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Inside the fight to save a Louis Kahn relic

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Kahn and partner Anne Tyng designed this home in 1950—and now its future is at stake

To the average passer-by, the one-story, wood-and-stone house set back against a bevy of other suburban homes and greenery in East Norriton might not mean much.

But architects, local historians, and a handful of inquisitive residents know what it is—and what it isn’t.

It is: a midcentury modern relic, one that showcases the architectural prowess of its creators, Louis Kahn and Anne Tyng.

It isn’t: in good shape.

The Morton Weiss home—built for its first owners, Morton “Bubby” Weiss and his wife, Lenore—was built in 1950 and designed by the prolific Philly-based architects, who are responsible for such works as Erdman Hall at Bryn Mawr College and the Trenton Bath House. The house, a 30-minute drive from Philadelphia, is innovative in many ways, especially for an earlier midcentury home. It’s constructed primarily from wood and stone, with large, south-facing glass panels that move to allow or block light and control the privacy of its interior. Kahn and Tyng were awarded the 1950 American Institute of Architecture Gold Medal for the design of the three-bed, three-bath home.

But the house’s condition has worsened since it was sold to local real estate agent Paul C. Pantione in 2002, and, fearing for its future, Preservation Pennsylvania decided this January to put the home on its relatively small 2019 list of at-risk relics.

Now, many are wondering what the future holds for the house.

At-risk and uncertain

“Time is of the essence,” says Sabra Smith, communications director for Preservation Pennsylvania.

The group gave the Weiss home, which is not classified as historic, an at-risk designation following complaints late last year from local preservationists, who complained about an alleged lack of upkeep at the home, Smith says. Though Smith has not recently been to the home, she says she has seen photos of the interior and points to a leaking roof, problems with the gutters, and overgrown weeds. She says there is also a safety risk with the place, noting a photo provided by one local activist that showed a can of gasoline sitting next to the fireplace.

There is no immediate threat of demolition at the house, but the deteriorating condition is enough to warrant labeling it as at-risk, Smith says. A tenant currently lives in the house but is not responsible for its upkeep, says Dan Macey of Docomomo.

“The house is sort of languishing,” says Vanessa Zeoli, a self-described historic preservationist who helped bring the condition of the house to the attention of Preservation Pennsylvania. Zeoli went to visit the house with her family in the fall of 2017, when it was still on the market, with hopes of purchasing the property.

“I was just floored by what I saw,” she says, explaining that while the original materials of the house—primarily the stone and wood facade, and the kitchen—were intact, there are other issues with its condition.

She visited again in early 2018 with an inspector who confirmed some of her fears. There was an issue with the roof sloping; the ceiling in the dining room leaked; the heating didn’t work, and Zeoli said she could see her breath; and some wood-boring insects had gotten into the siding on the house. The unique, Kahn-designed triangular gutters—while beautiful, Zeoli says—weren’t working either.

“It seems like the house is in danger of demolition by neglect,” she adds.

For preservationists, the goal is getting the house sold, preferably to someone who will preserve it. Pantione has not replied to calls for comment from Curbed Philly, but he has told the Times Herald that he’s interested in selling the house, though he has not listed a price.

The value of the home has decreased significantly in recent years. A listing on Realtor.com put the value of the home at $950,000 in 2016, and the value at $564,000 in the 2019 analysis.

“This is all about trying to raise awareness,” Smith says, adding that the preservation group hopes someone with a love of preserving modern structures, like Macey, who owns and helps preserve the Margaret Esherick house, will purchase the place: “There’s a very particular type of owner [who could buy the house].”

The unique, Kahn-designed gutters.
The fireplace and a wall inside the home.

A long fight

Though the at-risk designation is new, concerns over the home’s future are not.

Ever since it was sold to Tone Realty, Pantione’s business, in 2002, the house’s survival has been uncertain.

The house, which sits on a 5.5-acre property, was built for the Weisses, a couple who loved modern architecture and Kahn’s work. Kahn himself also seemed to be a fan of his early piece, calling the 1950 home a place that is “contemporary but does not break away from tradition.”

The Weisses lived in the home until 2004, when the property officially changed hands.

Early on, other uses were considered for the space. An eight-lot subdivision, which would have preserved the home, was proposed in the early 2000s, according to the Times-Herald. But controversy over the space didn’t really kick in until years later.

In 2016, developers Roizman Development Inc., backed by Pantione, looked at tearing down the structure to build two new structures with 150 senior rental apartments and 180 parking spaces. They suggested that the stone from the Weiss home could be used to construct a new, three-story structure, according to a report from Curbed Philly at the time.

However, neighbors rallied around the house, with 10 people speaking out at a neighborhood meeting against the development. The home remained intact and the plan was seemingly abandoned following the outcry.

That history is primarily what has preservationists concerned. If Pantione was open to the idea of demolition in the past, he may be open to it again in the future, says Smith, adding that the group has submitted the house to the National Trust for its “most endangered” list.

“We don’t want to wait until the wrecking ball is at the front door,” she says.

Plus, the house has significance not merely as a Kahn and Tyng relic, but also as a point of pride for the community. Residents in the area know that they have something special in their midst, Smith says, just as the Weisses did when they commissioned the home. It’s not merely a story of two famous architects designing a house in the suburbs, nor is it simply the story of a community eager to keep a dying part of its history.

Ultimately, Smith says, it’s also the story of the Weisses: “It’s the story of a young couple who loved modernism.”

And it’s a story that Smith—and many other preservationists—hope will live on.

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