5 of the Coolest Houses We Showcased in 2020
Plus a house with a backstory that we loved.
Each year, somewhere north of 250 houses appear on this website as featured houses for sale. More than half of them come from real estate agents who send me houses they’re marketing that they think might be worthy of our attention.
I rarely flat-out reject a house I’ve been pitched. Often enough, and especially this year, houses get sold before I have a chance to feature them. But just as often, I get houses that are so original, or with stories so compelling, that I jump them to the front of the line so I can write about them before they’re off the market.
Here are five of the best houses I’ve moved to the front of the line this year. I’m loath to call them “the five best” because so many beautiful and original houses have graced this space, and anointing just five as the best of the bunch does the rest of these a disservice. But all five of these stood out from the pack in some way. In chronological order, they are:
1. 205 Sweitzer Rd., Sinking Spring | Featured Jan. 2, 2020
The year got off to a great start with this truly unique house perched atop a hill outside the Reading suburb of Sinking Spring. Built to withstand Armageddon and deeply influenced by both Japanese and Moderne design, this hilltop redoubt is filled with expansive spaces and hidden hideaways, all of which are great for entertaining. Among those spaces: a huge indoor pool with attached guest suite, a basement rathskeller with a fondue station built into its dining table, and a billiard room whose light fixtures were salvaged from a power station that was being demolished near downtown Reading. Its upper-floor terrace sits at just about eye level with the flight path into Reading Regional Airport, and it’s surrounded by beautifully landscaped grounds with many pergolas.
Owner Rolf Schmidt, who built it in 1987, told me when I toured it, “We wanted a place where you could have two people sit in a corner and talk and have a coffee, or 200 people being catered to. And we tested that on a number of occasions, and it works.” It sure does.
2. 861 Sunnybrook Rd., Pottstown | Featured Jan. 14, 2020
We featured not one, but two strikingly original modern houses in January. This was the other one. Located just northeast of Pottstown, it was built in 1992 by the family that founded Mrs. Smith’s Pies, a Pottstown corporate legend for many years. On the outside, it channels the young Frank Lloyd Wright with its pure Prairie Style architecture; on the inside, it also channels Wright through its furniture and fixtures specifically designed to fit it, but it departs from his style with its more Moderne decor.
Like the house in Sinking Spring, this one has plenty of spaces designed for entertaining, including a dynamite outdoor pool that’s connected to the basement recreation and media rooms. Whoever bought it won’t have to worry about storage space, either, for most of its completely finished basement is given over to it.
3. 1718 Spruce St., Rittenhouse Square | Featured May 8, 2020
Most of the grand 1850s brownstones that line Spruce Street in Rittenhouse Square have been broken up into apartments. A physician bought this one in 1990 and turned it back into the spectacular mansion it had been when Joseph Smith Harris, first president of the post-bankruptcy Reading Railroad, lived in it around the turn of the 20th century. The rebuild restored all of its grand and richly detailed spaces, from the elegant foyer to the Regency-inspired library with its detailed woodwork and elaborate coffered ceiling. Roman columns, stained-glass windows, carved lion’s heads, inlaid wood floors and a unique oculus in the foyer’s anteroom are just some of the fabulous architectural features brought back to life in the reconstruction.
Its current owners said they couldn’t bear to part with it after they moved to a more kid-friendly location, so they put it on the market as a rental. At $10,000 per month, it was one of the priciest rentals we’ve ever featured, but given all it had, it was definitely worth the rent charged.
4. 80 Delaware Ave., Penns Grove, N.J. | Featured July 17, 2020
Veteran restaurant designer (and former restaurant owner) Raymond Haldeman knows that great restaurants offer their patrons an appealing fantasy along with dinner, and the restaurants he has designed both here and in Florida all have that element of fantasy about them. But when he turned his attention to this Victorian house on the Delaware riverfront in Penns Grove, he outdid himself. As I wrote in my feature, “you might be forgiven for thinking that you made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up at Disney World,” for Haldeman’s lighting and framing of the house as you approach it turns it into a castle worthy of a Disney princess.
He did a great job on the inside too, combining attention to detail with distinctive and dramatic lighting to make this quirky Victorian’s interior spaces pop. Penns Grove was once a summer resort, and Haldeman’s makeover turned this quirky 1889 Victorian into an appealing resort home once again.
5, 105 Rue du Bois, Cherry Hill, N.J. | Featured Dec. 14, 2020
I’ve met many people in the rehabilitation game here who clearly have the artist’s touch. One of them, Rachel Street, was actually an artist of a different sort: Before she decided to get into the construction business, she had been an opera singer.
But Jung Taesook is the only rehabber I’ve met yet who is also a professional artist. Her talent as an artist shows in the quality and attractiveness of the work she does, but it also shows up on the walls of the houses she rehabs when they go on the market. This house has served as a gallery exhibition of several talented and creative Korean-American artists since it went on the market a little more than a month ago, which gave interested buyers the option to purchase the house and get a head start on decorating it if they liked what they saw.
It was difficult singling out just five houses for this article. A host of other houses with great stories behind them or unusually attractive design could just as easily appeared here, including a one-of-a-kind modernist house in Flourtown whose architect considers “diagonality” the key to understanding what makes things visually appealing. Or there’s the 1729 house in Mt. Airy, in front of which George Washington commanded the American forces in the Battle of Germangtown; a 1797 farmhouse in Cinnaminson whose farm became the subdivision that surrounds it; a Colonial Revival farmhouse outside Media that was part of an estate that has been owned for decades by a family that rivaled the Woods next door (they’re the family that controls Wawa Inc.); and a house in Wayne whose nucleus is a log cabin dating to circa 1648, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, houses still standing in our region.
But there was one house we featured this year that I think had the most appealing story behind it: 1909 Moore St., Point Breeze, which we featured on October 27th.
The carpenters who rebuilt this partially ruined house bought it to my attention. After working on other developers’ projects for years, Dave Bitner and Eliot Hendler decided they should become their own developers, and they did a bang-up job turning a partially collapsed shell into a very attractive modern traditional residence with elements of industrial-chic and Shaker design. It also has many features designed to make it last and others to make maintenance easier. Thanks in large part to adding a $30,000 roof deck to the house, they would have just barely broken even on the project had the pending sale in November gone through, but depending on how the market moves in the months ahead, they might be able to make a modest profit when they relist it. But that really doesn’t matter, Hendler says, for they learned a lot from this first speculative rehab project of theirs.