Can Vanna Venturi House and other landmark homes survive the test of new owners?

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Can Vanna Venturi House and other landmark homes survive the test of new owners?
The Vanna Venturi house in Philadelphia / © Getty Images

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Can Vanna Venturi House and other landmark homes survive the test of new owners?
The Vanna Venturi house in Philadelphia / © Getty Images

Sometime over the last week, the online listing for the Vanna Venturi House, a three-bedroom, two-bath, two-story residence in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia that covers 1,986 square feet and is asking $1.5 million, ticked from “active” to “contract pending.” That rearrangement of pixels could mean something encouraging for an important landmark of American architecture or something alarming; the listing agent, Melanie Stecura of Kurfiss Sotheby’s International Realty, said she wasn’t able to reveal anything about the offer or what the potential buyer had in mind for the house.

“Hopefully I can tell you more Friday once the due diligence period is over. :),” she wrote by email. Though the house has been nominated for the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, Stecura said it is being sold without any protections against alterations inside or out.

This is the plight of architecturally significant houses when they hit the open market. Cross your fingers and hope for the best. Maybe the buyers will be sympathetic — ideally not just keeping the house in good shape but opening it to scholars, architects and the broader public at least occasionally. Or maybe they’ll have their eye on a few improvements, swapping out the kitchen countertops for granite or knocking down a wall or two to make way for a great room or to, you know, improve the flow.

The stakes are unusually high in this case. The Vanna Venturi House — designed by Robert Venturi for his widowed mother and known to many in the architecture world as Mother’s House — was an important early salvo in the war young architects began waging on the orthodoxy of Modernism in the 1960s. What made the house so radically and refreshingly new, more than anything, was that it employed not bombast but a bracing, efficient mixture of humor, irony and guts in making the case that American architecture had lost its way. […]

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