Growing Up Kahn

Her parents met at a Penn party. She’s not sure exactly whose party it was, or when, or where, though she knows it was sometime in the late 1920s and that her mother, the late Esther Israeli Kahn Ed’27 G’33, was dating another man at the time.

“They met through friends,” explains Sue Ann Kahn CW’61. “My mother came to the party with somebody else, and met Lou.”

Lou, of course, was Louis I. Kahn Ar’24 Hon’71, who would go on to become a world-renowned architect, teach at Penn, design one of its best-known buildings (the Richards Medical Research Building), and earn, among other laurels, an honorary degree from his alma mater. At that point, though, he was just an unknown young architect with a scarred complexion and little money. Nonetheless, says Sue Ann, her mother was “captivated.” The other man was quickly forgotten.

“He had that effect on people,” she says of her father. “He could be a very charming person, very captivating.”

After Lou and Esther married in 1930, they moved into her parents’ house at 5243 Chester Ave. “We all lived on the third floor of that house, my grandmother’s house,” she recalls. “I lived at home till I was 21.” No wonder that she considered Penn her “second home” as she was growing up.

“My parents took me to football games at Franklin Field from the time I was seven,” she recalls. “I rode through campus on the trolley every day to Friends Select” School in Center City.

Penn was a “very big deal” in her household, she says. Her mother—whose father (Samuel Israeli) and sister (Regina) were also Penn alums—was one of the founders of the Philadelphia Penn Alumnae Club, and Sue Ann remembers her parents hosting parties at their home and meeting people like Dave Zoob C’23 (who wrote the music to “Fight On, Pennsylvania”). Later, Esther would serve as an overseer in the Graduate School of Fine Arts.

So it’s no surprise that Sue Ann herself went to Penn, where she majored in music. Though she was “very conscious” of her father’s presence at the University, she “did everything possible to stay as far away from the architecture department as possible,” as she was concerned that fellow students might think she was coasting on her father’s name. “I had my own thing going,” she says.

Now director of the Mannes College of Music’s Preparatory Division in New York, she is an accomplished professional flutist with a number of well-received recordings to her credit (the most recent being a CD of Mozart’s flute quartets).

She comes by her musical talent naturally. Several of her mother’s cousins were musicians, and Lou was a self-taught pianist who supported himself during his Penn years by playing both piano and organ at a movie theater.

When she was a child, “we played duets together,” Sue Ann recalls. “‘Chopsticks,’ mostly. I was relegated to the boring parts while he improvised all over the place. ‘St. Louis Blues,’ ‘Stormy Weather’—he loved to improvise.

“He used to kid me because I was very literal,” she adds. “I’d stick to my Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, and he’d say, ‘But can you do this?’ and launch into something jazzy.”

For all the honors that come with being the daughter of Lou Kahn, it can’t always have been easy. She may have seen him a lot more than the children he fathered out of wedlock, Alexandra Tyng GEd’77 and Nathaniel Kahn (see main story), but he was still, as her mother told her, “an artist, not like other fathers,” and family life often came second to his work. Knowing that she had siblings—whom her father never discussed and whom her mother preferred not to acknowledge—must have been a challenge. Fortunately, she and her sister and brother seem to have made peace with themselves and their situation.

“We’re a family through choice,” not because “we happen to be related through some fluke of a father that happened to have these children,” Sue Ann tells Alex and Nathaniel in the latter’s My Architect: A Son’s Journey, when the three siblings meet at the Kahn-designed Fisher House. (Contrary to what some have inferred from that scene, she says, they knew each other long before then.)

That movie drew a lot of public attention to her family’s private life—a mixed blessing, though she calls it a “terrific film” and is willing to focus on its many positive qualities. While she takes issue with certain points, such as its overstatement of her father’s financial difficulties, her overall assessment of the film can be gauged by the fact that she has seen it something like 30 times.

“I don’t know anybody who’s seen it who hasn’t loved it,” she says. “I loved the music, and it’s certainly the best film about Lou, as far as photographing his architecture. People were drawn to the film because of the human-interest story, and then they were introduced to the world of architecture. Then they were introduced to my father’s work, and now they want to go see his buildings.”

Though she hasn’t yet written any books about her famous father—“Perhaps I will some day,” she says—she paid a powerful homage to him by spearheading the effort to save his Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, from an expansion effort.

“I gave up my life for it at that point,” she says. “To me that was my father’s masterpiece, and he felt it as such. He told me, ‘I felt like another hand is doing the drawing.’ It was a direct line from inspiration to the actual building. I’ve always loved being there, and it gave me great satisfaction to save the building.

“It was the best thing I ever did with my life,” she says. “It was very important to me. Ever since then, anybody who’s wanted to tamper with a Kahn building has been very, very careful.” —S.H.

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Journey to Estonia

(From top) Lou and Sue Ann,
at Lake Placid, 1949; The Kimbell
Art Museum in Texas; The Richards
Medical Research Building.

©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/07