early on in your work and it persists… it carried right through from the Booth House”.

But unlike the Glass House, the Booth house has private rooms too, and generous storage, attributes essential to everyday family living. Perhaps the Booth House may be regarded as the Glass house and its adjacent Guest / Brick House merged into a single building.

To help raise a family, in the 1960’s the Damoras expanded the original 1450 sq. ft. house  ̶  without altering the original design  ̶  to 2320 sq. ft. by adding a subterranean lower level open through a glass wall to a sunken court. To provide ample space for their professional activities, they also built a separate 800 sq. ft. heated studio building with a huge skylight and glass wall in a similar idiom as the house.

In 1946 the town of Bedford  ̶  including the Booth House site  ̶  was largely covered in low lying scrub as nature started to reclaim newly dormant farm fields. Today the house is nestled under a 100 ft. tree canopy on a gorgeous, two-acre, mature woodland site set back from the road by a 900-foot paved driveway, and is adjacent to a 36-acre nature preserve.

The Damora family can be reached at r.damora@verizon.net and 718-230-8858.