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Opposites Attract

Opposites Attract

The straight lines of Louis Kahn’s modernist architecture meet Wharton Esherick’s sculpted wood forms in a famous Philadelphia home.

Opposites Attract

The straight lines of Louis Kahn’s modernist architecture meet Wharton Esherick’s sculpted wood forms in a famous Philadelphia home.
October/November 2019 issue of American Craft magazine
Author Sarah Archer
Mediums Wood
Esherick house kitchen

To preserve the house's original Wharton Esherick-built kitchen (pictured here), the couple built a second one for daily use in an adjacent utility space.

Jared Castaldi

Wharton Esherick’s name looms large in Philadelphia. The famed sculptor and woodworker (1887 – 1970) was born there and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His studio in nearby Paoli is now the site of the Wharton Esherick Museum, home to what is undoubtedly the most famous spiral staircase in Pennsylvania – a feature that he designed and built himself.

But there’s another Esherick, Wharton’s niece Margaret, who made a modernist mark on the Philadelphia region in the mid-20th century by commissioning a house for herself from no less an architect than Louis Kahn, best known for his midcentury designs incorporating geometric forms and medieval influences. Today, the home is lovingly preserved by its current owners, Paul Savidge and Dan Macey, who visited the property “just for fun” in 2013 when it was on the market. Once inside, however, they quickly realized that the house was perfect for them. As it turns out, they were perfect for it, too.

Choosing a Classic
Margaret Esherick (1919 – 62) is a bit of an enigma. The scant known details of her life suggest that she was an unusual and fascinating person. She ran a successful bookstore in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood and never married. In 1959, she commissioned Kahn to design a 2,500-square-foot, one-bedroom home with plenty of room to display all her books. Her uncle designed the kitchen as a sculptural space crafted from cherry, walnut, and poplar with an organically shaped countertop and copper sink.

The house was completed in 1962, but Margaret lived there for only six months (she died of pneumonia later that year). An unrelated family purchased and lived in the house until 2008, when it went up for auction. But it stayed on the market for several years, perhaps because houses with only one bedroom – even those designed by Louis Kahn – can be challenging to sell.

Savidge and Macey didn’t expect to fall in love with the house. But they did. “We’ve always had an interest in modern architecture,” says Macey. “By the time we finished the tour, we realized it was a perfect fit for us – and that we were capable of and excited about undertaking the stewardship of an important work of architecture.”

Today, it’s easy to see the house’s allure. The boxy structure cuts a sharp figure in its leafy surroundings. Inside, light drifts through clerestory windows in the double-height living room, which the bedroom balcony, framed by a Wharton Esherick-carved beam, overlooks. Ingenious details, such as the bedroom’s fireplace-adjacent bathtub that can be converted into a seating area, fill the interior. Kahn’s original design, which is warm yet spare, lets the materials do the talking. And because there’s so little ornamentation, it’s extra fun to see Savidge and Macey’s vibrant art and antiques collection on its walls and in its custom, floor-to-ceiling bookcases.

Kitchen Conundrum
It’s the kitchen that makes this home a tour de force of Philadelphia craft and design. As beautifully carved and well-proportioned as any of Wharton Esherick’s furniture pieces, it’s the exact opposite of a typical American kitchen from the early ’60s: There’s no Formica, linoleum, or pink or pale blue to be found.

Yet all of its artistry makes the room difficult to use. Macey, a professional food stylist, knew he wouldn’t be able to cook there for fear of damaging it. “[The kitchen] is justifiably considered a work of art on its own,” he says. When he and Savidge embarked on a 17-month renovation in 2014, they assembled an expert team, including architect Kevin Yoder of K Yoder Design, conservator Andrew Fearon of Materials Conservation, and Paul Eisenhauer, former director of the Wharton Esherick Museum, to help them strike the right balance between renovation and restoration.

An underused utility space adjacent to the original kitchen offered a unique solution: A modern kitchen is now installed in its place, leaving the original Esherick woodwork untouched and allowing Macey and Savidge, who entertain often, to cook without fear. Its sleek, warm wood cabinets echo the original kitchen’s design without mimicking it and provide an ideal transition space.

Because the couple wanted to maintain the original look and feel of the house as much as possible, the project required some architectural sleight of hand. “It’s amazing how much modern technology helped us,” Savidge says. “We were able to build a furnace in the 36-inch crawl space and install a tankless water heater in the cavity of the chimney.” They also moved the laundry to an upstairs closet.

Today, the original Esherick kitchen, while still functional, is largely for displaying pieces such as Macey and Savidge’s collection of Russel Wright American Modern tableware. The dishes are tucked into shelves that have been restored to their original color, thanks to some artful detective work. To recreate the hue of the niche corner cabinet, a conservator used three different stains. Luckily, Esherick had used the same color inside some of his own kitchen cabinets, says Macey.

Midcentury Design Meets Modern Living
Macey and Savidge have approached the challenge of renovating the Esherick House with a mix of reverence for the home’s history and a realistic sense of 21st-century needs. They often asked themselves, “What would Lou do?” and consulted with William Whitaker, who oversees the architectural archives at the University of Pennsylvania, where Kahn taught for many years.

Some of the repairs they undertook were less exciting than restoring the kitchen, but just as important. “Much of what we did is relatively invisible but still critical to preservation, like putting on a new roof, replacing some rotting wood, and repairing many of the roll-down window screens,” says Savidge.

Since moving in, the couple has personalized their home with thoughtfully chosen art and antiques. “We are constantly on the prowl for interesting pieces that make us smile and that would shine in Kahn’s space,” Savidge says, such as the series of Esherick woodcut prints they recently purchased.

Working with Pennsylvania interior designer Louise Cohen, they’ve also commissioned touches that bring contemporary makers into dialogue with the home’s rich craft legacy. Bok Read, a master carpenter who lives nearby, created the mantel for the living room fireplace. Slim and subtly curved, it’s a perfect complement to Kahn’s original design.

The house also sports a few “only-in-Philadelphia” details. A Lego model of its exterior, made for a competition in replicating iconic Philadelphia architecture, adorns their second floor. Savidge and Macey were able to track down the maker, who generously allowed them to purchase it for the cost of the Legos.

For the couple, striking a balance between preserving the original details of their historical home, personalizing it with thoughtful decor, and adding clever – even stealthy – updates, hasn’t been easy. But all of their hard work has paid off: The interior of the Esherick house is once again alive with creativity and joy, along with a clear sense that its roots haven’t been forgotten.