Philadelphia Home Fall/Winter 2009: Vintage Modern

In 1969, a young Philadelphia architect named Joel Levinson built an iconoclastic "Arbor House" for a young Melrose Park family. Forty years later, the home’s enduring modernity offers a valuable lesson in timeless design


Rising beyond oak trees and rhododendrons, along a row of old stone Tudors, in a historic enclave of Cheltenham’s Melrose Park, Herbert and Mae Kurtz’s dwelling is a marvelous surprise. The structure—at once low-slung and imposing, spread-out and compact, earthy and futuristic, see-through and stalwart—is a study in contrasts. Not the least of which is this: It’s technically vintage, but undeniably modern.

Architect Joel Levinson was just six years out of Penn when he designed “Arbor House.” It was one of his first built houses, and it embraced the elemental concepts that would endure throughout his decades-long career. From 1969 on, his abundant use of natural light, “outdoor rooms,” white International-style walls and inventive detailing would be Levinson’s design vernacular.

So would Arbor House’s most dramatic innovation, its cedar trellis screen. The architect says the wooden fretwork was intended to make the home feel like a “garden pavilion,” affording its occupants a naturally lit view of the outdoors day and night. Forty years on, filled with the same classically comtemporary furnishings eminent Center City interior designer Carl Steele first commissioned, and with artwork collected over a lifetime, the home’s light continues to enchant. “I can’t think of a time of day that it isn’t appealing,” says Herbert.