A Louis I. Kahn–designed residence in Pennsylvania failed to leave the auction block last weekend, unlike other landmark Modernist houses quickly scooped up by high bidders in recent years. The Chicago-based auction house, Wright, which specializes in 20th-century art and design, had hoped to sell Kahn’s Margaret Esherick House on Sunday for $2 million to $3 million, but could not find a buyer. “I’m a bit mystified,” says auctioneer Richard Wright. “I’m a big believer in the house and its importance. That’s why I got involved in the first place.”

Louis Kahn-Designed House
Louis Kahn-Designed House
Photo © Ezra Stoller/Esto (top);  Todd Eberle (above)

Wright’s auction of the 2,500-square-foot dwelling—located on a half-acre lot in the affluent Philadelphia suburb, Chestnut Hill—took place less than a week after Christie’s $16.8 million sale of Richard Neutra’s Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, California. Wright posits that the Esherick House’s location could explain the differing results. Plus, the Neutra masterpiece, at 3,200 square feet, is larger and sits on a desert lot nearly triple in size.

Kahn designed the Esherick House, completed in 1961, for local bookstore owner Margaret Esherick. The one-bedroom dwelling is a monumental composition of two rectilinear volumes finished in beige concrete and Apitong, a Malaysian hardwood. Exterior features include a chimney offset from the facade, asymmetrically placed keyhole windows along the front elevation, and a rear double-height wall of wood and glass. Appropriately, the living room is lined with built-in bookcases that nearly reach the ceiling. The interior also features a fireplace in a bathroom, and a custom kitchen designed by Esherick’s uncle, Philadelphia-based sculptor Wharton Esherick. In 1992, the house received a Landmark Building Award from the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects. 

The current homeowners, an older couple, have lived there for 27 years and plan to move for health reasons. Excellent caretakers of the property, they hoped to sell the house to an equally committed steward. The property received special promotional treatment: in addition to creating a dedicated Web site, the auction house printed a clothbound catalog, which includes images by the architectural photographer Todd Eberle and an essay by Julie V. Iovine, executive editor of The Architect’s Newspaper. “I feel we’ve done the best we can do,” Wright says, who adds that he has “a window of time in the post-auction environment to find a buyer” before the property is picked up by a real estate broker. He does not think the house faces the threat of demolition.

Wright has sold two other famous Modernist houses. It auctioned the Pierre Koenig–designed Case Study House No. 21 in December 2006 for $3.185 million, as well as Marcel Breuer’s eccentric Wolfson House in October 2007 for $1.16 million.