Casa Klumb

Front view of Casa Klumb, with Henry Klumb standing in from of the reflecting pond (left) and his wife Else standing next to the entry stoop (center right).

Casa Klumb was one of the highlight subjects while teaching a course on History of Modern Architecture during my academic tenure in Puerto Rico. Even as a student in Architecture School, the almost inaccessible house had an aura that fired-up the imagination of many of us.

Now, the fire that consumed the property provoked the publishing of these notes. Moreover, the aerial videos shared on social media platforms of the house engulfed in flames prompted me to think of the last act of Los soles truncos (a dramatic comedy in two acts) by René Marqués, where a house — the symbol of a prosperous life in previous times — was consumed by fire (along with the main characters) as an act of immolation.

This thought transformed the rage and sadness I felt by this terrible loss and offered a certain sense of relief while I accounted for the state of disrepair and neglect that Casa Klumb had been suffering for decades.

A brief history

The Henry Klumb House in Sabana Llana, Río Piedras, a neighborhood of San Juan, was initially known as the Cody Ranch. The house was a nineteenth-century casona, and it acquired architectural significance from the considerable alterations performed by the German-born architect Henry Klumb in 1949.*

Klumb and his wife Else bought the house in 1947 and lived in it, along with their two sons until 1984, when both parents died in a car accident. The property remained unoccupied since then and was acquired shortly after in 1986 by the University of Puerto Rico. Despite this, it was abandoned, bearing significant degrees of deterioration over the years.

In 1997, already in a grave state of disrepair — but still retaining much of its architectural integrity — it was included as a Regional Monument in the United States National Register of Historic Places. In 2012, it was elevated to the status of National Monument by the same entity.**

Large-format photograph of Casa Klumb
at MoMA’s exhibition Latin America
in Construction: Architecture 1955-1980.
Photograph of the exhibition by John Hill; https://www.flickr.com/photos/archidose/; accessed 05/10/2015.

In 2014 efforts were made to include the house within the World Monuments Watch’s List or endangered structures, and in March of that year, Comité Casa Klumb (a committee to oversee the restoration of the house) was created.

These efforts alongside the inclusion of Casa Klumb among the subjects at the exhibition Latin America in Construction: Architecture (from) 1955 (to) 1980 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the Spring of 2015 where all signs in the right direction pointing towards its preservation.

Despite raising monies and awareness for its restoration; multiple events difficulted taking the affirmative actions required to avoid its destruction and loss.***

Klumb’s intervention

The original house was a typical Caribbean casona with pitched-roof, its floor raised from the ground (for ventilation purposes), with an open veranda or balcony throughout. Klumb’s intervention resulted in the substraction of elements rather than adding to the existing structure. In a series of strategies that appeared to adhered more with Le Corbusier’s Open Plan approach, Klumb eliminated — almost in their entirety — the enclosing walls of the house to allow continuity between the public spaces and the veranda.

Casa Klumb, Main Floor Plan, 1949
Henry Klumb, FAIA

Thus, the living room (in the front) and the dinning room (at the back) — maintaining the original turn-of-the-nineteenth-century layout — were left completely open, exposed to the natural breeze and exterior conditions; only the roof (and the fact that it was raised from the ground) provided shelter from the natural elements. The surrounding vegetation, a unique feature of the house’s siting as illustrated in the original photographs (and sketches) below, allowed an additional layer of protection.

Main living room with original furniture designed by Henry Klumb and Stephen Arneson; ARKLU (Photograph from the professional archive of Henry Klumb at AACUPR)

The bedrooms remained partially enclosed. However, large operable windows and pivoting doors (with louvers) allowed for privacy while allowing cross ventilation. When opened, the doorways provided visual and physical connection with the balcony and public areas of the house. A few additional walls throughout the house, were lifted a few inches from the floor and did not touch the ceilings, to allow for the uninterrupted flow of air. The exterior wall of the main bedroom was articulated in plan to be ”floating” (detached from the rest of the encircling walls) and thorough slim swing doors, provided direct passage to the veranda and an additional form of air circulculation.

Henry Klumb reading. The exuberant palm trees provided privacy from onlookers. The tensile structural elements along the veranda guardrails, added by Klumb, were required once the removal of perimeter walls, to help withstand the pull forces exerted on the roof by strong storm winds.
View from the veranda of the reflecting pool in the front yard. Loose gravel pavement was used throughout the periphery of the house because the crunching sound of steps notified them (and their dogs) of trespassers and visitors.
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View of the main living room, the low wall divided the study or home office.
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View of the veranda and dining room table.
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Details of the dining table structure and rotating mechanism.
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Floor plan and axonometric view.
Sketched floor plan (probably by Klumb) illustrating the spatial relationship and location of mobile and built-in furniture throughout the house. (Image from https://www.facebook.com/AACUPR/photos/a.147654355334879/422045364562442/)

Additional notes on the history of the house

The original casona belonged to José Ramón Latimer and his wife Esther C. Cody, who rented out rooms for people visiting from the mainland. Before Klumb purchased the property for himself, and for a brief period of time between 1944 and 1945, the Cody Ranch served as the residence for Richard Neutra and his wife Dione Niedermann.

Both Klumb and Neutra served as design consultants under the government of Rexford Tugwell. However, the collaboration between them was far less cordial as imagined. Family letters written by Dion Neutra, while their sojourn in the Island, portrayed the competitive relationship of her husband and Klumb, almost as nemesis.

She explains, how they managed to rent an available room at Cody Ranch and how it was like to live in Puerto Rico. In the end, the Neutra’s left Puerto Rico after not being able to secure additional work and pursued his carrier elsewhere. Klumb on the other hand, remained and made a life life for himself and his family in the island.

Notes:

*Henry Klumb, was born in Cologne, Germany in 1905. He emigrated in 1927 to the United States to become an apprentice at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin North in Wisconsin. He left Wright’s apprenticeship after five years, and worked briefly with Louis I. Kahn and Louis Metzinger, forming the Cooperative Planners firm in Philadelphia during the Great Depression.

In 1944, Klumb was invited by Rexford Tugwell (Governor of Puerto Rico at the time) to work as a design consultant at the Public Works Design Committee. A few years later, he established the Office of Henry Klumb in San Juan from where he designed all types of private and public projects all over the Island.

** For a copy of the registration form visit: https://npgallery.nps.gov/GetAsset/4183ae4d-6f2d-4918-82b0-682a3b7ed16c (Accessed 11/12/20)

For National Register list of properties in Puerto Rico, including Casa Klumb refer to: https://www.nps.gov/state/pr/list.htm?program=all (Accessed 11/12/20

For World Monuments Watch refer to: https://www.wmf.org/project/henry-klumb-house (Accessed 11/12/20)

*** The exhibition celebrated the 60th anniversary of the show MoMA organized in 1955 about Latin American architecture built by 1945. At that time, the architectural production of a decade was presented and in representation of modern architecture in Puerto Rico, two works were exhibited: the Caribe Hilton Hotel by Toro y Ferrer Arquitectos and the Sanctuary of San Martín de Porres by Henry Klumb.

For additional thoughts on the work of Henry Klumb and MoMA’s exhibition refer to: https://anonymousarchitecture.co/2019/01/10/henry-klumb-two-buildings-one-idea/

*** The house was owned by the University of Puerto Rico, a public entity enduring significant challenges due to the economic recession. Not to mention the impact of natural events like hurricane Irma and María in 2017 and the political turmoil that forced the exit of the sitting governor; all circumstances that somewhat justify the inaction to save the structure.

Acknowledgements

All photographs are from the professional archive of Henry Klumb at AACUPR, Archivo de Arquitectura y Construcción de la Universidad de Puerto Rico (University of Puerto Rico’s Architecture and Construction Archive) unless otherwise noted.

The author made all hand sketches during a guided tour organized by the restoration committee as part of a series of activities to raise awareness of the house condition and raise funds for its rehabilitation. High-quality print outs of these sketches were donated for auction, alongside other work by myriad artists, architects, and historians during a fundraising event.

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.