Proud Owners, Nosy Visitors: On Touring the Vanna Venturi and Margaret Esherick houses

Better ask for forgiveness rather than permission. As an architect who mostly travels for the sake of experiencing architecture, I have tried to adhere to that motto whenever I encounter a space that I have not planned.

For instance, a few years ago my wife Claudia and I made a trip to Philadelphia and while there, we decided to visit the Vanna Venturi House and the neighboring Esherick House, both at Chestnut Hill East, a 45-minute train ride from Philly. The first was designed by Robert Venturi for his mother in 1962, and the latter for Margaret Esherick by the great Louis I. Kahn in 1959.

Both houses are privately owned and we had not contacted the owners prior to our visit. The idea was to take pictures of the exteriors and if lucky, try to persuade the owners for an interior peek.

It was a chilly Sunday morning when we arrived. The Venturi House was first on our path. As we arrived the property, (and after jumping of excitement for how accessible the house was) I started sketching the iconic main elevation while Claudia was preparing herself to take some pictures.

Vanna-Venturi House, Robert Venturi (1925-2018)

Suddenly we devised a figure, who spotted us through the windows, that immediately rushed to the main door. We’re caught! was our first thought, knowing pretty well how many owners dislike such an invasion of privacy (especially on a Sunday morning). I mean, even if we had spent most of the train trip rehearsing how we would have explained our intentions, it was certainly to early for such shenanigans.

To our surprise, the owner greeted us by saying “you’re in luck! A few more minutes and I had already left the house!” And he kindly invited us in because he had a few minutes to spare and he recognized that we came from afar just to look at the house. Still in disbelief, we started apologizing for the intrusion.

He proceeded to let us know that he was a lawyer and that he had recently acquired the house and was well aware of its significance. While encouraging us to wander around he assured us that he enjoyed allowing to tour the house, more so if they were from out of town. He recounted the multiple times that Bob Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown brought visitors to tour the house.

After our tour, he pointed us towards the Esherick House and assured us that the owners also enjoyed visitors, but were much more careful since they had recently restored the entire wood flooring.

When we arrived at the Esherick it was still quite early and we did not feel as confident to push our luck so we sketched the house and took some pictures and left. A few weeks after posting our photos on social media, a friend from DC sent us an article about the house, and how much its current owners enjoyed having visitors touring the house. Needless to say, I felt disappointed for failing to adhere to the motto and not even trying to ring the door bell. I guess I’ll keep that in mind next time.

More about the houses

Designed by Robert Venturi for his mother, the Vanna Venturi House was built between 1962 and 1964. It was conceived during the period that Venturi was writing his seminal book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. Therefore, through the house, Venturi positioned himself against the stances of Modern Architecture. In contrast to the, less is more approach of Mies van der Rohe, at the Vanna House, Venturi preferred “…elements which [were] hybrid rather than “pure,” compromising rather than “clear,” distorted rather than “straightforward.”

Considered one of the first projects of Postmodernism — a movement in architecture when the ideas and ideals of Modernism were discarded and replaced with traditional (classical) elements and theories.

Notwithstanding, Venturi sought to push back against the purism of Modernism in praise for “complexity and contradiction” of hibridity in architecture which was more reflective of the times. Therefore, the classically arranged façade contrasted with the dynamism of the interior spaces.

Inside, an open living-dining area is located at the center, with a covered porch, kitchen space and the foyer on one side, and two bedrooms and a full bathroom on the other. The second floor, which account for one-third of the first level, there is a studio-bedroom, with its bathroom, walk-in closets and, a small balcony overlooking the backyard.

The fireplace has a dominant presence, not only at the main elevation, but also at the inside, where its central position. Seems to distort the main stairs. Indeed it seems that Venturi did not wanted to highlight the stairwell, which at first glance looks more like a sculpture, reducing its width as it abruptly ascends around the chimney.

Claudia at the main entrance
Me at the master bedroom

The Esherick House was built between 1959 and 1962 for bookseller Margaret Esherick. The two-story one bedroom house is organized into what Kahn often referred as served spaces (primary areas like living rooms and bedrooms) and servant spaces (secondary areas like bathrooms, storages, corridors, and the like). Therefore, the Esherick House is divided into four main zones of served and servant spaces which run the full width of the house, from front to back.

On the ground floor, the two main served zones include on one side the foyer and dining room and on the other the living room. The double-height living room is the hierarchical space of the house. At the north wall there is a built-in bookcase and on the opposite side a window that spans the two floors.

Between the living room and the dining room, there is the thinnest of the servant zones. It contains the front and backyard entrances on the first floor; two small balconies above these entrances on the second; and the main stairs as well as a corridor overlooking the living room.

Parallel to the dining room, on the first floor, is the remaining servant zone that includes the kitchen*, originally the laundry room, recently converted into a secondary kitchen for daily use, and a half bath. On the second level, the main bathroom, laundry, and a walking closet are located.

On both ends of the longitudinal axis of the house, Kahn designed two sculptural fireplaces that articulate the — somewhat — blank walls.

* The renowned wood sculpture and cabinetmaker Wharton Esherick (uncle of Ms. Esherick) designed the original kitchen, used today only on special occasions.

Esherick House viewed from the southwest.
Esherick’s main entrance façade

Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is considering relocating Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House out of the Fox River floodplain. The idea is to move the structure from its original location parallel to the waterway to a nearby site, still along the river, but on a higher elevation. Throughout the years the house has been affected significantly by floodwaters at least three times. The last major damage occur in 1996 and the restoration costs elevated to almost half a million dollars. At that time, the flood broke windows, damaged the travertine marble floors and ruined the teak cabinetry.

The solution of moving the house is not the only one the Trust has juggled in order to protect the house from further damages. Two additional solutions not requiring to relocate the house have been contemplated so far. One — less viable, although favored by Dirk Lohan, a Chicago based architect and Mies’ grandson — requires the installation of hydraulic jacks underneath the foundations to lift the house during floods. A second one, provides to permanently raise the house on top of a 9-foot mound.

Each one of the alternatives entail major impact on the National Historic Landmark and needless to say, has raised many eyebrows not only on preservationists, but also throughout the architectural community. One of the leading voices is Mr. Lohan who was in charge of the 1996 restoration. He argues that moving the structure “…is not in keeping with the design concept of the house, which was a house in a flood plain, close to the river…The river was part of its immediate environment. To move it to higher ground where it never floods would be ridiculous. You would ask: ‘Why is it on stilts?’ It makes no sense to me.” 

Having visited the house for the first time last month I really don’t see the problem with moving it. Arguably, given the nature of the house, an elevated object that relates to the river just by being in proximity to it and not much else, I see no problem in relocating it to a higher site to relieve the enormous preservation pressure and most importantly avoiding escalating restoration costs. 

One knows that the success of the strategy depends on the execution and the careful conditioning of the new site to retain the overall experience. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that regardless of its location the house will continue to inspire future generations if the right action is pursuit, sooner rather than later, in order to move it out of harm’s way.