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House on a boat now a New Yorker

Iconic N.J. beach shack lands safely.

Robert Venturi's Lieb House is passing near Brooklyn Bridge on East River by the barge to Glen Cove, (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)
Robert Venturi's Lieb House is passing near Brooklyn Bridge on East River by the barge to Glen Cove, (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer)Read more

GLEN COVE, N.Y. - At last, the ship carrying an icon of '60s architecture came in.

The Lieb House, the second house ever designed by Philadelphia architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, dropped anchor yesterday afternoon in this exclusive Long Island town, unscathed by an 18-hour, 95-mile barge journey along the New Jersey coast and through the swirling currents of the infamous Hell Gate channel.

Set on a motorized dolly that was controlled remotely from shore, the two-story house made a slow, dignified ascent up a makeshift steel ramp to its new home on the waterfront property of a pair of Park Avenue doctors. Debbie Sarnoff and Robert Gotkin agreed to rescue the little house after a developer bought the Barnegat Light, N.J., beach shack as a tear-down and offered the structure for a dollar.

It cost the couple more than $200,000 just to transport the modest house, but they gained an important piece of design history. The house is widely admired by architects for its innovative layout and slyly humorous touches.

"Now it's safe," Scott Brown declared after the house was brought ashore. She and Venturi had been nervously following the house's unusual journey since it set off Thursday from a Barnegat marina.

They stood earlier in the day with 150 well-wishers at the South Street Seaport as the house made its grand entrance into New York harbor. The Lieb House, named for the wealthy Philadelphia family who commissioned it in 1967, rounded the curve of lower Manhattan around 9 a.m., gliding past the canyons of Wall Street and under the Gothic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge. The early-morning sun cast a theatrical light on its large number 9 graphic and distinctive sailboat-shaped window, making them easily visible from the pier.

Most people experience architecture by driving by it, but this time it was the architecture that was zipping past the viewers. "It's a little like watching a horse race," said Josh Mackley, who studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania before moving to New York.

The Lieb House is notable for many reasons. It was another step in the architects' transition from placeless International Style architecture to more context-driven designs. It responds directly to the environment in Barnegat Light. The simple, homey design has a generous porch that becomes a staircase, which in turn leads to a second-floor living room and kitchen area. The family rooms were placed on the upper level so the owners and their guests could enjoy the spectacular water views while they relaxed.

Yet for all the designer flourishes, the house includes elements found in every Jersey Shore beach shack - from the outdoor shower to the roof deck.

"It was like a ship with the bedrooms downstairs," recalled Samantha Aezen, a former Wynnewood resident whose family rented the house for several summers in the late '70s. She hadn't given much thought to it until she saw a report about the move on CNN Thursday night.

"I said to myself, 'This I've got to see.' " So she trekked to lower Manhattan at 7 a.m. to catch a glimpse of the house slipping under the Brooklyn Bridge.

After it passed lower Manhattan, it took almost four more hours for the barge to make its way up Manhattan's East River, through the Hell Gate channel, and into Long Island Sound, docking at J.P. Morgan's former estate in Glen Cove. It will remain on rollers for two weeks while foundation piers are installed.

Sarnoff, a dermatologist, said she "didn't sleep the whole night" worrying that something might go wrong during the journey.

While there was a steady wind and there were strong currents during the journey, the day was brilliantly sunny. The winds occasionally caused the 70-ton house to sway a bit, the team from Wolfe House & Building Movers reported, but strong cables held it in place on the barge, which was accompanied by two tugboats.

When it finally pulled up the rocky embankment in Glen Cove, the tugs tooted their foghorns and the crowd on shore applauded. The movers, made up of German Baptists from Bernville, Pa., quickly went to work putting the steel ramps in place. Within two hours, they were able to activate the remote-controlled dolly and bring the Lieb House ashore.

It will be sited so that it will have waterfront views, just as it did on Long Beach Island. Only now, the view will be of the Manhattan skyline. The Lieb House will share the property with another design by Venturi and Scott Brown, the 1986 Kalpakjian House. It was already clear yesterday that the gray, oval-shaped Kalpakjian and the gray, trapezoidal Lieb would make good companions.

For years, the modest Barnegat summer house had been largely forgotten by all but a few architecture buffs. So it was a little ironic that its arrival in Glen Cove was chronicled by a small army of television and print journalists. The Lieb House, though an important step in the architects' development, is not considered their most significant work. But it may now be their most widely known building.

"Architecture doesn't really interest people," Scott Brown acknowledged. "What catches their attention is a little house that moves."

Jim Venturi, the architects' son and chief of logistics for the move, said he always knew people would be captivated by the rescue effort. He believes there is a growing interest in preserving historically important structures. "People are tired of buildings being torn down to put up cheap housing," he said.

But he added that Americans also "love a David versus Goliath story. They love the idea of the underdog. This house is an underdog against the McMansions."

Even so, its former site at 9 E. 30th St. in Barnegat Light will soon be occupied by one of those McMansions. The frame of the new house is already visible a mere six weeks after the Lieb House was moved off the property, and temporarily parked at the Barnegat marina.

For Fred Adelson, a Rowan University art history professor who has written extensively about the Lieb House, the saga is a reminder that "architecture is fragile."