Changing Skyline: On the market: Masterpieces to live in

Posted: March 28, 2008

How much would you pay for a Louis Kahn masterpiece that foreshadowed his groundbreaking work at the Salk Institute? Less than for a Mies van der Rohe? More than for a Pierre Koenig?

What would you give to own a rare East Coast Richard Neutra? It might not be in tip-top condition, but it can be yours for a minute fraction of what his more-celebrated California work commands.

From the way these questions are framed, you might think the objects for sale ought to be hung on a wall. Actually, they are the walls.

By some quirky synchronization of architectural clocks, two of Philadelphia's most important modernist houses from the 1950s are being offered for sale this spring. But rather than being hawked as mere hunks of real estate, along with the garden-variety McMansions and fixer-uppers, Kahn's Esherick House in Chestnut Hill and Neutra's Cherry Lane House in East Falls are being marketed using strategies typically reserved for museum-quality fine art. Consider the two houses machines for collecting as well as living.

It may sound counterintuitive, but the growing trend of treating modernism's domestic experiments as art trophies could well prove their salvation. During the years in which mid-20th-century designs were out of favor, such icons were often cruelly modified or designated as tear-downs. But after Sotheby's commanded $7.5 million in 2003 for Mies' Farnsworth House, located in a distant Chicago suburb, shrewd buyers and preservationists alike took note.

Now, owners of modernist homes are increasingly bypassing the local Realtor and consigning them with the big auction companies, in the hope of getting a price that matches the house's architectural value.

Richard Wright, whose respected Chicago auction house will put Kahn's Esherick House on the block May 18, observed that there had long been "a disconnect between the property values in the local real estate market and the historical values of these important properties."

Because local Realtors often have trouble getting excited about a small, needy, flat-roof 50-year-old dwelling, they fail to market the homes properly, explained Wright, whose auction house focuses on modernist furniture and design objects. Auction companies can pitch the properties directly to the small, monied set of international design connoisseurs.

His firm scored a coup in 2006 when it sold Koenig's Case Study House No. 1 for $3.1 million. It was bought by a South Korean businessman, who restored it and uses it as a pied-a-terre during trips to Los Angeles. "If you're buying it as a work of art, you're much less likely to modify it inappropriately," Wright believes.

That's the main reason Lynn and Robert Gallagher listed their Kahn-designed home with Wright when they decided that, after 27 years of living in - and impeccably restoring - the property, it was time to move on. Given the house's near-perfect condition and the rising interest in Kahn's work, Wright believes their cozy one-bedroom on Sunrise Lane could fetch $2 million to $3 million at the May auction.

The event's timing couldn't be better - it will take place five days after Christie's conducts what is arguably the most important modernist auction to date. On May 13, it will put on the block the Palm Beach retreat Neutra designed in 1946 for department-store magnate Edgar Kaufmann. Experts estimate the sale could bring $15 million to $25 million, a record for midcentury.

Like that Neutra icon, the Kahn Esherick House is already attracting attention beyond the region. Kahn began designing the little home in 1958 for a niece of the famed Philadelphia woodworker Wharton Esherick. The project explores ideas he would later apply to his research institute for Jonas Salk in San Diego.

Though the house is important historically, it's anything but a typical Chestnut Hill manse. Organized around two perfect cubes separated by a staircase, the two-story structure is roughly the size of a Philadelphia trinity.

Yet because Kahn was a magician with light, the expansive rooms feel almost rambling. Lynn Gallagher said she liked to think of the bedroom suite, tucked away in a second-floor loft, as its own studio apartment. It stands apart from the double-height living room, which looks out through a wall of glass at a rolling landscape.

Kahn was in top form when he composed the facade's arrangement of solids and voids, all outlined in a thick caramel-colored apitong, a variety of teak. The sections frequently form T-shapes in the 2-foot-thick walls.

For Kahn, who brought structure and mass back to architecture after years in which the emphasis was on lightly sheathed volumes, the T became an important symbol, conveying the primal post-and-beam essence of building construction. There are T's all over the Esherick House. They reappear at the Salk Institute, culminating in a long plaza that reaches to the horizontal Pacific sky.

William Whitaker, curator of the University of Pennsylvania's Architectural Archives, said he was pleased this important house was back in the international limelight.

"I'm hoping the sale of the Esherick House will bring attention to modern houses in the region," he said. "We've lost some of the great ones to the bulldozers already."

He's especially concerned about an early Kahn house in East Norriton, designed with Anne Tyng during their famous affair, that is now on the market for $1.5 million.

It's certainly taken a while for the local real estate community to catch on to the treasures in its midst. The East Falls Neutra house, on Cherry Lane, has passed through several recent owners and is in such fragile condition that the Preservation Alliance this year put it on its most-endangered list. Kurfiss Sotheby's International Realty is offering the house for sale, along with a second building lot, for $1.26 million - small change compared with what's expected for the Kaufmann House in Palm Beach.

Neutra (pronounced Noy-tra) was an Austrian who immigrated to California and became the quintessential Los Angeles architect. He occasionally strayed eastward for the right client. In 1951, he persuaded Philadelphia's Hassrick family to build a California-style, flat-roof house on the Cherry Lane cul-de-sac. The site, on the magnificent ridge overlooking the Schuylkill, may be the most California-like spot in Philadelphia. Carried away by the similarities, perhaps, Neutra forgot about East Coast weather and gave the four-bedroom house the same vast glass planes, skeletal steel frames, and Jetsons verve as his western designs.

Not surprisingly, one owner after another has fought valiantly to contain the drafts and leaks. But they have been rewarded by unimpeded views of an unsullied landscape and a stylish George Nakashima-inspired kitchen.

Though Philadelphia might not match Chicago or Los Angeles for its cache of midcentury designs, its architects created a sizable and impressive body of work during the '50s and '60s, a time when they seemed to experiment more freely than today. The Kahn house isn't even the most important on its block. That distinction probably belongs to Robert Venturi's "Mother's House," which rejects both mass and lightness and explores cultural symbols, signs and jokes.

As a friend and rival of Kahn's, Venturi may have been trying to tell his fellow architect something when he cut an upside-down T into the front facade.

The Venturi house, like the Esherick and most modernist masterpieces, is modest and compact by today's bloated standards. The scale is more cottage than house. It's easy to imagine these midcentury classics in Philadelphia serving as the hideaway of an international jet-setter or, perhaps, a Center City resident who needs a cool locale for summer garden parties.

As for houseguests, Lynn Gallagher suggests, there's always the Chestnut Hill Hotel.

Changing Skyline:

From Skyline Online: Critic Inga Saffron's take on the American Com- merce Center design. D4.

Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.

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