The stuffed lion is the least likely thing to be sitting in the window, and yet there it is, with its friendly, stitched mug propped up on the sill. It’s surrounded by an army of other stuffed animals: a leopard, a bunny, bears. Their beady eyes stare out the window, down the long, straight driveway of the Vanna Venturi House.
When Robert Venturi built this house for his mother, Vanna, in 1964, he did so with a spirit of meticulous irreverence. The architect, who is known as the father of postmodern architecture, assembled the house as a jigsaw puzzle of features that fit together both perfectly and reluctantly. An oversized chimney juts out of a subtly asymmetrical front facade that’s painted a shade of rust green. Venturi positioned the square window where the toys sit just shy of center, so that the facade’s split pediment obscures the window’s left half and leaves only an L-shaped sliver of glass visible.
”There’s a lot of foolery going on here,” said David Lockard, the home’s current owner, as he padded around the living room in athletic shorts and navy Crocs on a Sunday morning in early summer. Lockard, a 60-something personal injury lawyer with a gentle voice and easy laugh, wasn’t talking about the row of stuffed animals he placed in the window as an inside joke with his daughter; he was referring to the house itself. “Bob had a great sense of humor,” he said.
Earlier that morning, Lockard welcomed a couple dozen people into his house as part of a vernacular architecture tour of Philadelphia. Just past 10 a.m., a group of tourists armed with Nikon cameras and endless questions showed up at his door. The other half of the tour had split off and was wandering down the block to the Esherick House, a striking modernist home that Louis Kahn, Venturi’s colleague at the University of Pennsylvania, built in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood three years before Venturi finished “Mother’s House.”
Since moving into the Vanna Venturi House in September 2016, Lockard has allowed students, museums, and curious strangers to poke around the property. Tours like this one, led by his neighbor Liz Jarvis, an archivist at the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, are a semi-regular occurrence. “I coached Liz’s kids in soccer,” Lockard said. “I try to be nice.” To prepare for the visit, Lockard tidied up from a dinner party he’d hosted the night before. Semi-straight stacks of papers from his son’s research on theoretical mathematics sat on top of a credenza in the dining room. His own work was stashed in a corner of the kitchen. A pair of forgotten nail clippers rested midway up Venturi’s famously narrowing stairs. “I washed the dishes and made sure my underwear was in the basket,” he laughed. “I don’t really put my stuff away. Maybe I stack it, but that’s about it.”
The message is clear. This is one of the world’s most famous houses, but it’s also Lockard’s home, and he treats it as such, filling its awkward nooks and inaccessible crannies with photos, objects, and furniture that are distinctly his own. Lockard recalls a visit from Denise Scott Brown, Venturi’s wife and creative collaborator, just after he’d moved in when she’d dropped off a pair of chairs that had previously been in the house. “She gave me two chairs and then sort of directed me as to where she thought they ought to be,” he said. He accepted them and then promptly took them down to the basement.
The whole house is this way. A collection of mugs hangs from hooks in the basement (“I didn’t know where to put them,” he said). Furniture brought over from Germany by his late wife’s family sits in the living room. Along the windowsill in the dining room, dozens of rubber ducks stare down at the table. “Those are my daughters’,” he told one of the camera-wielding visitors. “She had them long before we moved in here, and it turned out that Venturi thought about ducks a great deal.”
Most people who own a home contend with the ghosts of past real estate lives at some point—the knicks in the molding, the fading lines of a height chart sketched on a wall, and the questionable paint choices are all reminders that someone else was there before you. Living in a home as famous as Mother’s House compounds that feeling of yours-but-not-quite-yours. Some days Lockard spends his time alone, sitting at the dining room table with the sliding doors open and a breeze ruffling his work papers. Other days, he’ll spot people lingering sheepishly at the end of the driveway and wave them up to the house.
Lockard has lived in Chestnut Hill on and off for much of his life. Before buying Venturi’s home, he and his family lived in a house a couple hundred yards away. Over the years, he’d drive by the green house and admire its strangeness from a safe distance. “I knew about it, but I never thought it would come on the market,” he said. “One day I saw a for-sale sign, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s nice. Let’s see how this plays out.”
The former owners of the house, the Hughes family, bought it from Venturi and Scott Brown in 1973. “They were basically vetted by Venturi and Scott Brown,” said Lori Salganicoff, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy. It remained in the Hughes family for decades until they decided to sell it in 2015. The house was priced at $1.75 million, and it spent nearly a year on the market until Lockard made an offer for a few hundred thousand dollars less.
In Lockard’s telling, Venturi and Scott Brown were worried enough about who might buy the home that they put in an offer themselves, only to find out that Lockard had already made a down payment. Before Venturi died in 2018, he and Scott Brown established a rapport with Lockard, who met the couple for the first time shortly after moving in.
Lockard had just been in London with his children where he visited the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, an addition by Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown that combined the classic architecture of William Wilkins’s 1838 building with modernist features. He was struck by the stairs and Corinthian columns that stood out against the building’s glassy walkway. “I looked at them and thought, what is going on with this?” he recalled. “So I formulated a couple of questions for my introduction to them, because I wanted to send a message that I wasn’t just some idiot.”
For all its fame, the Vanna Venturi House is relatively small—1,986 square feet—and deliberately idiosyncratic. Venturi approached the design of the house as a manifesto of sorts, where he could test his sometimes-contrarian ideologies as a full-scale experiment. “Everything we have ever done since was an embryo in that house,” Scott Brown told the New York Times when it first went on the market. “It was a huge aesthetics revolution.”
Venturi designed the house for his aging mother, who requested that all of the living spaces remain on the ground floor where they’d be easily accessible. The home’s front door opens onto a marble entryway that flows directly into the dining area, where an arched clerestory window brings in warm, bright light. The wood-floored living room centers around an oversized fireplace that, much to Lockard’s frustration, fills with smoke every time he tries to make a fire. “Denise once told me on a visit, ‘You know, Bob didn’t know how to make a fireplace.’”
Venturi wanted Mother’s House to play with tensions between the traditional and the unconventional. In his 1966 book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, Venturi wrote of the house: “It is both complex and simple, open and closed, big and little; some of its elements are good on one level and bad on another; its order accommodates the generic elements of the house in general and the circumstantial elements of a house in particular.” Venturi countered the facade’s classic gabled form with oversized, almost cartoonish features. A narrow staircase in Lockard’s bedroom on the second floor leads to nowhere (Lockard filled the stairs with family photos to prevent people from trying to climb them). “It’s nice to have your mother as a client,” he said. “You can get away with stuff no one else would let you get away with.”
The beauty, as Venturi saw it, was where the expected and unexpected came together to be in service of each other. Unlike the modernist architects of the time, Venturi didn’t set out to simplify problems with his buildings. Rather, he designed Mother’s House in layers of architectural references and ideas that together amplified the home’s exaggerated variety of “houseness.” Venturi’s philosophies were a rebuttal to many commonly held beliefs about what made architecture “good,” or, at the very least, relevant. His famous credo, “Less is a bore,” doubled as a jab to Mies van der Rohe’s dictum, “Less is more.” Venturi’s ability to balance provocations—a staircase to nowhere—with domesticity is the reason Mother’s House is a home and not a shrine to ideologies.
Still, Venturi’s focus on the theoretical in Mother’s House means it isn’t ideal for the day-to-day of raising a family. Lockard converted the two rooms just off the living room into bedrooms for his children, who were back from school. “The walls are just very thin,” Lockard’s daughter Hannah said, emerging from her bedroom after all the visitors from the tour had vanished. “I don’t think it’s something he [Venturi] actively considered. It’s not a house made for privacy.”
The 21-year-old spent the morning of the tour in her room, with a note stuck to the closed door that read: “DO NOT OPEN THIS DOOR. SLEEPING DAUGHTER.” Many of Lockard’s decisions about what to do with the house are an effort to make sure his three grown children feel at home when they’re visiting from school and their jobs. It’s led him to be playfully but decidedly defiant of what other people might expect from a house as famous as his. “I have a cardboard cutout from high school of, what’s his name... Josh Hutcherson,” Hannah said. “I’ve been campaigning for a while now to put him up there [in the window] so he’s watching out.” Twenty minutes later, Hutcherson was in the window.
For most people, home is where they can be most fully themselves. Settling in requires a willingness to let things get messy and imperfect. A famous house requires something different. Owning one surfaces an unusual tension between the expectation of being a “public steward” and actually living in the space. “David is living in his home,“ said Salganicoff. “I think it’s an interesting homage to Venturi in some ways because he’s not treating the space as if it’s sacred. It’s really kind of respecting the intent of Venturi’s philosophy.”
Salganicoff and her team at the Conservancy nominated the Vanna Venturi House for the Philadelphia Register of Historical Places in 2015 as a hedge against whoever might buy the house. “There wasn’t certainty,” she said. “If you sell a property and it’s not protected, the person who gets it next might not care about it.” The designation, which wasn’t granted until after Lockard moved in, protects the house from demolition and requires the owner to seek permission for any changes to the exterior. When she learned that Lockard, a long-time Chestnut Hill resident, was buying the home, she was relieved.
Aside from rules about the exterior, there are no official standards for how stylish, clean, or reverent to the past a person must make a historic home, or whether interior changes must stick within certain historic bounds. There are certainly no rules that claim how accessible to the public a place like Mother’s House ought to be (the previous owners kept a sign at the end of the driveway that read “Private”). Venturi and Scott Brown had expressed an interest in making sure the house would be open to whoever wanted to stop by and admire it, but it wasn’t a given that Lockard would be open to that.
In a story published on Uncubed in 2015, architect Cristina Guadalupe Galván, who was Scott Brown’s project manager for a time, laid out the case: “The new owners should be enamored by all of this, because they will not only live in one of the most important private homes of the 20th century, but will also be keeping alive the memory of Robert Venturi’s parents and his own personal history.” Lockard understands the significance of his purchase, even if that realization came after he put a down payment on the house. “I knew it was important,” he said. “I just didn’t quite understand how important.”
Lockard says he’s always been interested in architecture, but preservation was never an aspiration. When he moved in, a handful of people reached out to tell him what to expect. His neighbors, Paul Savidge and Dan Macey, bought Kahn’s Esherick House in 2013, and have become mentors, though Savidge doesn’t like the connotation of the word. “David is extremely bright and knows how to get information,” he said over the phone the day after returning from a trip to Paris for a DocoMomo-sponsored Le Corbusier tour. “It’s mostly just telling him stories about what we’ve done.”
Savidge and his husband, a food stylist, recently finished a full-on renovation of the Esherick House and were already at work renovating another home in Elkins Park, a small town outside of Philadelphia. The couple looks at living in a famous house as an opportunity to help preserve a piece of history. Aside from a new, more functional kitchen and other practical changes to the mechanical systems of the house, they’ve intentionally kept much of Kahn’s vision intact. “We think of it as owning and taking care of the house until it passes to the next owner in, hopefully, the same good condition,” Savidge said.
Lockard views his responsibility through a similar, if slightly different, lens. “Maybe I am a steward, but I don’t want to be made into a conservator simply because I wanted a house to live in,” he said. “It’s not a museum—it’s a home, and I’m going to keep it as a home.” Despite his protestations, Lockard has already done plenty of work on the house. He’s repaired leaks, updated kitchen drawers and cabinets, and has buckets of paint in the facade’s color lining a wall in the basement. He might bristle at the word “preservationist,” but he bought the house, in part, to honor Venturi’s vision. “All houses have to have a life,” says Emily Cooperman, an architectural historian who grew up near the Vanna Venturi House. “It’s increasingly obvious that house museums are not a successful model, generally speaking. The most effective way to preserve a house is to use it.”
Upstairs in his bedroom, after the last of the tourists had left, Lockard ran his finger over a windowsill. “This is where Bob’s architectural lamp was clamped,” he said, touching a divet in the painted wood. “Until about a month ago, I had a similar lamp there as a sort of homage to Bob, but it was too bright.” He eventually swapped it out for a softer light.
Lockard’s approach is rooted in a nonchalant reverence that makes it possible to appreciate the home’s history without it getting in the way of how he chooses to live. He’s read Learning from Las Vegas and keeps a copy of Complexity and Contradiction on his coffee table. (He’s made it part of the way through; “Reading it in one go would be like eating chocolate cake for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” he said.) Much of what Lockard knows about the house comes from the people who visit, who’ve traveled from around the world to see the house in person. “This is a dream to visit this house,” a preservationist from Indiana said during the tour, before adding that the roof could use a coat of paint. “It’s true,” Lockard admitted.
And then some of what Lockard knows came from Venturi himself, who, before he died, famously took Sunday drives over to the house to chat with Lockard and admire his handiwork from half a century ago. Lockard recalls that Venturi sat in the front passenger seat next to his driver with Scott Brown in the back. The car would roll up to the long driveway and idle halfway to the house. Lockard would walk outside and tell Bob a joke. “And then he always said the same thing to me every time,” he said. “‘Thank you very much for looking after Mother’s House.’”
Liz Stinson is a contributing writer at Curbed.