City rules: No guesthouse for iconic Vanna Venturi House

by Tom Beck
Posted 3/16/23

The city's Zoning Board of Adjustment denied a variance that would allow the owner of the historic Vanna Venturi House to build an accessory dwelling unit on the property. 

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City rules: No guesthouse for iconic Vanna Venturi House


Despite approvals from the Chestnut Hill Community Association, the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, Councilmember Cindy Bass, the Philadelphia City Planning Commission and even the Philadelphia Historical Commission, the City of Philadelphia’s Zoning Board of Adjustment on March 1 denied a variance that would allow the owner of the historic Vanna Venturi House, one of Chestnut Hill’s most iconic modern buildings, to build an accessory dwelling unit on the property. 

The variance was opposed by neighbors Joan Lau and her wife Brook, who live next door. In the public hearing, Lau said the unit would prevent her family from enjoying “the same level of peace and quiet that we have now.” 

Owner David Lockard, who said he sees himself as a steward of Venturi’s “genius,” sought the variance in order to create more space for his family without having to build an addition onto the house itself – a move that he and most architects would consider blasphemous.

“Why should I have the chutzpah to mess with Venturi’s design?” Lockhard said.

Lockard’s attorney, Carl Primavera, said he was “surprised” and “disappointed” by the decision.

“We had what I would call substantial support…so we thought that our case was compelling,” Primavera said. “We did have a near neighbor who was opposed but that’s not unusual.”

Primavera said he expects his client will appeal the ruling, although he has not yet decided. 

An “appeal gives us a chance to find out why the ZBA ruled how they did, and maybe there’s something we can do to address their objection and resolve it,” Primavera said. 

The Vanna Venturi House was added to Philadelphia’s Register of Historic Places in 2016. For that reason, it’s nearly impossible to add an addition. An accessory dwelling unit (ADU) is Lockard’s only option for adding more space.

“The reason we're proposing [this unit] is because it's really undesirable to add on to the Vanna Venturi House,” said the project’s architect, Donna Lisle in a December 2021 meeting. “It's an iconic house, and like other famous iconic don't add onto it.

The proposed two-bedroom unit was designed to house visiting family members, and also a grand piano, since Lockhard’s longtime companion, Jing Ling-Tam, is a pianist who gives lessons.

The Laus’ attorney, Paul Boni, argued that Lockard’s desire for more space shouldn’t override the city’s ban on such units. 

“We don't fault the applicant for wanting more space for his many family members to stay when they visit,” Boni said, but “the use is not allowed in Philadelphia. It's not listed in the code.”

Accessory dwelling units that aren’t proposed as part of an already existing structure are prohibited everywhere in the city by the Philadelphia zoning code, so the only way to build one is by acquiring a variance.

Had it been approved, the 800-square-foot accessory dwelling unit would have been placed 36 feet from the home on the north corner of the property, 12 feet from the property line Lockard shares with the Laus. 

The Laus said they don't want to see it from their rear deck. 

“We spend a lot of time on our rear deck enjoying that peace and quiet, and when we're there we see a lot of greenery and we hear almost nothing,” they said at the hearing. “It's into this setting that Mr. Lockard wants to build a brand new house and have numerous members of his extended family stay there at various times of the year.”

According to Lockard, the distance between the proposed ADU and the Laus rear deck would have been approximately 97 feet.

A home, and a work of art

The building, designed in the late 1950s by Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi for his mother, Vanna Venturi, is the first example of Venturi’s break from the modernist movement and is considered by many to be the first example of post-modernist design.

Lockard, who has been painstakingly restoring the 1,875-square-foot house since he bought it in 2016, said he intends to have the home painted this spring, and is working with a color consultant in order to remain consistent with Venturi’s intention. 

The house has been painted different colors over the years, including olive green and its current shade of light blue.

“I have tremendous respect for the house. It’s always fun to look around and see these whimsical quirky things that he did,” Lockard said.

Living in the house reveals many of those quirks, Lockard said. The fireplace is more decorative than functional, and the tin roof makes living in the second story studio unreasonably hot in the summer. Lockard’s favorite idiosyncrasy? The second story steps that lead to nowhere but a window.

Lockard said he put pictures of his family on the steps to discourage people from walking up them. 

“I didn’t want anybody attempting to climb it because there’s no banister on the side you’d fall on,” he said. “You can’t sit up there. It’s great, maybe for a cat.”

Larry McEwan, co-chair of the Chestnut Hill Community Association’s Development Review Committee, told the Local that it was “unfortunate” that the ADU wasn’t approved.

“An ADU on that property seems like a very productive and sensible idea,” McEwan said, adding that he thinks it “unfortunate” that Lockhard and the Laus did not “look for ways to really hear each other and work toward a solution”

“Maybe,” he added, “given different sensibilities put to use by the parties in the future, it can.”