February 2009 –
by Fred B. Adelson, Ph.D.
Professor, Art Department, Rowan University
As some may know, New Jersey is regrettably loosing the Lieb House by Venturi and Rauch. During the 1960s, this home on Long Beach Island and the Vanna Venturi House (Chestnut Hill, PA) were Robert Venturi’s only two residential commissions to go beyond the proposal stage. Indeed, the two-story vacation home at the Jersey shore is an important and conceptually provocative work from these formative years.
In 1967 Nathaniel and Judith Lieb commissioned Venturi to design a beach house on newly reclaimed land in Barnegat Light. Completed in 1969, the modestly-sized residence falls midway between his seminal publications, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966) and Learning from Las Vegas (1972), and contributed to the young architect’s emergent career. With obvious pride yet irreverent humor, Venturi, in Progressive Architecture (1970), described the home as “a bold little ugly banal box.” In mid-August during her second summer in the house, Mrs. Lieb may have upset some of her neighbors when she remarked in The New York Times: “I guess they thought it was so much uglier than theirs—but then probably they don’t consider their own houses ugly. . . . It’s a real dumb house, just a box, but it’s gorgeous.”
On January 31, 2009, the Lieb House was sold by Leroy and Sheila Ellman, the fourth and longest resident owners, to a developer with more interest in the substantial lot than the Venturi landmark. The sellers, who took care to maintain the essence of the original design, were rightfully concerned that the 1,835 square-foot home would be razed and contacted Venturi Scott Brown and Associates. Working to beat the settlement timetable and the developer’s bulldozer, arrangements were made to move the house from its site. James Venturi, a filmmaker and son of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, spearheaded the relocation plans while working on a documentary about his parents’ career. The Lieb House is currently sitting at a bayside dock only a few streets from its original site, awaiting transport by barge for the 20-hour ride to Glen Cove, NY. When the move is completed (details are still pending at the time of publication), it will serve as a guest house companion of the Kalpakjian House, another Venturi residence dating from 1983-86. At its new address, the Lieb House will again enjoy a water view albeit Long Island Sound.
In a recent telephone conversation, Mrs. Lieb, who lived in the house for only 5 years before the family sold it in 1974, recalled: “The design was stripped down by Bob, who made the artistic decisions.” This also helped to keep costs low; the compact house was built for just under $30,000 not including the 12% architectural fee (Letter from John Rauch to Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel Lieb dated May 22, 1969, VSB Box 225.II. A. 10.24. The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania by the gift of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown [hereafter cited as Venturi Scott Brown Collection]) and the land, which cost $9,000 (Letter from John Rauch to Mid-City Federal Savings, April 29, 1968,VSB Box 225. II. A. 1023. The Venturi Scott Brown Collection). Though the building appears to be a minimalist cube, its floor plan approaches a trapezoid resulting from the diagonal wall on the east side.
With all four bedrooms and two baths on the first floor, the public spaces are upstairs. The second floor is one large open area that anticipates the ubiquitous great room of today’s suburban houses. As an honest acceptance of casual shore living, visitors must go through the kitchen to reach the dining area and living room with their sliding glass doors providing access to the rooftop deck and ocean views.
The use of asbestos shingles to clad the exterior is a deliberate nod to vernacular building. The house was originally two tones—a dark gray for the first floor to reinforce a solid base and a white upper story—recalling automobiles of the late 1950s. A witty form of façade decoration is the supergraphic “9” to identify the address like commercial signage. Moreover, the 24-foot wide stoop (an ironic take on the fronts of Philadelphia row houses not the Victorian porches of shore cottages) defines the home’s full front but narrows as it leads toward the asymmetrically-positioned and recessed entrance door. Inside, the staircase continues on the right to the second floor public spaces and may be the inspiration for the grand stairway in Venturi’s Seattle Art Museum (1991).
To provide light for the staircase, a two-story semi-circular window dominates the west side and becomes a prominent design feature in contrast to the modernist horizontal strip windows on the other walls around the house. Like a Mannerist element, it is intentionally over scaled for such a small home. Venturi, in Learning from Las Vegas, referred to this round window as looking like “a 1930s radio loudspeaker;” it was also called a “rose window” (Memo from John Rauch to Joseph Inman, March 20, 1968, VSB Box 225. II A 1023. The Venturi Scott Brown Collection). Many have even described it as a sailboat. The all-white interiors were deliberately left plain and unadorned, because Mrs. Lieb wanted “people to be the decoration.” A pragmatic and unpretentious response to beach life was the placement of the washer and dryer in the entry foyer.
Soon after moving into the house, Mrs. Lieb wrote Mr. Rauch: “We are having a few problems here like it rains harder inside the house than outside—all the windows leak and the paint’s coming off the walls. Besides all that the house is devine [sic] and we adore it.” (Undated letter from Judy Lieb to John Rauch, VSB Box 225. II. A. 10.25. The Venturi Scott Brown Collection). Concerns about the windows plagued the project; the relationship between architect and general contractor became rather contentious. The builder angrily wrote the firm: “I contracted to build a vacation house not a wrist watch nor a piece of precision machinery nor even a monumental work of art.” (Letter from William F. Scanlan to Venturi and Rauch, September 30, 1968, VSB Box 225. II. A. 10.23. The Venturi Scott Brown Collection).
Years ago, Venturi, in a letter to this author, dated August 1, 1977, very clearly stated that the general contractor “did not have the skill or interest often to follow the design as spelled out in the drawings,” and characterized his experience with the builder as “unfortunate.” This often overlooked early commission is regaining the esteem it has always deserved. Until early this February, the Lieb House did not even appear on the project timeline of the firm’s website. Like a banished child, it has now come back to the family. Though a substantial architectural loss for New Jersey, the small design gem looks like it will be saved. At this moment the house is waiting for its ship to come in.