The Houses of Louis Kahn: Where Are They Now?
In our Winter 2015 issue of Preservation magazine, Modernism-loving managing editor Meghan Drueding brings us the story of Bianca Sforni and Charles Firmin-Didot, a European couple who were so entranced by the Louis Kahn-designed Fisher House in suburban Pennsylvania that they recently decided to make it their home.
Dr. Norman Fisher and his wife Doris, who commissioned the house in 1960, weren’t the only people to seek Kahn’s renowned expertise in designing a relatively affordable, at the time, Midcentury Modern home. The Estonian-born Kahn designed an estimated two dozen houses during his lifetime, nine of which were built in the Philadelphia area for private clients.
Of these nine, all are still standing today, some still owned by the original families. We wanted to get the lowdown on each of these houses, so we did some digging. We hope our findings are as interesting to you as they were to us.
For more information (and beautiful photos,) check out The Houses of Louis Kahn by George H. Marcus and William Whitaker.
Unfortunately, if you’ve ever dreamed of owning a Kahn home yourself, the Esherick House (see lead photo) just went off the market this past February after being listed for several years.The listing underwent several price drops, most likely due to the fact that the house contains just one bedroom. Located in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood and built between 1959 and 1962 for bookseller Margaret Esherick, what the house lacks in size, it makes up for in character. The southeast-facing wall, on the opposite side of the house from the street, is comprised (except for a door) almost entirely of windows. Current status: Recently purchased; one of two Kahn houses to have historic designation (the Fisher house is the other). In 2016, owners Paul Savidge and Daniel Macey won a Citation of Merit in the annual Docomomo Modernism in America Awards for their restoration efforts on the house.
The Oser House in Elkins Park also changed hands this year. Built for a couple who were close friends of Kahn and his wife, this house is Kahn’s earliest known private residential commission. Designed in 1940 and built between 1941 and ‘42, the house was described as having a “delightfully intimate, friendly quality” by House and Garden magazine. An open floor plan encouraged conversation and interaction, and a bold statement fireplace built into a wall covered in gray Mercer tile made waves in the design community. The house was sold in 1947 to Nelson and Bobette Leidner, and Kahn designed a 5-foot extension to the east side of the house in 1950 after a tree fell on it. Current status: Recently purchased.
The single-story Philip and Jocelyn Roche House in Whitemarsh Township, ten miles from downtown Philadelphia, was only the second residence that Kahn designed. Built between 1945 and 1949 for a renowned psychiatrist and his wife, the lot that the house was to be built on was, for a brief period of time in 1945 and ‘46, part of a plot of land that Philadelphia offered to the United Nations in hopes of luring the organization’s headquarters to the city. A site on New York City’s East River, of course, eventually won out, and the Roches were free to build this sleek and simple home featuring four bedrooms, an open-plan living area, and flourishes like a sunken Japanese garden and flagstone terrace. The obliquely-set chimney is a defining characteristic of the exterior, adding another personalized touch. Current status: Went on the market in June 2014; recently purchased.
Kahn described the Weiss House in East Norriton Township, Pennsylvania, as “a house that is contemporary, but does not break away from tradition.” The wood and stone structure, built between 1947 and 1950 for local menswear shop owner Morton Weiss and his wife, showcases Kahn’s signature connection to the outdoors through a unique window system -- residents can rearrange opaque and transparent panels in the living space to control the amount of light being let in throughout the course of the day. The house, which won the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1950, was the first that Kahn designed after returning from a tour of Italy, Greece, and Egypt. The total construction cost for the house, including cabinetry, furniture, and a Kahn-designed mural, was $50,000. Both Weisses continued to live in the house until their deaths in 2004. Current status: As of right now, the house is owned by realtor Paul Piantone of Tone Realty.
The Samuel and Ruth Genel House in Wynnewood, a near western suburb of Pennsylvania, was designed by Kahn to take advantage of existing trees and topographic features such as an abandoned tennis court. The alternating wood and stone exterior was somewhat similar to that of the Weiss House, but Kahn noted in a 1954 letter to an associate that a set of visitors to the Genel House had praised it as being “far superior to the Weiss house.” Current status: The current owners have been living in the house since the 1970s and have no immediate plans to sell.
The Clever House in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, built between 1957 and 1962, was one of Kahn’s later and more experimental residential designs. The single-story, 1,700-square-foot home is built around a central living area with 17-foot ceilings, surrounded by a cluster of “six gently sloped pyramidal roofs,” according to Marcus and Whitaker in The Houses of Louis Kahn. Fred and Elaine Clever were Quakers and civil rights activists, and they regularly held events and meetings in the central space. Current status: The couple lived in the house until their deaths in 2000 and 2001, respectively. According to William Whitaker, the Clever House is currently threatened due to lack of upkeep and maintenance. As of March 2015, it was under contract for purchase as-is.
Norma and Bernard Shapiro knew what they wanted from their Kahn-designed home: privacy. Blank stucco walls face the street, but the opposite side of the house opens up to showcase a grand view of the woods of the Schuylkill Valley. The house was built between 1958 and 1962 to accommodate the Shapiros and their infant son, and in 1972 they commissioned Kahn and his associate, Anne Tyng, to build an addition to make room for their growing family. Built on a steep slope, the upper entry level features the living area, while the lower level contains sleeping areas and a den. Current status: The house is still owned by the original family.
The two-story Korman House in Montgomery County, built in 1973, was Kahn’s last completed residential work and also his largest. Steven and Toby Korman wanted ample space to raise their three boys, and Kahn collaborated with E. Arol Fesmire, who he had also worked with on the Fisher House, to build a 6,500-square-foot home. According to Whitaker and Marcus in The Houses of Louis Kahn, it still feels just as intimate as his smaller designs. Current status: The Korman’s oldest son Larry and his family have lived in the house since 1998, and the structure has been meticulously preserved.