Exploring Buildings by Louis I. Kahn in the Historic American Buildings Survey

The following is a guest post by Ryan Brubacher, Reference Librarian, Prints & Photographs Division.

Louis Kahn turning to face the camera while standing at railing, probably of a balcony, buildings in the background.

Louis Kahn, Architect. Photo by Phillip Harrington for LOOK Magazine, 1966. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/lbb5316/

One of my most favorite rabbit holes to find myself in as a librarian is the deep and wonderful collection of the combined Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), and Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS), collectively referred to as “HABS/HAER/HALS,” or “HHH.” A vast repository of information on historic American structures and landscapes, the HHH photographs, measured drawings, and historical reports have thousands of little burrows to lose yourself in as you wind your way through woodwork details, bridge cable systems, and ancient trees that were witness to important events. Recently, I found myself on such a rabbit-hole journey researching the architect Louis Kahn.

Louis I. Kahn was born in 1901, in what is now Estonia, and his family emigrated to the U.S. in 1906. He earned an architecture degree at the University of Pennsylvania – School of Fine Arts studying under Paul Philippe Cret. After graduating he worked as a draftsman in offices including Cret’s, then on collaborative projects leading up to his formal partnership with Oscar Stonorov, which lasted from 1942-1947, afterwards working on his own. He served as a faculty member at several institutions but primarily at Yale and University of Pennsylvania.

The Stonorov Kahn partnership designed simple dormitory structures for a Jewish Union-Sponsored Children’s Camp – Camp Hofnung, in 1947. This is the earliest HABS survey of a building designed by Kahn.

One-story building in background, field in foreground.

Camp Hofnung, Dormitory No. 1, Old Easton Road at Tohickon Creek, Pipersville, Bucks County, PA. Photo by Jack Boucher taken in 1990 of building designed by Louis I. Kahn. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.pa3501/photos.360396p from HABS Survey PA-6207-A

Facade of white building with many windows.

Pine Ford Acres Community Building, Middletown, Pennsylvania. Rear facade III. Photo by Gottscho-Scheisner, Inc. 1945. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/gsc.5a12185

The design for the camp dormitories on the left (designed just at the time Kahn’s professional partnership with Oskar Stonorov was coming to its end) is very basic, especially in comparison to the Pine Ford Acres Complex on the right (also built in the 1940s), designed slightly earlier by Kahn with George Howe, photographs of which show up in the Library’s Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., collection. In both of these early works we see a clean geometric design, without much adornment and an emphasis on windows as a crucial element of the design.

Interior showing windows on intersecting walls.

Camp Hofnung, Dormitory No. 1, Old Easton Road at Tohickon Creek, Pipersville, Bucks County, PA. Photo by Jack Boucher taken in 1990 of building designed by Louis I. Kahn. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.pa3501/photos.360396p from HABS Survey PA-6207-A

By the 1960s Kahn was more of a household name, becoming known for designing large expansive complexes. Though he is more famous for the larger works, he also made a small number of residences in Pennsylvania. The Margaret Esherick House in Philadelphia is exemplary of the style that many associate with Kahn, and is the second survey of Kahn’s work in the HABS collection. The HABS photos capture the way Kahn seemed to design with three primary materials: concrete, wood and sky (windows reflecting it or framing it as though the sky itself had a materiality to be moved around like a building block).

Exterior of light colored building with horizontal and vertical windows

Perspective view, north elevation, looking east. Margaret Esherick House, 204 Sunrise Lane, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA. Photo by James W. Rosenthal, 2009, photographed by P&P staff 2021. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/pa4101.photos.2/ from HABS Survey PA-6775

The photo below exposes how the inhabitant of the house had a role in playing with these blocks, as many of the windows employed massive shutters that could be opened and closed to whatever configuration was desired.

Interior showing windows with large shutters.

Living room, looking southeast towards the back of the house. Margaret Esherick House… Photo by James W. Rosenthal, 2009, photographed by P&P staff 2021. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/pa4101.photos.8/ from HABS Survey PA-6775

This photo and another view of the interior below, also illustrate Kahn’s principle, held by other modern architects as well, of not hiding structural elements.  The photos are especially useful in helping you view a space as it was designed, without the adornment you would see in a staged photo shoot.

Interior showing overhang, windows, and ladder-like windows at the far end of the room.

Living room, looking northwest towards the front of the house…. Margaret Esherick House… Photo by James W. Rosenthal, 2009, photographed by P&P staff 2021. //www.loc.gov/pictures/item/pa4101.photos.9/ from HABS Survey PA-6775

Though not all HABS surveys come with measured drawings, in many ways they are the icing on the cake for the collection. While HABS measured drawings are not the original plans or even the as-built plans, since structures are sometimes documented after decades of alterations and additions, they are a very effective way of explaining the nature of space, and organization of elements in a designed work. They are also free to download in the HABS/HAER/HALS Collection. You don’t need to visit a special library, or even Washington, D.C., to see accurate, scaled drawings that describe some of the most famous buildings in America.

Measured drawing with text describing the structure.

Title sheet and floor plans – Margaret Esherick House, 204 Sunrise Lane, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA. Drawing by MaryEllen Strain Wikoff, 2009. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.pa4101/sheet.00001a from HABS Survey PA-6775

Detail of drawing showing transverse section DD with text about the daybed-bathtub

Sections – Margaret Esherick House… (Detail of sheet). Drawing by MaryEllen Strain Wikoff, 2009. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.pa4101/sheet.00003a from HABS Survey PA-6775

Drawings can require a little more work on the part of the viewer, but bring rewards with that work. The drawings show, among other things, how Kahn planned windows across an entire elevation, not just room by room, and all of the details and workings of the custom doors, windows, and shutters. They also reveal the semi-secret sliding day bed that is installed above the bathtub.

Page of report on Esherick house listing location, owner, etc.

Margaret Esherick House, 204 Sunrise Lane, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA. Data pages, p. 2. //tile.loc.gov/storage-services/master/pnp/habshaer/pa/pa4100/pa4101/data/pa4101data.pdf

In addition to the photos and drawings, surveys in the collection often come with historical reports, which are one of the most helpful finds in our collections for a building researcher. They can include information about former owners, builders, and architects, timelines of construction and additions, construction materials, regional building history, and the significance of the structure in context. Bibliographies and source lists also point you to original drawings, historical materials, and published sources for more information on the topic. In reading the data pages for the Esherick house, I was drawn into the discussion of the landscape planner, and am ready to jump down another rabbit hole looking for what I can find related to Frederick Peck in the rest of the Prints & Photographs Division.

On a closing note, it is worthwhile to mention that a modernist architecture adventure is now a strong pull in the collection that was once a hallmark collection for Victorian and Colonial period architecture. When HABS started, American Modernism was very young, but as we come closer to the 100 year anniversary of HABS these structures are now entering the corpus. Accordingly, the collection now includes and will grow the number of surveys for buildings by many of modern architecture’s biggest names –  Mies van der Rohe, Richard Neutra, Paul Rudolph, Charles and Ray Eames, and Louis Kahn among many others. Plenty to lose yourself in!

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3 Comments

  1. Monica Lewis
    May 19, 2021 at 1:27 pm

    Thank you for this rabbit hole and the creative visions it unearths! I spent two years in a Khan building and loved the spaces and materials. There are many photographs on the internet of two of Kahn’s buildings from the mid 60s: the Erdman dorm at Bryn Mawr College and the the Richards Medical Research Building at the University of Pennsylvania.

  2. Dottie Ragouzis
    May 19, 2021 at 2:38 pm

    Thanks Ryan. Most interesting. Didn’t even know he had done private residences. Fun to see and read about. D. Ragouzis

  3. Anelle
    June 6, 2021 at 12:15 pm

    Thank you for a delightful journey, one to take solo and with a companion too. Please include the women of architecture in subsequent explorations:

    https://pioneeringwomen.bwaf.org

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