February 9, 2015

What Life is Like in Louis Kahn's Esherick House

In early January, we rounded up the current status of each of the nine private homes designed by renowned Modern architect Louis Kahn, all located in the greater Philadelphia metro area. After seeing our post, the new owners of the Esherick House in Chestnut Hill reached out to us, hoping to share their story.

Paul Savidge, the head of policy at a pharmaceutical company, and his husband Dan Macey, a food stylist, purchased the house in February of 2014 after falling in love with it on a realtor’s tour. The house had been on the market for several years due to what Savidge calls “livability issues”—i.e. its small size and single bedroom, ideal for one person but not well-suited for any more than two.

Built between 1959 and 1962 for bookseller Margaret Esherick and featuring a kitchen designed by her uncle, the renowned wood sculptor and cabinetmaker Wharton Esherick, the house’s southeast-facing wall, comprised almost entirely of windows, lets in an abundance of light. It’s also only one of two of Kahn’s houses to have historic designation, and in 2016, Savidge and Macey won a Citation of Merit in the annual Docomomo Modernism in America Awards for their restoration efforts on the structure.

Exterior view of Louis Kahn's Esherick House

photo by: Paul Savidge

The southeast-facing back wall of the Esherick House floods the home with natural light.

I chatted with Savidge about the unique rewards and challenges of living in the house, and the couple's plans for its future.

Architecture students in the Esherick House

photo by: Paul Savidge

Architecture students from the University of Pennsylvania listen to architectural historian William Whitaker speak in the Esherick House’s living room in fall 2014.

What initially drew the two of you to the house?

Well, we were aware that it was for sale for a significant period of time. We love great modern architecture and design and of course we’re familiar with Kahn, and in the fall of 2013 we decided to go see the house with a real estate agent we know. We had lived in Chestnut Hill once before, and we were probably more curious than serious. And then [we] were quite taken with it, and thought, “Why shouldn’t we be the stewards of this house and have the opportunity to promote its welfare and all the good things that go along with living in such a place?”

So, I think it was a number of things—based mostly in our love of good design. It’s thrilling to think that we’ve become associated with something like this, and we felt very strongly that we were going to be able to take really good care of it.

What has living in the house been like?

It’s been great for a number of reasons. We’ve been able to meet a whole society, a whole group of people that are new to us, people that are part of the architecture and design community—people like Bill Whitaker at the Kahn Archive at the University of Philadelphia. It’s been an education and it’s been thrilling to make the acquaintance of all these people, people who have interest in Kahn and the house.

We have a lot of visitors to the house, especially in nice weather. I think we’ve been very gracious to people who are interested in and have come to see the house. So that’s been great, just enjoying and sharing the house with other people.

The house is a very special place. It was very well maintained by its previous owners, the Gallaghers, who we bought the house from. I think one of the reasons why the house took so long to sell was because it had some livability issues, and we’re trying to address those now. Our idea is that the house is only going to survive and be viable as a private residence, so we needed to bring the house into the 21st century and let technology and modern advances in mechanics really give the house advantages in its sustainability. We’re not doing anything that injures the integrity of the house.

As I understand it, this is one of only two Kahn houses to have historic designation. What are the constraints on what you can and can’t do to the house?

The house has been on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places since 2009. That makes certain kinds of changes to the home, especially those to the exterior, subject to the review of the commission [the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places]. We just went to meet [with our architect] and talk about what we were thinking about, and subsequently got approval on all the work that we’re doing. The line between what is subject to their approval and what is not is not entirely clear—but, we’ve been very forthcoming because we didn’t want anyone to be surprised. We’ve also been the same way with the University of Pennsylvania and the head of the Kahn library there, Bill Whitaker, because he’s been a very good source of information to us.

Has living in the house posed any unique challenges?

Nothing that we didn’t foresee. The fact that you get a lot of attention from the public and people come by—we’re more delighted by it than anything else. In the summer, we can put the air conditioning on, but when it gets cold the house tends to be cold, so we’re installing a new heating system, for example, just to upgrade what was there.

I would say the major challenge we had was using the kitchen in the house. The kitchen, as you probably know, was designed by Wharton Esherick, who was the uncle of Margaret Esherick. It’s a very special kitchen, but sensitive. It wasn’t the kind of place where you felt comfortable really doing a lot of cooking because you didn’t want to disturb any of the woodwork and things like that. So, entertaining in the house was a challenge, and oftentimes if we had people over we would bring food into the house from external sources.

The street view of the Esherick House

photo by: Paul Savidge

The street view of the Esherick House.

We’re in the midst of a preservation effort of the kitchen—we’ve brought in the people from the Wharton Esherick Museum [in Malvern, Pennsylvania] to help us. And then, the utility room that Kahn designed—all of the utilities of that room, the furnace, the heater, the gas meter, and some very ugly plumbing—we’re creating a modern kitchen in that space. Now the house will have a new kitchen next to the Wharton Esherick kitchen, which will be highly usable. That work is underway, and it’ll be finished sometime this spring.

Who are you working with on the kitchen redesign?

The architect and designer are really working with Dan and me and being drivers of the design and the changes. The architect’s name is Kevin Yoder, and he’s a Philadelphia architect. He has some experience working with important contemporary houses. The designer’s name is Louise Cohen. So together with the contractor, it’s been a very good team, and we continue to work with them. Obviously, the job isn’t finished.

What’s your absolute favorite thing about the house?

The house has amazing light. It’s a house where—and I think Kahn made a study of this house, the light at any time of the day the light in the house changes, but it’s a very soothing light—it’s a light that makes [the house] a wonderful place to read, a wonderful place to study. At the Fisher house, I think they made some more comments about that, but it’s true—it can be just a very glorious place to be, really in any type of weather, but on a sunny day it’s just striking. It’s a house with a lot of energy—it’s just a remarkable place to live.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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