The first sign that there is a new owner of the Vanna Venturi House, tucked into a deep lot in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, is the row of stuffed animals lining the window above the front vestibule. Local lawyer David Lockard is nearly five months in to his ownership of the iconic 1960s-era postmodern house that AIA Gold Medalist Robert Venturi, FAIA, designed for his mother. The two-story house, which won an AIA Twenty-Five Year Award in 1989, has only been owned by one other family, the Hughes, in the house's half-century lifetime.
While important for the architecture world, the house was not landmarked until last week, when the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted to add it to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Lockard was in favor of the designation. "Frankly, if there is any house in the Philadelphia area that deserves to be on that register, it’s this house," he tells me on the phone this week. The house's placement on the register means that any alterations to the outside of the house need to be reviewed by the commission.
The Vanna Venturi House was listed in July 2015, and sat on the market for nearly a year. Lockard says he first looked at the house in August or September. "The price was initially $1.75 million, which struck me as high, and I guess they wanted to monetize Venturi's name—I mean it's an amazing house, why wouldn't they want to do that—but it's also a lot for that house." The price was reduced to $1.5 million earlier this year. By May, Lockard had an agreement of sale, and by June 30—at about 10:08 a.m. by Lockard's telling—he was handed keys. According to Melanie Stecura of Kurfiss Sotheby's International Realty, the house was sold for $1.325 million.
Lockard began moving in late June, and when I visited the 1,986-square-foot space in late August it had all the signs of a house in the process of becoming a home: the stuffed animals in the window, a book collection partially shelved and partially stacked, a dining room table in a to-be-furnished open-plan living space, and framed pictures leaning against walls but not yet hung. Several windows were lined with lots and lots of rubber ducks—his daughter's collection that suits a house designed by one of the authors of Learning From Las Vegas (MIT Press, 1977), the famous tome known for the concepts of the Decorated Shed and the Duck. (According to Lockard, AIA Gold Medalist Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, commented on the rubber ducks on one visit.)
After roughly two months of slowing moving things into the house, Lockard officially moved after his daughter, the youngest of three children, started at Smith College in September. But he didn't move far. The 62-year-old has had ties to the Chestnut Hill neighborhood since 1967, when his parents bought the house he moved out of. He lived in that house until he left for Dartmouth College in 1972, and then returned with his wife, Marian K. Lebowitz, and first child shortly after his father died in 1989. When Lebowitz died in 2006, Lockard remained in that house with the couple's three children until he purchased the Vanna Venturi House this year.
"I had often walked by it and had admired it," he says, "but I never saw any inkling that the owners were interested in selling it until some time last summer when a For Sale sign went up."
Upon the news of the pending contract in April, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne eloquently summarized a feeling likely shared by many: "[t]hat rearrangement of pixels could mean something encouraging for an important landmark of American architecture or something alarming." But Lockard doesn't seem to be in any hurry to transform the place. "There was material that was left for me by Agatha Hughes," he says. "The plans were left for me. She wonderfully labeled all the paints that were in the house. I mean she clearly respected the house tremendously, and clearly wants me to have sort of help getting started and help maintaining something that she was proud to be associated with." During my tour, he spoke about maybe cutting back some of the trees along the drive, which obscure some of the house's visibility from the street. This week, he says he's had roughly nine or 10 trees removed around the property.
"I thought I'd live in it for six or nine months before I think about doing anything," he told me over the phone shortly after he purchased the house. "I have a lot of respect for the house, so why would I be so presumptuous to think that I should impose my will on a remarkable place."
Lockard's reasons for purchasing the house come across as largely practical. He says he was interested in the nearby Esherick House by Louis Kahn, but it's a one bedroom and he needed more. "I like all good architecture, I'm not wedded to Postmodernism," he says. Lockard has three children: sons ages 28 and 25, and one daughter, age 19. As a new empty-nester, Lockard wanted a house that he could grow old in, and his current house is four stories including the basement. "I thought gee, here's a house that was built for a widow, maybe it would be okay for a widower," he says.
The kitchen and open-plan living space are on the first floor, and the house contains three bedrooms—two on the first floor and one on the second—as well as a bathroom on each of the two floors. During my visit, Lockard pointed out some quirks. There's the "nowhere stair" (as Venturi has described it) off the second-floor bedroom, as well as several sliding-glass doors that are blocked by horizontal rods for window shades. "I've also noticed how thin the staircases are," he says. "It is not a house for fat people."
In his Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (originally published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1966), Robert Venturi described the house he designed for his mother. "The inside spaces, as represented in plan and section, are complex and distorted in their shapes and interrelationships," he writes. "They correspond to the complexities inherent in the domestic program as well as to some whimsies not inappropriate to an individual house. On the other hand, the outside form—as represented by the parapeted wall and the gable roof which enclose these complexities and distortions—is simple and consistent: it represents this house's public scale. The front, in its conventional combinations of door, windows, chimney and gable, creates an almost symbolic image of a house."
Lockard may not be wedded to Postmodernism, but he's become a student of this house. He showed me some pictures of it from a copy of My Mother's House by Robert Venturi (Rizzoli, 1992), pointing out differences from the photographs in the book and the house he now owns. He also showed me a coffee cup and a bag of coffee beans emblazoned with a one-dimensional representation of the front façade.
According to a 2013 PlanPhilly article, the prior owner, Agatha Hughes, and her parents were receptive to visitors. "There have always been people who, like Hughes’ mother, make pilgrimages to see the Vanna Venturi House out of curiosity and appreciation," reports Ashley Hahn in PlanPhilly. Even in early July, just about a week into owning the house, he says he had already had had visitors, including some students from Harvard's Graduate School of Design. "Architecture grad students are one thing, but if it is a busload of tourists from halfway around the world, well, I haven't figured out how to handle that yet," he tells me at the time. "I'm told that there are lots of visitors, but I don't know what lots means."
When we spoke on Sunday, I sensed a bit of a change over the past few months. "I understood that it was an important house, I didn't realize just how important," he says. "I still want to let people who come from far away to see the house." Last weekend, Lockard welcomed a bus tour, part of a symposium orchestrated by the Museum of Modern Art and the University of Pennsylvania. "Yesterday I thought I was pretty damn open," he says. "I'm trying, but I am also wondering how magnanimous I'm going to be."
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
For more information and images about the Vanna Venturi House, visit ARCHITECT's Project Gallery.