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February 12, 2009

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The Chestnut Hill Local
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Louis Kahn’s Esherick House added to historic register

Louis Kahn’s Esherick House as seen from the garden. The round brick patio, designed by landscape architect Frederick Peck, has become a defining feature of the property. (Photo by Bill Whitaker)

At the January meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, Louis Kahn’s Esherick House was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Locally regarded as one of the architectural treasures of Chestnut Hill, drawing visitors from around the world, the house was commissioned by Margaret Esherick, niece of well-known master craftsman Wharton Esherick. It is one of only 20 private homes designed by Kahn, of which only nine have been built, giving it exceptional importance as a realized example of the architect’s work.

Situated on just over one-half acre on Sunrise Lane and constructed of beige concrete and natural wood, the Esherick House clearly expresses Kahn ‘s principles of geometry, light and materiality.  The double-height living room, featuring nearly ceiling-high built-in bookcases, is bathed in natural light, while the dining room overlooks a very private garden bordering Pastorius Park. The kitchen was designed by Wharton Esherick, a close friend of Kahn’s, and is one of his last remaining intact interiors.

“It’s the perfect house for a creative person,” according to Kahn’s son, Nathaniel. “If I lived there — and I wish I did — I’d have my Mac, a few books and a coffee maker. Sun falling in a high room, treetops through the window, a fire in a great hearth, what else do you need?”

At the Historical Commission’s January meeting, the owners of Esherick House, Robert and Lynn Gallagher, were commended for their stewardship of the property by John Andrew Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance, and Emily Cooperman, of ARCH Preservation Consulting.  David Brownlee, a professor of architectural history at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a landmark book on Kahn, observed that the house has local, national, and international significance, and noted that it is an excellent representation of Kahn’s theory of a “society of rooms.”

In making the designation, the commission also recognized the landscape design by Frederick Peck, a prominent Philadelphia-based landscape architect whose other area commissions include the Azalea Garden in Fairmount Park and, coincidentally, Pastorius Park. Thus, the property doubly fulfills the listing criterion as being the work of both an architect and a landscape architect who have “significantly influenced the historical, architectural, economic, social, or cultural development of the City, Commonwealth or Nation.”

The Esherick House is highlighted in “20th Century Chestnut Hill: A self-guided tour of important 20th Century residences in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia,” (pictured at right) recently published by the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. This full-color guide features photographs of area buildings by architects of regional, national and international prominence as well as brief essays about their work. It can be purchased from the society offices at 8708 Germantown Ave. or ordered by phone or email. The price is $5 plus tax and shipping. Call Business Manager Audrey Simpson at 215-247-0417 or e-mail  to purchase.

Andrea Niepold is a member of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society.

 

 

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