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Viva Vanna

Venturi's illustration of the Vanna Venturi House in the master bedroom.

Amid the grand chateaux and stately villas of Chestnut Hill rests the unassuming Vanna Venturi House.  On an early spring afternoon, two visitors cautiously crept past melting mounds of snow to have a look. It’s a sight all too familiar to the current owner Agatha Hughes, whose parents purchased the house from Robert Venturi in 1973. Interlopers are as much a part of the landscape as the arc of crabapple trees bordering one side of the property.

Hughes’ father was a historian of modern technology at the University of Pennsylvania, and her mother was an editor and ceramicist. Together the couple wrote Lewis Mumford: Public Intellectual. The family’s decorating taste leaned toward cozy academic clutter. And so it has remained. In the bedroom, her father’s box set of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities still sits on the bedside table, while in the living room an old oil portrait of a family ancestor stares down his nose at a Lebbeus Woods drawing and a three-panel color illustration by Rem Koolhaas. But the primary work of art remains the house itself, and careful maintenance is an ongoing mission. Hughes is currently on the hunt for the small metal clasps that fasten the drawstrings on the canvas shades. For every need, like replacing the large plate glass window at the center of the portico, she calls Venturi.

Having the architect’s advice has its benefits and its drawbacks. When Venturi told Hughes that the house was beginning to show its age and advised a new paint color, she had five large swatches painted onto the front. The architect picked a color and the painters got to work. With the paint purchased and the facade partly done, the architect sped up the driveway to say it was all wrong and he had another idea. Venturi had spent a considerable amount of time determining the color of a lentil, and the gray with a tinge of green took on a cooler hue.

Hughes says that the architect rarely looks at the house without having minor regrets about technical issues. Such perfectionism prompted her to invite Venturi and his wife Denise Scott Brown to enjoy the house with a bit more distance. It was five o’clock on a summer evening, and she set up a little café on the front drive and poured glasses of wine. Soon Venturi began to reminisce about the years he once lived there. “And after a while,” Hughes recalled, “he began to say ‘It’s all right, maybe it’s not so bad.’”

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