Architects: Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown
Year of completion: 1992
Location: Pittsburgh, MA, USA
Threatened with demolition
Latest update 21 November 2019
Betty and Irving Abrams commissioned Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi to build their dream retirement home on Woodland Road in the affluent Pittsburgh neighbourhood Squirrel Hill in 1979, after acquiring the back end of a subdivided parcel of land. As a younger woman, Betty Abrams had visited another Squirrel Hill house, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer’s Frank House (1942) and been inspired to one day build her own modern home with open floor plan. Completed in 1982, the resulting house is a highly personal and eccentric postmodern expression of the Abrams’ desires and needs.
Money acquired from the Abrams’ land sale helped Frank A. Giovannitti finance the building of a Richard Meier-designed house on the remaining parcel of land in 1983. Meier and Venturi are/were leading post-modern architects, which lends a certain compatibility to the two houses in terms of style and status. The Abrams house on its own does of course have unique design features, in no small part to because of the collaborative input of Betty Abrams. However, what is truly interesting is the larger surrounding situation on Woodland Road which includes not only the Meier structure, but also the Frank House and an A. James Speyer-designed house from 1953. Essentially there is a modern pair of houses on one end and as a counterpoint, a post-modern pair on the other. That Robert Venturi was an outspoken critic of Modernism adds a richness to the history of the place as a whole. The loss of any of the four structures would alter that narrative.
The grey house with multi-hued radiating green stripes features an arched roofline that breaks midway through its curve and returns to a flat profile, creating an angled clerestory window that lights a dramatic twenty-foot high living space.Rectilinear windows jockey for position among arches and curves. It’s a brainy rumination on sun, landscape, and the adjacent bridge. Venturi and Scott Brown’s work is always provocative, but the old joke is that their most interesting buildings are the ugliest.
The new owners of the Giovannitti House are in the process of extensive restorations. They purchased the Abrams House when it went on the market following Betty Abrams’ death and immediately filed a permit to demolish. Interiors were immediately gutted following the sale, but prior to the nomination for Landmark status. The exterior remains intact and no further demolition can occur until the nomination has been reviewed. A city Landmark designation will nullify the Snyder’s demolition permit, but even then, they are only obligated to maintain the exterior of the structure. Any changes they wish to make would need to be approved by the review commission. Even with Landmark status, the property could still be demolished if someone makes a convincing case that the review commission approves. The Snyders are not willing to preserve the property but have offered to donate it so that it can be disassembled for storage or reconstructed elsewhere. The question now is how to finance the deconstruction and whatever follows.
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown