The Modern Home Tour spotlights area houses - restorations, new urban - that cleave to forward-looking principles.

Den/media room in the Glenside home of Michael and Shari Wiglesworth, architect John White- head's once-neglected and now admired domestic masterpiece.
Den/media room in the Glenside home of Michael and Shari Wiglesworth, architect John White- head's once-neglected and now admired domestic masterpiece. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 11, 2012

When the Wiglesworths first saw their house, a compact L of glass, stone, and stucco built into the slope of a hill in Glenside, it had been languishing on the market for some time. Filled with incongruous colonial-style furniture and chandeliers, "the house did not show well," Michael Wiglesworth said.

But underneath the years of wear and bad renovations, the inconspicuous little house on Station Avenue had a formidable pedigree: It was designed by John Whitehead, a protégé of Philly modernist Louis Kahn. Wiglesworth and his wife, Shari, fans of midcentury architecture, restored the house, filled it with a spare assortment of low-slung furniture by Herman Miller, George Nakashima, and Knoll, and added their own touches: a sleek stainless-steel and Carrara marble kitchen, a barrel-shaped skylight pouring sun into the bathroom, and a rushing waterfall wall, just beyond sliding doors from the master bedroom.

Now, the house that couldn't seem to sell gets plenty of attention. The latest: a stop on the Modern Home Tour, a nearly two-dozen-city event that added Philadelphia for the first time this year. Just like Whitehead's once-neglected and now admired domestic masterpiece, this forward-thinking architecture - from midcentury restorations to high-tech sustainable designs - is back in vogue in Philadelphia.

"Philadelphia is a place where modern is just part of the fabric of the city in all the different neighborhoods," said Ingrid Spencer, a writer for Architectural Record who curated the tour. Now, if the enthusiasm of the 125 designphiles who toured the houses is any indication, that tradition is getting its due.

The six-house tour encompassed modern in every sense of the word: from contemporary takes on urban rowhouses to an 8,000-square-foot Chadds Ford mansion with minimal, boxy lines and floor-to-ceiling windows, to clever conversions that demonstrate how traditional Philadelphia exteriors can be preserved while their floor plans are transformed from within.

Unlike many house tours, this one wasn't about luxury or ostentation - some of the houses were just a few thousand square feet, and one stop was new, subsidized ultra-low-income rental rowhouses in the middle of Logan. Instead, said Spencer, it's about history, technology, and hopefully, a little inspiration. The daylong tour in July was designed to "tell that story of modernism, and how it came through a place like Philadelphia."

That story, as Spencer tells it, may start with midcentury designs like the Whitehead house, but it has since evolved to encompass a broad range of architectural possibilities, unified by an affinity for clean lines, strong visual connections to the outdoors, and devotion to flexible open floor plans.

The Beta 2.5 House in East Kensington by Interface Studio Architects shows just how the type of open-plan design favored by the midcentury modernists can be translated into urban rowhouse architecture. The only interior doors are on closets and the toilet (even the shower is wide open to the loftlike third floor). While it's big enough to at least be a two-bedroom, this is, technically, a zero-bedroom house: To get an appraisal for the mortgage, a temporary wall and door had to be erected to separate the sleeping area into a traditional bedroom.

The house, owned by April Connelly and Wes Peterson, illustrates an alternate vision of contemporary architecture - one where energy-saving is paramount. The building was developed by Postgreen with an eye to Passive House standards, which means it requires 80 percent less energy than a conventional counterpart. Brian Phillips, principal at Interface Studio Architects, said the other priority is affordability, which accounts for the exterior cladding in sleek black CertainTeed fiber cement panels.

The same commitment to energy efficiency rules at the Belfield Homes, a trio of skinny rowhouses designed by Plumbob L.L.C. to provide affordable infill housing (construction between existing structures). The exterior - a factory-built modular design with brick, corrugated metal, glass, and living walls planted with seedlings - stands out immediately from nearby standard-issue North Philly homes. Inside, a lime-green core wall with holes playfully punched out like Swiss cheese runs up through all three stories.

But Plumbob principal Tim McDonald is proudest of what's within the walls: top-notch insulation and high-tech systems that make these the first Passive House-certified houses in the state and the first net-zero-energy houses - they essentially produce the energy they consume - in Philadelphia.

Even more impressive: The nonprofit Raise of Hope, which had obtained funding for the houses, went to Plumbob after its initial developer couldn't meet the designated budget. Plumbob not only met the budget with an avant-garde alternative, but also built the whole thing in three months.

Although infill may give architects a tabula rasa, when a lot comes already built with a regal stone structure, it makes more sense to adapt. That's how architect Alan Metcalfe approached the two designs he contributed to the tour, one in Mount Airy and one in Center City.

"There's revived interest in the city, and the housing stock you have there is older, and it's crazy to knock it down because they just don't build them that way anymore," Metcalfe said. "But they need to be reconditioned or readapted for the way people live now."

For the Mount Airy house, that meant several bold moves: downplaying the formal front door and bringing the main entrance to the kitchen, via the small addition of a boxy glass entryway; turning the colonial floor plan into an open plan by knocking down a wall between the kitchen and living room; and opening the living room to the outdoors by adding French doors that open up onto a patio topped with a pergola.

"Modern houses can be boxes. People complain about that," Metcalfe said, "but I think the connection to the outside should be emphasized as opposed to making a really firm and taut envelope. Instead of 'I'm in or I'm out,' I like those spaces that are sort of between the two."

Metcalfe and Val Nehez Interior Design also deployed a color palette that might have made the original owners of the house blush: a coat of bright yellow paint over the entire wall by the front door, sconces and all; an explosion of primary colors in the kitchen carried through the appliances and addition of a wall-size artwork made up of multicolored bread-bag tabs by artist Paul Schulz; an enormous shadowbox wall running up the staircase containing vivid-hued cubbies for the owners Amy and Michael Cohen to showcase their collections of toys and memorabilia.

Jerri Alexiou, 42, and her family traveled up from Harrisonburg, Va., for the tour, looking for inspiration for the modern house they're planning to build soon. She said there's not much in the way of cutting-edge architecture where she lives. "Even the newer houses are built with a very old-fashioned style." She was looking to borrow a few details: the marble trough sink from the Cohen home, the espresso-stained hardwood floors from the Beta 2.5 House.

In the home of Center City painter Joan Wadleigh Curran, modern reuse took a different turn, toward the organic, eclectic, and slightly edgy - kind of like the monumental paintings of dramatically twisted refuse she creates in her first-floor studio.

"It's not slick 'modern,' and it's not spare in terms of furnishings," she admitted. Rough wood beams, exposed brick walls, waxed rusted steel, and industrial elements like light fixtures hung from I-beam segments all contradict the Ikea-smooth finishes seen elsewhere on the tour. But the sprawling, flexible living space, painted sage green from one end to another (including the ceiling), evinces the same commitment to open plan design seen on the tour.

Of course, all of this is nothing new to Philadelphia. Craig Wakefield, a dentist who sidelines as a real estate agent dealing in modern homes, has run his own modern home tours in and around Philly for about five years. He says the enthusiasm and value put on such architecture have exploded, and such tours help fuel that. "There's a network, I think, forming around these houses, and there's a lot more interest," he said. Recently, he helped establish a chapter of the organization Documentation of the Modern Movement, or Docomomo, in Philadelphia; this year's tour will be of Louis Kahn architecture on the Penn campus.

Evidently, there's plenty of room under the "modern" umbrella. If, after the Modern Home Tour, anyone even remembers what that term is supposed to mean.

"To me it's just a word," Plumbob's McDonald said. "I like to say contemporary. We design buildings for our time. It's not a style for us. It's just what we do." And, fortunately, over the last 10 years or so, "Philadelphia has gotten a lot more accepting of that."

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