The Dr. Norman and Dora Fisher House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2014, The Gombach Group.
The Dr. Norman and Dora Fisher House (Fisher-Kahn House) is a nationally significant Modern residence designed by the internationally important architect Louis I. Kahn. Designed from 1960-1964 and constructed from 1964-1967, the house is one of only nine Kahn-designed residences in existence. The house is situated on a narrow sloping site that includes a 1969 Kahn-designed bridge built over Pennypack Creek. The house is used as a private residence and has been meticulously maintained and preserved since its construction and thus maintains historic integrity. The Fisher House is a clear statement on how Kahn's personal style of architecture had evolved by the mid-sixties and is an important example of a Kahn-designed Modern residence. Kahn discovered through his house designs that Modern architecture could be sustained without any of the assumed orthodoxies. Although the exterior form of the Fisher House is far from traditional, the juxtaposed cubic volumes of warm wood and rugged stonework stand as a rejection of the cold glass and steel houses that had become a mainstay of Modernism.
Dr. Norman Fisher and his wife Doris purchased a one-and-a-half acre lot in 1957 with the intention of building a new house for themselves and their two daughters. The land was located three blocks from the Colonial-style house where they lived at the time, which also housed Norman Fisher's medical practice. The couple's interest in contemporary furniture fed their desire to build a more modern home. In 1960, the Fishers interviewed a number of firms, one of which was Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham (GBQC), who told the Fishers that they "had no financial need to do private homes but their mentor, Louis I. Kahn, still did them." With that, they arranged a meeting with Kahn and were won over by his captivating exploration of their needs as well as his "intellect, energy, humor and warmth."
The Fishers signed a contract with Kahn on August 23, 1960, and set their budget at $45,000. With no urgency to move, they met with Kahn approximately every two months, working through four schemes over the course of the next four years. The lengthy duration of the design and construction processes reflected a desire on the part of the architect and clients to attain a high degree of refinement. Their disciplined collaboration is reflected in the taut planning and the superior craftsmanship of the house. The Fishers remarked on Kahn's meticulous design process, "If we were not satisfied with a set of plans, he would not modify them but insisted on starting over."
The design of the Fisher House evolved through four distinct schemes over the course of as many years, from 1960 to 1964, with each plan separating the living and dining functions, the core of domestic life, from the more private functions of the house. The initial plan for the Fisher House was produced in the summer of 1960. The design was a unified, two-story volume bisected by an entry hall that led to a high ceilinged fifteen-by-thirty-foot living room. This plan integrated a doctor's office on the ground floor of the sleeping cube, at a distance from the living cube. The focus of the plan was a stone dining cube which came to be called the "inglenook" containing a seating area, a dining table, and a monumental stone fireplace positioned off of the living cube. This plan was difficult to resolve to the site primarily because the house was set perpendicular to the grade, causing the bedrooms to all face an adjacent house. This scheme, however, established the foundational element of the design, the separation of living and private functions.
Completed in August 1961, the second plan for the Fisher House realigned the elements of the house into a linear arrangement set parallel to the slope of the land. The inglenook now had a paved terrace and alcoves were added that provided areas for study or relaxation in the living room and master bedroom. These elements are the genesis of Kahn's desire to incorporate natural light into the house in a significant way. The private and living areas were brought onto equal levels and the roof levels were unified.
Cost considerations necessitated a third scheme in the winter of 1961-62. The overall square footage was reduced, while the dimensions of the inglenook increased. The inglenook was the core element of the design and in this plan its thick walls and cylindrical interior reflected Kahn's attraction to the archaic. In the spring semester of 1963, Kahn assigned the Fishers' house and site program to his Master Class at the University of Pennsylvania. The problem presented to the students was "to discover from [the] sense of living today what these rooms really are" and students were told that the Fishers "love stone-would like a fireplace." It is not believed that any of the student work influenced the final design for the house, as the final design shows a natural progression from previous plans.
The final plan was presented to the Fishers in December of 1963. The lag between plans was due to Kahn concurrently working on several large-scale projects, including the Salk Institute, Erdman dorms at Bryn Mawr, Fort Wayne Fine Arts Center, Indian Institute of Management, and the Capital Complex in Dhaka. The final plan for the Fishers' house was a configuration of two cubic volumes of slightly different dimensions set atop a stone base. This plan reduced the floor area by thirty-five percent and maintained the newly revised inglenook as the center of family life. The fireplace broke from the inglenook and was now a freestanding semicircular stone mass oriented toward the living room facing a built-in window seat.
The materials chosen for the exterior were tidewater cypress for the two cubic volumes and local "Montgomeryville" stone for the foundation. Kahn had a preference for the dualistic selection of materials and referred to the composition as "a wood house on a stone plinth." The stone chosen was local "Montgomeryville" stone, a greenish-red limestone that had been used in the area since the early eighteenth-century. Kahn's vision for the look of the random rubble foundation specified that the stones were to be laid in units as large as could be handled by two men. The battered surfaces of the stones were preserved, as Kahn requested that the stone "not to be dressed but [laid up] in a rough selected way. [The wall] must be rugged but not grotesque." Kahn's masonry designs were often finished so that evidence revealing the method of production was left intact. The mortar joints are deeply raked, as Kahn wanted to give the appearance of a dry-set wall. Kahn was extraordinarily hands-on in the construction of the monumental foundation and chimney, making at least five inspection trips to ensure that his design was being properly executed. At one point, he demanded that a section of the stone wall be torn down and rebuilt, as he felt the layout had become too irregular.
Bids were taken for a builder in September of 1964 and local builder E. Arol Fesmire signed a contract on October 24, 1964. Residing in nearby Lower Moreland Township, he was a skilled builder, respected by architects for his meticulous detail work and his residential and church construction. Carl Saldutti, a stonemason from Naples, was responsible for the construction of the foundation, basement walls, and chimney. Construction commenced in late 1964 and lasted three years, with the Fisher family moving into the house on June 14, 1967.
In 1994, the Fishers gifted their house, retaining a life estate, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a national non-profit organization dedicated to preserving America's historic resources. The couple wrote that their original hope "was to build a special home for ourselves, not a museum or a monument. Living in a Kahn house you didn't have a choice. Because of that, we have given our home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation with the hope it will be preserved unchanged for future architectural students, architects, and historians to study [and] that others may share in the discoveries that abound here." Norman Fisher died in 2007, and in 2008, Doris Fisher moved out of the house to live closer to her youngest daughter, Nina. The National Trust assumed full ownership of the property in April 2012. The interior and exterior of the house, as well as the shed, Kahn-designed bridge, and surrounding landscape, will be preserved through a preservation and conservation easement, which additionally, will ensure routine public access to all preserved features of the property.
The design of the Fisher House was profoundly radical for its time as it challenged the tenets of traditional residential Modernism. It rejected the philosophy of International Modernism through its renewed emphasis on mass, spatial division grounded by the specifics of space, radical plan form, sense of abstract purity and austerity, and its monumental presence. Despite its radical design, the Fisher House never loses the deep human connection embodied in all of Kahn's great works. The sense of human scale is exhibited not only through the dimensions, but also through the expressive use and detail of traditional materials. The integration of natural light most profoundly makes this human connection. These core ideas are central to the design of the Fisher House and are those for which Kahn has become recognized as significant in the history of modern architecture. The appreciation of the significance of Kahn's buildings has only grown over time, particularly the significance of his house designs.
The Fisher House is the simplest expression of Kahn's resolution of form and design, for here he sacrificed axial order by separating and rotating the two principal volumes. Kahn resolved form and design by responding to classical themes and utilizing vernacular traditions. He approached each project in the same way, as he stated in 1973, "I always start with a square, no matter what the problem is." With the square as the starting point, he would work outwards and incorporate the programmatic needs of the building. Historic precedents provided Kahn with models and patterns for how to best organize space in modern designs, but these served as a means rather than an end. Kahn saw his work more as the discovery of an ideal preexisting "form" as opposed to the invention of something new. He articulated the differences between "form" and "design," stating, "Form is 'what'. Design is 'how'. Form is impersonal. Design belongs to the designer. Design is a circumstantial act ... Form has nothing to do with circumstantial conditions."
His design for the Fisher House stood out from his Modernist contemporaries in that it rejected the typical linear plan and focused on simple geometric forms. He believed that the flexible use of space and removal of most interior walls stripped a house of its purposeful spaces. Kahn believed that "architecture is the thoughtful making of spaces," and this thoughtfulness is clearly seen in his house designs. Kahn recognized the room as the fundamental unit of architecture, explaining, "A plan is a society of rooms. A real plan is one in which rooms have talked to each other." Kahn had a fondness for the partitioning of rooms in Colonial houses, and admired the room separations that made responsive places. His design and layout of the rooms at the Fisher House encouraged human interaction and circulation between the rooms. In a conversation with the Fishers in 1970, Kahn explained, "A house is only good if the tenant who lives in it after the original owner is comfortable ... it's a confirmation ... a house that has a sense of agreement about it. An agreement means a sense of commonness. A sense of prevalence which is a prevalence of harmony, a kind of rapport with the next person." Regarding the universality of his residential designs, he stated in "Form and Design" in 1960, "This house created for the particular family must have the character of being good for another. The design in this way reflects its trueness to form."
Kahn sought beginnings, and in doing so designed each building as if it was the first of its kind. For the Fisher House he reduced the plan to its most basic human elements. At its core, the Fisher House was an attempt to redefine the inherent nature of the domestic house.
† Kimber VanSant, University of Pennsylvania School of Design, Dr. Norman and Doris Fisher House, Hatboro, Montgomery County, PA, 2013, nomination document [NR# 14000095], National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.