Plans to convert home with Philip Johnson–designed addition into cultural center divide quiet Connecticut town

The Curious Case of Emily Hall Tremaine

Plans to convert home with Philip Johnson–designed addition into cultural center divide quiet Connecticut town

The Tremaine Barn by Philip Johnson in Madison, Connecticut, was completed in 1952, three years after the Glass House. (Courtesy Tremaine Foundation)

6 Opening Hill Road looks a lot like other houses in Madison, Connecticut, and the lily-white couple who once lived there, Emily and Burton Tremaine, looked a lot like their neighbors. The 18th-century farmhouse on a 6-acre plot has multiple additions from the 1950s by Philip Johnson, a friend Emily met during her tenure at MoMA. Today, plans to renovate the estate have neighbors talking.

The town the Tremaines called home recalls the fictional setting concocted by Orson Welles for his 1946 black-and-white noir The Stranger. The cozy village on the Long Island Sound has a charming main street, old Saltbox houses, and, of course, a First Congregational Church painted bleach white with a tall steeple.

But beneath the surface of Madison and Emily Tremaine, like Welles’s idyllic borough and The Stranger’s chief protagonist Franz Kindler, lies a sinister history: While the home’s architecture isn’t notable per se from a preservation standpoint—even the Johnson-designed addition is a restrained, traditional take on his well-known modernist glass box—the unsavory legacies of its owner and designer have clouded efforts to preserve the site.

The original house was built in 1720, and had additions and landscaping by Philip Johnson between 1951-55 including the pool house shown above. (Courtesy Tremaine Foundation)

Plans were announced recently to convert the home of Emily Tremaine—one of the 20th century’s most preeminent art collectors known as “the original It Girl”—into an education center, residency, and gallery for her art collection worth $56 million.

Before her death in 1987, Tremaine had amassed over 700 stunning art pieces by luminaries like Andy Warhol, Georgia O’ Keeffe, Claes Oldenburg, Mark Rothko, Alexander Calder, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. Any town would be lucky to have Tremaine’s collection except for one caveat: Emily Hall Tremaine allegedly had “Nazi sympathies” and so did her home addition’s architect, Philip Johnson.

Between 1951 and 1955, Johnson did a lot of work for the Tremaines: He designed a gallery at 6 Opening Road for showcasing Emily’s pristine collection, a pool, a glass pool house, a custom wall sculpture, and he even expanded the original home’s living room with a new entry nook.

Interior view of Philip Johnson’s Tremaine Barn
Interior view of Philip Johnson’s Tremaine Barn (Courtesy Tremaine Foundation)

In recent years, the house went into foreclosure and was purchased in 2023 by the Tremaine Foundation—a Connecticut nonprofit which oversees Emily Tremaine’s portfolio. Today, the foundation seeks to use the compound for indoor and outdoor events; and relocate their office to the estate from New Haven. The proposal has since been brought to Madison’s Planning and Zoning Commission, which can be accessed here.

The Tremaine Foundation hopes to use the verdant site for exhibits, lectures, meetings, retreats, seminars, and tours according to the foundation’s application. The proposal would also create “on-site residencies” for artists, art historians, authors, architects, researchers, and nonprofits.

The plan however was recently slammed on May 16 by a lawyer for zoning reasons, and Madison residents are worried that the use would create traffic problems. To assuage these concerns, the Tremaine Foundation has since retained a traffic consultant, but congestion isn’t the only reason things are awry.

Certainly, Philip Johnson’s fascism is well documented, as reported by Rachel Maddow in her recent expose, Prequel, but what exactly do we know about Emily Hall Tremaine?

archival image of Tremaine Barn
The Tremaine Barn was built three years before Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan. (Courtesy Tremaine Foundation)

Controversies swirled around Emily when, in 1928 at age 20, she married Max Converse von Romberg, the grandson of an uberwealthy banker who allegedly had Nazi ties. Emily filed for divorce from Max five years later, in 1933. The two reacquainted in 1934 to start Apéritif, an “anti-Nazi leaning magazine” that featured myriad Jewish contributors. The reparations soured, though, around 1936 when Max built a new home with a swastika on its facade, and Emily herself quite literally named her pet dachshund “Swastika.”

In 1937, Max’s best friend at the time was facing an extortion attempt by a British Nazi who allegedly wanted to assassinate over twenty Jewish film executives in Hollywood—a fascist plot that was thankfully stymied by the undercover Jewish spy Leon Lewis, founder of the Anti-Defamation League. The following year, Max died in a suspicious plane crash; he was flying the plane.

In 1939, Emily remarried with the “sugar heir” Adolph B. Spreckels, Jr. This engagement wasn’t without controversy either, as reported by art writer Robert Preece. In 1940, Emily again filed to separate from her second husband after she claimed he was physically abusive. She told reporters that Adolph had turned their Montecito, California home, Brunninghausen, into a “quasi-West Coast base for Nazis.” This house had a swastika on it, and even included a statue of Adolf Hitler in Emily’s library, Adolph alleged; and Leni Riefenstahl was known to have visited there. When Emily filed for divorce, in her defense, she said that Adolph’s Nazi sympathies were a major factor. To this, Spreckels famously rebuked: “I’m not the Nazi, SHE is!

newspaper clipping of Emily Tremaine
In 1940, Emily Tremaine was accused by her second husband of being a Nazi. (Courtesy Robert Preece)

More rumors amassed after 1941 when Emily began socializing with Ellis Zacharias, a Jewish naval officer that worked with Leon Lewis to stop fascist organizing in California. Legend has it that Tremaine may have been a secret spy for Zacharias given the Nazi connections her marriages afforded her.

Adolph and Emily finally divorced in 1945, which brings us back to 6 Opening Hill Road, where Emily moved with her third and final husband, Burton Tremaine. Emily and Burton worked on the estate with Philip Johnson from 1951 to 1955. They spent much of their time there and at their flat in New York until Emily’s death in 1987, and Burton’s passing in 1991.

The sprawling property stayed in the Tremaine family until 1994. It changed hands in 2002 and by 2019 had fallen into disrepair. The Tremaine Foundation bought the property out of foreclosure for $925,000 in 2023.

So, who was Emily Hall Tremaine? A Nazi? Or an anti-Nazi spy? She later said herself she was “no Nazi,” and Philip Johnson also eventually atoned for his sins. And yet many Madison residents remain unsettled by the Tremaine Foundation’s proposal to memorialize the house with a cloud hovering over it. Last month, over 60 Madison residents convened at a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting to thwart the project.

Bruce Lockhart, a resident, asked at the hearing: “If we can take down the statue of Christopher Columbus, if we can take down confederate soldiers as something we should not be proud of, why are we glorifying a Nazi architect?”

The Tremaine Foundation said recently that the house is worth preserving because it played an important role in art history. “There is a rich history related to the site,” Michelle Knapik, the Tremaine Foundation’s president, told AN.

newspaper clipping of Emily Tremaine
Newspaper clipping describing a meeting between Leni Riefenstahl and Emily Tremaine née Baroness Von Romberg (Courtesy Robert Preece)

Knapik has also affirmed that the foundation is sympathetic to Lockhart’s concerns. She told AN: “Philip Johnson’s fascist, antisemitic, and white supremacist views and actions were and are indefensible. There is no place for these values or positions within the mission-based work of the Tremaine Foundation.” 

The statement continued: “The Foundation believes that this past must be included in any accurate history of Johnson’s life and his architectural contributions, including the design work he did for the Tremaine family in the 1950s. As a philanthropic institution, we seek to learn from history as we seek and fund innovative projects that advance solutions to basic and enduring problems.” 

To date, locals in Madison have also raised concerns about the Tremaine Foundation’s tax-exempt status. Since it was founded 40 years ago, Knapik shared with AN that the Tremaine Foundation has distributed over $100 million to mission based causes and nonprofits so as to assure the public that their organization intends on giving back to the community.

The next public meetings for the project are scheduled for June 16 and June 20. 

Attendance for this upcoming session is anticipated to be so large, the zoning board is moving the meeting from Madison’s First Congregational Church to the town high school’s auditorium.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Tremaine’s house was in Palm Springs, California. This is incorrect: The article was amended on June 7 to say she lived in Montecito.