Home: Open House

A Havertown modern gets an architectural upgrade

Painter Elizabeth Wilson grew up in Havertown, near a neighborhood that she remembers as a kind of architectural fun house. Center-hall colonials stood cheek by jowl with sturdy Tudors and Victorian gingerbreads, and one of her childhood friends lived in an English country cottage tucked into a leafy corner lot.

Painter Elizabeth Wilson grew up in Havertown, near a neighborhood that she remembers as a kind of architectural fun house. Center-hall colonials stood cheek by jowl with sturdy Tudors and Victorian gingerbreads, and one of her childhood friends lived in an English country cottage tucked into a leafy corner lot. She was showing this cottage and the general hodgepodge of its surroundings to architect Ted Agoos in 2005, one day soon after the couple decided to buy a home together. They drove past a low, flat-roofed house on the very edge of Havertown that had a For Sale by Owner sign on its curb. They stopped the car, took a flyer and were immediately intrigued by the photos of the open-plan, light-filled interior. It fulfilled much of their criteria.

"We wanted a place with character,” says Wilson, “someplace quirky.” There were attractive interior details. The ceilings in the main room were paired-joist, and the master bath and small bedroom on the ground floor had bump-out closets floating in fields of glass. They found out that the home was built in 1953 and designed by Philadelphia architect Frank Weise, whose work is scattered throughout the suburbs and Center City. He studied with Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school, whose style is recognizable in the home’s rectilinear shape, flat roof, and lack of decorative details like cornices or eaves.

Size was an issue — they needed space for Agoos’ two kids and Riley the dog; Wilson’s painting studio; and workspaces for the couple — but a low asking price left some leeway for investing in renovations and an addition on top of the roof.
“We knew we’d have to do a lot of work,” says Agoos, a principal at Center City-based Agoos/Lovera Architects. “The only way to make it happen within our budget was to do some of the work ourselves.” Along with Agoos’ children —
Sam, 17, and Natalie, 12 — they got to it. Initially they planned to focus on the addition, kitchen and master bath, and leave the rest for later. But the items on that list multiplied immediately. “After the closing, we started pulling up carpet in the master bedroom,” says Agoos. “We just couldn’t live with it. It was like a scab—we kept picking at it.”

They demolished the kitchen, replacing heavy, yellow-oak cabinets more suited to a country-style kitchen with sleek cherry cabinets from IKEA. They pulled up the vinyl floor and replaced it with green ceramic tile. The couple had admired a flecked Black Absolute granite in a friend’s house and chose the same for their countertops. The master bathroom was similarly overhauled: Vinyl flooring and a vinyl-surround tub were replaced with ceramic tile. The cherry-colored sink platform links the bathroom to the living room, with its hardwood flooring.

“We tried to use warm woods wherever we could,” says Agoos, “in the stair treads, the kitchen cabinets. We wanted to balance the crisp, modern architecture with warmth in materials and in objects.”

They convinced the seller, whose parents had lived in the house before him from 1960 to 1997, to part with the nine-foot dining room table his father had crafted from a black walnut tree on the lot. The seller also sold them the free-form wooden bench that was built into one low wall and the heavy wooden sheep-shearing table that his parents had found in New England. Wilson bought the Flokati sheep’s wool rug beneath it from IKEA. It started as a visual pun, but it grew on them for real. “The room needed something light in the center,” says Agoos.

Other pieces came from their previous households — Agoos contributed the Louis Poulsen lamp that hangs over the kitchen table, the red-leather Bellini chairs in the living room, the Bertoia bird chairs on the deck, and some mid-century modern pieces that were hand-me-downs from his parents. These include two George Nelson chests of drawers and a Saarinen Womb chair in the master bedroom, and a mid-century painting and etching. Wilson brought a wide-ranging collection of objects that she’s amassed, including a wood 18th-century Buddha that sits on the IKEA sideboard in the main room, and a curio in the kitchen that displays Chinese export china and silver.

For the addition, which sits atop the original roof like the third tier of a wedding cake, Agoos took his cue from Weise’s design. “Compositionally we treated it like infill,” he says. “The side walls are like bookends, and the front and back are really glassy. They feel light and transparent.” This made sense functionally, because Wilson needed a solid painting wall and lots of natural light.

“Downstairs, in every direction, you’re looking outside,” says Agoos. “We wanted that here, too, but also wanted it enclosed enough for painting activities.” He carried architectural details up from below — the beamed ceiling, the deck and two bump-out closets built into the glass wall.

Agoos designed and drew the floating staircase leading up to the addition, consulting with a structural engineer on the specs. Its airiness emphasizes the openness of the house and ties the three floors together. At night the staircase makes for interesting reflections in the windows that wrap around the living room.

Tucked into one of the shelves on the wall flanking the floating staircase is a model of the house, which Agoos built while the addition was still in its planning stages. A flat roof and a shed roof were contenders until the pair decided on a butterfly roof. The wings define the two sides of the addition as separate spaces — a studio in the back and a small sitting area/office in the front. The jutting diagonals maximize both spaces. “We wanted the space to soar and open up to the light,” says Wilson. “The ceiling couldn’t be this high if the roof was straight across.”

Even two years after they’ve moved in, there are items on the to-do list. Agoos is not surprised. He knows from working on a mix of projects for his firm that residential projects present the most details to potentially obsess over. He’s learned some new things from this project, about Frank Weise’s work, about steel fabrication. He’s also learned about the ecstasy and the agony of rehabbing your own place. “There’s really nothing more painful or more enjoyable,” he says, “than when it’s your own house.”