The Philadelphia Historical Commission accepted a nomination to list Chestnut Hill’s Vanna Venturi House in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places on Wednesday.
Architect Robert Venturi designed the house for his mother in the 1960s, and it is widely regarded as an exceptional work of American architecture.
"It is certainly one of the most important buildings of the 20th century," said Emily Cooperman,an historian who helped prepare the nomination on behalf of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, after Wednesday’s designation committee hearing.*
Committee members were so persuaded that the nomination was a “slam dunk” that there was little discussion. The nomination also enjoyed the support of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
Though some count “Mother’s House“ among the first postmodern buildings, Venturi has long considered it a modernist building, making a statement about modern buildings.
“This really was a revolutionary building,” Cooperman said. “The polemic gable roof and the polemic chimney are shorthand for house and references to tradition. And they, in their kind of cartoon quality, were a brash statement about making modern architecture that didn’t look like a glass and steel box.”
Despite the building’s rare pedigree, it has lacked any official preservation protections. It has, however, enjoyed the best kind of protectors: reverent owners. Mother’s House has had just two owners in its lifetime, and has been painstakingly cared for by the Hughes family since the 1970s. But this summer the house was listed for sale, presenting a conundrum for those concerned with its long-term future. Absent preservation measures there was no guarantee that a new owner would be as careful and caring as the Hughes family has been toward the building.
The designation of “Mother’s House” has long been a priority in Philadelphia’s preservation community. But, Cooperman said, “There hasn’t been any real concern in the past because Tom Hughes and Agatha [Hughes] have been such remarkable owners. To call them stewards doesn’t really do justice because they love the house and have done more than right by it."
In addition to the forthcoming change in ownership, the Chestnut Hill Historical Society was motivated to advance a nomination thanks to grant funding from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. That grant supports a new look at what is historic in Chestnut Hill’s building stock, with an eye to listing mid-century modern buildings in both the Chestnut Hill National Register Historic District and to the local register. The Vanna Venturi House topped the list of important resources to bring into the preservation fold.
According to Cooperman, Agatha Hughes would not discuss the designation despite the Historical Society's outreach efforts. A house like this already demands a special buyer, and official preservation protections will enable oversight by the Historical Commission for any changes to the exterior.
“Nobody wanted to make [Hughes'] life difficult but we felt it would be irresponsible if we didn’t do this,” said Cooperman. The building is simply too significant.
The pending designation will be considered by the full Historical Commission at its next meeting on December 11.
Jared Brey contributed reporting to this article.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story credited Emily Cooperman as the primary author of the nomination. It was Kathleen Abplanalp.