In the end, the Philadelphians bowed out. The New England architect backed away, and the "somewhat famous" movie star was a no-go.

The Esherick House, a rare private residence designed by revered 20th-century architect Louis Kahn and tucked away on a quiet Chestnut Hill cul-de-sac, failed to sell at auction yesterday.

Asking price for the one-bedroom modernist home offered as a work of art? Between $2 million and $3 million.

It wasn't the soft housing market, said Richard Wright of the Chicago auction house offering the property. Potential buyers would pay cash and are not worried about mortgages.

But the tanking economy "may have had something to do with it," Wright said. "I guess the valuation was too high. But it doesn't matter to me what it's worth in Chestnut Hill as a one-bedroom. When you're in it, you agree - it's an amazing, beautiful, important house."

Though there were no formal bids, there were several very interested parties, Wright said, including a movie star he declined to name and some local residents.

Wright plans to reach out personally to those who expressed interest, to try to move the house at a lower price.

Wright said he invested "a substantial" amount of money marketing the house on Sunrise Lane, which received plenty of national media attention. Selling important architectural works at auction is a new phenomenon; only a few have ever been sold that way.

Last week, the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, Calif., designed by Richard Neutra, sold for more than $15 million.

Kahn's work is a striking house of concrete and caramel-colored wood, huge windows, and a double-height living room looking out on an expanse of green. Kahn designed the neat two-story rectangle on two cubes separated by a staircase, with light that makes the modest space feel much larger than it is.

The house was commissioned in 1958 by the niece of prominent Philadelphia woodworker Wharton Esherick. For the last 27 years, it was owned by Lynn and Robert Gallagher, who restored it to its present near-pristine condition.

Purchase price in 1981: $152,500.

News of the house's impending sale brought the curious from around the region to peek at a masterpiece yesterday.

Architectural student Andrew Tripp, his wife, Emily, and their friend Kate Gleason took a drive from University City to view close up the house they'd heard so much about.

"It's pretty neat," said Andrew Tripp, who studies at the University of Pennsylvania. "Kahn is pretty influential for 20th-century architecture."

Emily Tripp was curious about how a mid-century Kahn would fit into leafy, traditional Chestnut Hill.

"It was interesting to see what a more modern house looks like among all these older houses," she said. "It's tiny."

Gleason felt like something of an expert, having attended Bryn Mawr College and lived in Erdman Hall, which Kahn designed.

She liked the bold lines. Others weren't so sure.

"It's the least-popular dorm on campus," Gleason said. "It's this concrete monstrosity among all these Gothic buildings."

The trio peered inside, marveling from afar at the large fireplace, the huge windows, the flawless, wide-planked wooden floors.

"If I had the money, I'd buy it," Emily Tripp said.

Their visit was nothing out of the ordinary, said MaryAnn Franklin, a Sunrise Lane resident out gardening yesterday.

Franklin often sees people - students, Kahn appreciators, curious neighbors - driving slowly up Sunrise Lane, craning their necks out car windows to gaze at the Esherick House. Franklin doesn't mind.

"They're all quite respectful," she said.

She and other neighbors were anxiously awaiting news of the sale, Franklin said.

"We all hope it's a Philadelphian," she said of the buyer. "But as long as it's someone who appreciates the architectural integrity of the house, we'll be happy."

Wright, of the auction house, shared that sentiment - Kahn is a Philadelphia treasure, he said, and a local might best protect that.

"I feel very passionate about this house," Wright said. "It's a great house, and it deserves the right person."

The house, Wright said, is significant.

"Louis Kahn produced only a handful of residential works, and to me, this is the purest expression, the one where the client most let Louis do his thing," Wright said. "That doesn't make it easy to live in."

Playing with his dog in Pastorius Park, a few blocks from the Esherick House, Matt Leonard was incredulous at the hefty price.

"Unbelievable," said Leonard, 40, who lives in Blue Bell but who knows Chestnut Hill well and who often takes Dobie the Australian kelpie to the park. "The housing market is weak. Even the bigger houses around here aren't going for more than $500,000."

The house isn't his style, Leonard said, but like many people, his curiosity got the best of him. Though he knows little about architecture, he said he knew just where he was heading after leaving the park.

"I'll have to drive by," he said. "I've got to see this house."

Contact staff writer Kristen A. Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com

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