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Venturi Scott Brown-designed Abrams House faces demolition

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The postmodern house, recently denied historic status by the Pittsburgh City Council, is now threatened by new owners’ demolition plans

mint green front facade with rays and square windows
Exterior of the Abrams House.
Photo: VSBA via The Architect’s Newspaper

A rare, striking example of postmodern architecture is under threat in Pittsburgh. Last week, city council voted 7-2 against historic designation for the Abrams House, designed by trailblazing PoMo firm Venturi Scott Brown and Associates.

Completed in 1982 for Irving and Betty Abrams, the two-bedroom residence is a playful take on traditions, much like Venturi Scott Brown’s landmarked—and AIA 25 Year Award-winning—Vanna Venturi House in Philadelphia. As Curbed’s architecture critic Alexandra Lange notes in a visit to the seminal work:

The house, which was designed and redesigned, is itself a gentle manifesto, the gable a blow against the aesthetic tyranny of the modernist flat roof; the square windows a blow against the aesthetic tyranny of transparent walls. He’s taken the poor little shivering glass houses and given them back their blanket.

The Abrams House similarly breaks from conventional symmetry and pared-back order, opting instead for a curving roof reminiscent of a cresting wave and windows of dramatic proportions segmented by sunrise “rays”—or a ship’s wheel if that’s how you choose to see it.

When Robert Venturi passed away at age 93 last September, the future of the Abrams House was already uncertain. William and Patricia Snyder, owners of the neighboring Giovannitti House by Richard Meier, had purchased the Abrams House in July and swiftly filed a demolition permit before beginning partial demolition on the interior.

According to the Architect’s Newspaper, the Snyders’ intent is to raze the Abrams House to develop landscaping that complements the Giovannitti House, which had been undergoing renovations. Soon after, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation moved to nominate the Abrams House for protected status, gaining support from the city’s Historic Review Commission and Planning Commission.

In denying landmark designation—and therefore demolition protection—for the Abrams House—the council cited its state of disrepair (including black mold and risk of water damage), and location on a private street.

A preliminary vote of 6-1 against landmark status already predicted the outcome earlier this month. Deb Gross, the council member who abstained in the first vote but then voted in favor of granting the Abrams House historic status, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that an email from a constituent changed her mind. “This is a postmodern house, not really my thing, but that is a significant historical moment,” she said.

Indeed, this development is the latest blow to postmodernism, the quirky, contentious style that has been top of mind for the design community—and, according to Lange, “the palate cleanser we need.”

Last year, Venturi Scott Brown’s distinctive colonnade fronting the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego was removed as part of an expansion, despite a petition to save it signed by noted architects like Robert A.M. Stern, and Toshiko Mori. Meanwhile, the iconic facade of the Portland Building by PoMo legend Michael Graves, continues to come down.