Nestled at 204 Sunrise Lane in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, the Margaret Esherick House is a modernist house designed by American architect Louis Kahn. Completed in 1961, the house is a paradigm of Kahn’s prowess in integrating space, light, and function. Its significance has been recognized through numerous awards, including the Landmark Building Award in 1992 by the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The house was further immortalized in 2023, gaining a listing on the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior.
The Esherick House Technical Information
- Architects1: Louis Kahn
- Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
- Topics: American Houses
- Area: 230 m2 | 2500 ft2
- Project Year: 1959-1961
- Photographs: © Doctor Casino, © Jeffrey Totaro, © Jon Reksten, © Arnout Fonck
A room is not a room without natural light.– Louis Kahn2-3
The Esherick House Photographs
The Genesis and the Design Elements
Commissioned by Chestnut Hill bookstore owner Margaret Esherick, the house was not merely an architectural project but a family affair. Margaret’s uncle, Wharton Esherick, a nationally recognized craftsman and artist, was responsible for designing the home’s iconic kitchen. Comprised of wood and copper, the kitchen remains an exemplar of craftsmanship, marrying utility with aesthetics.
Kahn was a master of space and often divided his buildings into ‘served’ and ‘servant’ spaces. The Esherick house elegantly embodies this philosophy. The dwelling is organized into four alternating served and servant spaces, each extending the full width of the house from front to back. The most striking served space is the two-story living room, situated to the right of the front door.
A built-in bookcase occupies its front wall, accentuating Margaret Esherick’s profession as a bookseller. In contrast, the adjacent servant space serves as a thin communication strip containing the house’s stairway, front and back doors, and balconies—all set in alcoves. The house offers a unique fluidity of space, providing an uninterrupted experience from the foyer and dining room on the ground floor to the bedroom on the upper floor.
What sets the Esherick House apart is its ingenious use of light and windows. Kahn’s design employs different window configurations on each side of the house. The front of the house features a T-shaped two-story window design providing both privacy and openness, complemented by shutters for ventilation. The rear of the house, facing a garden adjacent to a public park, has large single-pane windows arranged in pairs. These windows do not open but are accompanied by two-story stacks of shutters, which can be manipulated in various combinations, essentially blurring the boundaries between indoors and outdoors.
The Unbuilt Extension, Renovations, and Legacy
In 1962-1964, Kahn designed an extension for a prospective owner, Mrs. C. Parker. However, she never purchased the house, and the addition was never built. The unbuilt design aimed to blend seamlessly with the existing structure, proposing a significant extension to the left of the front door. The hypothetical enlargement captures the dynamism of the original concept, underlining its adaptability and potential for future growth.
In 2016, the house underwent a sensitive renovation spearheaded by K YODER Design. The renovation aimed to preserve the house’s essential character while enhancing its functionality. Modern appliances were added in an adjunctive kitchen space, and the insulating ability of the windows was improved—all without compromising the home’s visual and architectural integrity.
The Esherick House is more than an architectural masterpiece; it’s a testament to the relationships and shared ethos of the Esherick and Kahn families. Kahn’s friendship with Wharton Esherick was not an isolated connection; Margaret’s brother, Joseph Esherick, even took over Kahn’s schematic design for the Graduate Theological Union Library after Kahn’s death. Furthermore, the house shares the neighborhood with the Vanna Venturi House, another iconic structure designed by Robert Venturi. The Venturi and Kahn link further highlights the concentration of architectural greatness in this small part of Philadelphia.
Through its spatial innovations, unique window configurations, and deeply rooted family connections, the Esherick House continues to captivate architects, scholars, and lovers of design, serving as an enduring symbol of mid-century modern architecture at its finest.
The Esherick House Plans
The Esherick House Image Gallery
About Louis Kahn
Louis Kahn was a prominent American architect, born in 1901 in what is now Estonia, and later emigrated to the United States. Known for his monumental and iconic structures that often employed the use of natural light and raw materials, Kahn left an indelible mark on 20th-century architecture. He gained critical acclaim for several public buildings, including the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California; the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; and the National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh. A teacher at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania, Kahn’s influence extended beyond his built work into architectural theory and education. He passed away in 1974, but his legacy lives on through his timeless designs and philosophic approach to architecture.
Notes & Additional Credits
- Engineer: Keast & Hood Co.
- The quote is not specifically about the Margaret Esherick House, but it encapsulates Kahn’s general philosophy on the importance of natural light in residential spaces, a principle evident in the design of the Esherick House itself.
- GA 76 – Louis I Kahn Esherick House and Fisher House by Yukio Futagawa