Show Boat

New York

Left: Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi. Right: The Lieb House.

TWO MONTHS AGO, when architect Frederic Schwartz learned that the Lieb House—one of Pritzker Prize–winning architect Robert Venturi’s earliest buildings and an icon of postmodernism—was slated for demolition by developers, his reflexive response took the form of a question: “How much?” Too much for him alone, it turned out. But with the help of Venturi’s son, Jim, he tracked down a couple of Venturi aficionados who eagerly accepted an unusual proposal: The house would be lifted off its original beachfront lot in Barnegat Light, New Jersey, where it had stood for exactly forty years, and floated by barge up to the new owner’s property in Glen Cove on the North Shore of Long Island. There it would sit beside the buyer’s other prize architectural possession: another Venturi house, this one from 1987.

Last Thursday night, three generations of house owners gathered together amid Lieb House blueprints hung from the narrow confines of Steven Holl’s Storefront for Art and Architecture (where the decision to mount an exhibition on the house had been made “just ten days ago,” according to Storefront director Joseph Grima). The homeowners reminisced about their days living in Barnegat Light and showered encomiums on Denise Scott Brown (Venturi’s wife and partner in the firm) and Venturi himself who, at eighty-three, was making a rare public appearance. Two of the owners fell in love with Venturi’s work only after they had purchased homes by the architect. “I had no idea it was a Venturi house,” recalled Sheila Ellman of the Barnegat Light property. “All these people came knocking on the door to see it. They said, ‘You didn’t know what this was?’” “Robert Venturi?” she remembered exclaiming. “I love him!” Dermatologist Debra Sarnoff and her plastic-surgeon husband, Robert Gotkin, the Lieb House’s newest owners, had never heard of the Venturis when they purchased their “boat-shaped” home in Glen Cove. They’ve since become collectors of the architect’s home furnishings. While Sarnoff refused to divulge just how many first editions of Learning from Las Vegas she now owns, she wasn’t shy about showcasing her newly acquired Venturi-speak, describing Lieb House as “a modest little shack—it doesn’t even look like a ‘decorated shed.’” Sarnoff wasn’t the only one riffing on the Venturi canon. When the younger Venturi presented the senior architect with his plan to move Lieb House into an unfamiliar context, Venturi invoked his own manifesto from 1966: “Let’s do it; I’m all for ‘complexity and contradiction.’”

Early the next morning, everyone convened again, this time at the South Street Seaport, to watch the house coast up the East River en route to its destination. Gotkin and Sarnoff, impeccably dressed at 7 AM, courted the news cameras as the bleary-eyed crowd of architects and buffs nursed coffees and awaited the signal that the barge was near. When word came, everyone rushed outside and into the particularly cold March air, straining to find the house through scopes and digital cameras. “I’m just going to trust my own eyes,” asserted Scott Brown, dismissing a coin-operated telescope installed at the pier’s edge. “Look at the nine,” Venturi quietly exclaimed when the house, and its Pop-art-inspired, five-foot-high number 9, came into view. The crowd grew hushed. While there was something absurd about the juxtaposition of the little house bobbing up and down beside the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan, Scott Brown found pedagogical value in the spectacle. “How does a little thing like that trump its whole environment?” she asked. “It’s a wonderful lesson in scale.” As the migrant building sped by and the crowd hustled from one end of the pier to the other to watch the house and its tugboat disappear under the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges, the new owners, who had planned a party to celebrate its arrival at Glen Cove, were already checking their watches. “It went by in a flash,” observed Gotkin. “Now we have to rush home to receive it!”

Michael Wang