Robert Venturi's Lieb House (1967), a small masterpiece of abstract modern design, is on the brink of sale and, quite possibly, demolition. Its current owner, Sheila Ellman of Philadelphia, has reluctantly entered into a $1.45 million contract with a buyer, whom she describes as interested only in the land. He "only believes in the huge homes that most of the people on Wall Street are looking for," she says. "We do have the biggest lot on the street, so his mind is to build something very large. He has no intention of keeping a Venturi."

The house stands at 9 East 30th St. in Loveladies, N.J., on Long Beach Island, a seaside resort north of Atlantic City. Originally constructed for the Nathaniel Lieb family, it is Venturi's next built project after the Vanna Venturi House in Philadelphia, his first major commission.

The Ellmans, the house's third owners, have held it for 30 years, studying Venturi's blueprints and, except for paint and a bathroom renovation, maintaining his design. Other Long Beach Islanders have not shared architects' admiration, however, regularly objecting to University of Pennsylvania architecture students who visit by the busload. The Liebs sold the house after six months, Ellman says, citing neighbors' negative reactions. She also notes that opposition now coexists with emulation: In newer beach homes nearby, Ellman says, "everybody has copied Venturi."

A docent at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Ellman faces family medical expenses and can no longer hold the house off the market. She describes months of attempts to find a suitable buyer in collaboration with Venturi Scott Brown and Associates, but given current real estate conditions, none has appeared. Lacking federal or state landmark protection, the house's only hope at this point would be an attack of conscience by the anonymous purchaser or an 11th hour rescue?perhaps an offer to move it to another site?by another party.

The buyer's attitude, Ellman adds, presents another risk for preservationists. "He doesn't want picket signs out there," she says. If protesters appear, "he'll knock it down faster than lightning."