By Scott Pruden
Wanted: Moderately wealthy buyer for extremely tiny house designed by globally famous architect for member of artistically significant local family. Your responsibilities as a buyer will include maintaining it as a pristine museum piece, dealing with drive-bys from architectural stalkers, and facing the potential wrath of the entire modernist community should you make the slightest modification. Cash preferred for quick sale.
That's what most people likely saw when they read that the Esherick House in Chestnut Hill, one of the few private residences designed by architect Louis Kahn, failed to sell at auction even for the low, low starting price of $2 million.
My first thought was, "Wow, I'd love to see inside." My second was, "Who on earth would ever want to live there?"
It is not, as you might guess, a home for just anyone. It was built for woodworker Wharton Esherick's niece Margaret, who apparently had enough ready cash to persuade Kahn, known more for applying his modernist tendencies to public buildings, to design the home for her. Given Kahn's major role in the modernist movement (I'm sure the folks at Dwell magazine have a little altar where they light candles in his honor on his birthday), this seems to have been no small task.
Margaret Esherick apparently either didn't plan to have a family or realized one bedroom from Kahn was all she could afford, seriously limiting its size.
From the photos of the home's exterior, it's clear this is no mere "one-bedroom home." Instead it's a modernist masterwork - all 90-degree angles and windows and walls of varying depth - and as such is likely worth every penny the Chicago auctioneers hoped to get.
The problem is its appeal as a masterwork of modernist architecture doesn't seem to match its appeal as a place for someone to go to sleep every night.
The home is on a lovely piece of property hidden away in Chestnut Hill. But looking at the facade, I have a hard time imagining the owner schlepping back and forth across the yard with a lawnmower every week.
It's also difficult to envision children - not likely, given the floor plan - playing in the front yard. When you're a kid, it's hard enough worrying what a stray baseball will do to your parents' house. Imagine being met with, "Darling, be careful not to break a window, because if you do the entire modernist community will come down on your fanny like a ton of Frank Lloyd Wright-designed, handmade bricks."
True homes, at least for most of us, are not tidy places. My wife and I remind ourselves daily of the list of chores required to keep our modest abode simply presentable. Still, children's toys, stray jackets, tufts of cat hair, and random crumbs seem to litter the landscape.
That's why it's always a little odd to venture into "museum" homes that are held up as the pinnacle of something or other. Whether I'm considering Wright's Fallingwater or touring the ostentatious Newport, R.I., "chateaus" built by the robber barons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I can't help but wonder, "Was it always this clean?"
The museum designation, however, suggests that a home is no longer lived in. The Esherick House, one imagines, would be occupied by someone who created as many dirty dishes, stained clothes, stray bits of grime, and scuffs on the floor as the rest of us. It seems wrong, somehow. You wouldn't keep a priceless work of art in the kitchen, where it could get splattered with spaghetti sauce, so why risk mussing the kitchen in a home that is itself a priceless work of art?
So perhaps it would be better for a charitable foundation to buy the home now that it's priced to sell. That way it can be maintained as the work of art it is and opened in a way that the public and students of modernism can admire, appreciate and occasionally visit without risking a restraining order from the new owner.