A Preservation Saga with a Happy Ending

Reports from the Field by • 12/22

Event: Saving Lieb House (2009): Premiere
Location: NYU Tisch School of the Arts, 12.11.09
Speakers: James Venturi — Director, Light from Light Films
Organizers: Light from Light Films; NYU Tisch School of the Arts


The Lieb House sailing past the Brooklyn Navy Yards.

Kristen Richards

Lieb House, designed by Robert Venturi, FAIA, and Denise Scott Brown and built in 1969, nearly came to a bad end last winter. Selling the land beneath the fabled “little house with big scale” became a necessity for Sheila and Leroy Ellman, a couple who had owned it and protected it for three decades but faced a medical-expense burden; the new buyer, developer Michael Ziman, wanted only the land, planning to build a larger rental property. Ziman did not relish the prospect of demolishing an icon, but his business interests did not include the beach house with the unmistakable round window, tapering staircase, top-floor family room, and supergraphic numeral 9. He had also taken on commitments requiring a tight construction timetable. To those who knew its history and appreciated its quirks, however, the building that Frederic Schwartz, FAIA, calls “the first Pop house” deserved whatever efforts might be needed to stave off the wrecking ball.

Luckily for the house and its architects, their son Jim Venturi joined with longtime friend and associate Schwartz in assembling and coordinating an inspired group of rescuers to arrange for its relocation — first to a safe parking lot nearby in Barnegat Light, NJ, then, after six weeks, northward by barge along the Jersey shore, up the East River, and into Long Island Sound toward Glen Cove, Long Island. There, thanks to the generosity of new owners Drs. Deborah Sarnoff and Robert Gotkin, it joined another Venturi Scott Brown Associates work, the larger Kalpakjian House, as a waterfront guest residence. Its voyage, familiar to readers of this and other publications (see “Lieb House Sets Sail for New Horizons,” e-Oculus, 03.10.09), is now celebrated in a 25-minute documentary directed by Jim Venturi and John Halpern, assisted by writer/producer Nora McDevitt, cameramen Mead Hunt and Todd Sheridan (with a 13-camera crew on moving day), editors Angelo Corrao and Russell Greene, and a host of post-production collaborators. Saving Lieb House tells this happy story.

The house itself is the real star of the film, but quite a few heroes make an appearance and/or made their presence felt behind the scenes. Jim Venturi took the advice of Nathaniel Kahn, director of another filial film, the Louis Kahn biopic My Architect (2003), to override his original inclination and include himself on camera; he comes across as humble, witty, and extraordinarily dedicated. Schwartz invested enormous energy in the project, handling arrangements at the Glen Cove end in parallel with Venturi’s efforts at Barnegat, and offering scene-stealing, colorfully cantankerous commentary throughout the process. Drs. Sarnoff and Gotkin funded the entire move, including rush-job approvals at both ends and special interventions by utility firms. Bit players like a Verizon representative, who promised Venturi his company would not be the reason the project failed, can also share some credit.

One helpful factor was the refreshing absence of obstructionists. Jim Venturi, speaking last winter in the midst of the planning, hastened to credit Barnegat mayor Kirk Larson and landowner Ziman for supporting the move. Once the destination site was identified and the plan in place, Glen Cove mayor Ralph Suozzi and other local and state officials were comparably helpful. At any of hundreds of moments, a single administrative foul-up, overlooked detail, or objection forcing a lengthy environmental review might have derailed the whole endeavor — but, as Venturi described, “we managed in record time by disposing of the concept of dependencies. In any plan, you have a Gantt chart with dependencies: you do this before you do that, because it’s a prerequisite. But another way to do it is just to do everything, assuming that the prerequisites will be met…. Things that would [ordinarily] take months have taken a day.” Even the weather was cooperative: a winter storm might have delayed local utilities’ work ensuring the house’s safe passage under power and phone lines, but the critical days, for both the initial move off its pilings and the final move from storage site to barge to Glen Cove, were clear and bright.

“People seemed to get that they were saving something,” said Venturi after the screening. “There’s something about this house that is moving to people who have no relation to it…. People really cheered this thing on.” Saving Lieb House began as footage for the forthcoming feature Learning from Bob and Denise but gradually assumed its own narrative shape, so that Venturi and colleagues spun it off as a separate film. The cheering is likely to continue when the two films are eventually screened together — and it ought to grow even louder if the Lieb House experience, provided luck and dedication hold out, inspires similar efforts the next time a unique building is threatened.

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