An architectural gem, still a home

Alfred and Concetta Dragani on a balcony in their 1957 Oskar Stonerov home in Chestnut Hill.
Alfred and Concetta Dragani on a balcony in their 1957 Oskar Stonerov home in Chestnut Hill. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 31, 2014

Architect Alfred Dragani and his wife, Concetta, an art historian, were at a Chestnut Hill dinner party six years ago when they learned that the house next door was for sale - and their ears perked up.

The house, designed in 1957 in two glassy pavilions by Swiss architect Oskar Stonerov, was a rare gem - a modern house on a street dominated by modern architecture in the middle of Victorian Chestnut Hill. A devotee of the International Style of architecture, Stonerov advocated clean, sparse designs and community connections as espoused by the writings of French architect Le Corbusier - whom Alfred Dragani had admired since being a graduate architecture student at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1990s.

At the time of that dinner party, the Draganis were living in a large, old house in the northern part of Chestnut Hill that required constant upgrades and renovations, and the family was looking for a home that was less expensive to maintain - their three children planned to attend private school.

The 2,500-square-foot house offered that, as well as a place in architectural history.

On the former estate of 19th-century developer Henry Houston, the house was part of a nine-year Stonerov project that included the 104-unit Cherokee Village development, a walkable community adjacent to the Wissahickon woods, and a few private homes. Besides its notable architect and developer, the house had been owned for 10 years in the 1970s by Ian McHarg, a famous landscape designer.

But the house still needed work, and the project was embraced by the whole family.

The yard had to be replanted, and the couple's sons, now 18 and 20, planted a beech tree and removed the overgrown stuff, Concetta Dragani said.

On the interior, the couple wanted to restore the original Stonerov design - covered with layers of previous owners' additions - and reclaim it as a "machine for living," a Le Corbusier phrase that compares the function of a home to something like a car.

The best part of the house, according to Alfred Dragani, is that it backs onto the woods. After removing a cover on the small window in the hall, they discovered additional panes of glass and a "wonderful" cast glass window that allows light in but preserves privacy.

A wall that divided the kitchen and made it dark was removed. Oak floors had to be restored and a steel rod that holds the window overhangs had to be inspected and repaired.

McHarg, the landscape designer, had installed an elaborate garden irrigation system, and Alfred Dragani tried to recreate some of that, augmenting it with a new drainage system.

Behind the garden, Dragani and his sons built a wall out of Wissahickon schist stones they collected on the property.

A nonfunctional swimming pool was removed next to the house, and a garage with a green roof replaced it; the grassy roof is accessible from their daughter's room.

Now the butterfly design of the house - two-story glassy pavilions with a utility room in the center core - is obvious to visitors.

Inside, the "adult pavilion" holds a master-bedroom suite and Alfred Dragani's office. The living room area is two stories high and a dramatic view of the first floor can be seen from a balcony on the second.

The other wing holds a second-floor bedroom for their two sons (the older, now in college, only comes home on holidays) and one for their daughter, now 13. The dining area is on the first floor.

"The house is not a museum," Concetta Dragani said. "We wanted the house to be a home for our family and the design helped us live as we wish. It is now a place where our friends and our children's friends love to come."

As anticipated, the house is more economical than their former home. The cross ventilation and the window overhangs eliminate the need for a lot of heating and air-conditioning.

"The best part of this house is that we spend a lot of time here in our house next to the woods," Alfred Dragani said. "We want to be here."

Tasha Stonerov Churchill, the daughter of Oskar Stonerov, now in her 80s and living in Chester County, visited the house on a tour last year. She was impressed with the project and the attentiveness with which the Draganis restored the house.

"I think he really cared about Daddy's design," she said.

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