In anticipation of the release of PBS’ “10 Buildings That Changed America,” Philadelphia-area residents had the chance to visit the inside of Chestnut Hill’s Vanna Venturi House, one of the buildings featured in the film. The light-filled house was completed in the mid-60s by Robert Venturi, who built it for his aging mother.
Visitors boarded trolleys led by executive director of PennPraxis, Harris Steinberg, and WHYY’s vice president of news and civic dialogue, Chris Satullo, at the WHYY building in Center City and headed towards Chestnut Hill.
At the house, guests were able to poke around the inside, tour the exterior and speak to current resident, Agatha Hughes, whose parents bought the house from Venturi 40 years ago. Hughes has lived in the house for the past four years.
“This house still speaks to me like no other place…it has a soul,” said Hughes.
Venturi designed the exterior of the house “at a time when the architecture world was dominated by the modern movement,” according to Steinberg. The house went through several iterations before it was completed in a decidedly post-modern fashion, making it among the first of its kind.
The structure of the house is asymmetrical, full of windows to let natural light in and organized around the hearth at the center of the first floor. The bedroom on the second floor has a “stairway to nowhere,” that continues the winding path of the home’s staircases but doesn’t lead to anything.
“The house became something that revolutionized architecture,” said Steinberg, adding that “it was quite provocative in its day.”
Hughes explained neighbors disliked the structure at first. Attitudes shifted when the house began gaining attention from media and outsiders. These days, Hughes expects a steady stream of visitors, often unannounced, trying to get a look at the famous building.
The inside of the house however, remained old-fashioned to accommodate his mother’s style. The contrast was one that was of particular appeal to visitor and chairman of Preservation Pennsylvania, Roy Smith.
“To go inside and see how different it is from the outside was quite a revelation. It’s quite a unique house,” Smith said.
Hughes still discusses any changes made to the house with Venturi. She is currently renovating the house and working to protect it with historical easements to ensure future owners remain true to Venturi’s style.
“10 Buildings That Changed America” is a production of WTTW Chicago. It will air on PBS on May 12 at 10 p.m.