One of the most iconic works of architecture in Philadelphia is actually a trio of limestone residential high-rises lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. The Society Hill Towers were designed by I.M. Pei in the 1960s, near the start of the architect’s rise to fame as one of the world’s most renowned designers.
At the foot of the soaring towers sits a smaller townhouse development, also designed by Pei. Though in some ways they harken back to the towers, their Flemish bond brick and arched doors reflect the historic 18th-century Society Hill mansions on the opposite side of the street.
Kevin Yoder and Harvey Hurdle used to live in a condo across the street. So, when the couple found their current home in the Pei-designed townhouses nearly a decade ago, you could say they didn’t have to look very far—and that they took a long time to move just across the street.
“We’ve lived on the same street for the past 30 years,” says Hurdle. Every 10 years or so, the couple has simply packed up and moved to a new home, changing only the house number. First, there was Harvey’s 800-square-foot condo that Yoder redesigned (the couple jokes that it was post-dormitory, and Yoder made it post-modern).
Next, they moved into a historic row house in Society Hill. That home had immense character and a roof deck offering stunning sunset views, but it was a 52-step walk-up, and that wasn’t going to work with their new baby, Evan, in tow. That’s when they landed across the way, in the enclave of midcentury modern townhouses designed by Pei.
Pei was hired by city planner Edmund Bacon to design the townhouses, along with the towers as part of Philly’s 1950s and ’60s urban renewal plan. At the time, the Society Hill neighborhood was considered rundown and deteriorated. Bacon hoped that the work of Pei and a collection of other modern architects would help revive the area and draw in more families.
The townhouse’s somewhat foreboding facade is a sign of the times that it was built, says Yoder. “These were planned at a time when people were apprehensive about moving back into Society Hill, which is why the front window is tall, high, and guarded.”
Or, as Hurdle puts it, “It looks like a fortress from the front.”
Still, it was what was on the inside that counted for the couple. Although the house was outdated, it was in the most original state out of the three homes Yoder and Hurdle toured in the development.
“I didn’t have to tear out or demolish anything,” Yoder says. “We liked that it was original.”
The couple also appreciated that each townhouse has its own green space, plus a gated parking roundabout in the center. “Our son learned to ride his bike in the circle out back,” says Hurdle. “We can open up the door and, in a way, it’s a suburban cul de sac in the heart of the city.”
With Pei’s drawings in hand—courtesy of a neighbor who had the originals—Yoder used the skills he had acquired as a designer for high-end hotels to bring the townhouse into the 21st century, all while respecting Pei’s vision. In fact, Yoder wouldn’t describe the home as a total gut renovation. Instead, he says: “A lot of what I do is clean up utilitarian elements that aren’t ideal, either relocating or disguising them.”
One of the biggest projects took place on the first floor, which Yoder opened up by simply removing the walls separating the kitchen from the dining room and breakfast area. That small corner is where the couple and their son, now 10, spend most of their time together.
“The banquette is a reference to a midcentury modern banquette,” says Yoder, who installed a light cove above the L-shaped bench to “light up this dark corner.”
The dining room is one of the most stunning spaces in the townhome, thanks to the original floor-to-ceiling sliding glass door running the width of the room and looking out to the home’s private outdoor space. When the season is right, Hurdle says, “This is where I sit and do my work from home, so I can look out at the garden.”
Along with the oversized sliding door, each townhouse includes a spiral staircase with a skylight at the top. When the couple moved in, a return vent meant a grille was located right beside the skylight, marring the focal point. Yoder promptly reducted the area, moving the grille and making more aesthetically pleasing.
Perhaps the home’s most luxurious updates can be found in the bathrooms, which look like they belong in five-star hotels—and there’s a reason. "I was working on a 5-star hotel project in Las Vegas when I was designing the renovations to our house, so I was flying back and forth and finding inspiration in the hotel design that I wanted to use for our house,” Yoder says.
In the master bathroom, for example, he got rid of the narrow layout and designed an open, spa-like retreat with a skylight and unique porcelain tiles in the shower.
All of the baths also include wall-mounted vanities and cabinetry. “In the house, the philosophy of using floating elements is that it allows you to see the perimeter of the room and makes the room feel bigger,” explains Yoder.
That openness is palpable throughout the home, which has a handful of tall doors. Yoder credits Pei for getting it right from the start. “These homes were planned well,” he says. “Working on this project and seeing I.M. Pei’s drawings and details—experiencing them first hand—keeps on reinforcing the benefits and appreciation that people are starting to have for modern design.”
The renovation was actually what convinced Yoder to establish his own residential firm, K Yoder Design, later going onto restore local Louis Kahn and Vincent Kling homes.
But if the past is any indication, now’s about the time Yoder and Hurdle will start looking for their next move. However, this may be the home that breaks the cycle. “We’re going to retire here,” Hurdle says. He pauses, then quips, “At least until we can’t get up these steps.”