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Following in Frank’s footsteps

How a Philly couple discovered the modern architect Frank Weise through his plans

Editor’s note: this story was originally published in the spring but has been updated with the current information.

The narrow wood shelving jutting out of the middle of Michael and Amanda Brahler’s restored midcentury modern kitchen is a question without a clear answer.

The structure, which sits like a tower in the middle of the counter space, obstructing the view from the dining area, is included in architect Frank Weise’s original 1950s design and needs to be preserved, Michael argues. Amanda disagrees.

“Some decisions [Weise made] were not the right ones,” she says simply.

It’s a classic debate—one as old as the slowly fogging windows that frame the Brahlers’ home: How do you preserve a piece of architectural history while restoring it to meet current needs?

And it’s with that question in mind that the Brahlers first approached Weise’s Meadowbrook piece, the Sheppard home, 10 years ago.

Discovering Frank Weise

Weise designed built-in drawers and shelving hidden behind closet doors for a minimalist approach.

“I wanted something with lots of glass and wood,” Michael Brahler says.

The couple decided to move to the suburbs from South Philly in 2010, and they found what Michael was looking for in the Sheppard.

The house comprises one main floor, with living room, kitchen, and bedrooms all at the same level. That floor is set high on stilts with a small one-room office beneath, and the exterior alternates beige- and rust-colored panels with 6-foot-by-8-foot panes of glass.

It feels like being inside a treehouse. The edge of the kitchen table is separated from tree leaves and branches only by one piece of thick glass.

Depending on the season, what’s visible outside can make the interior feel very different: A summer month, with lush green leaves and the small stream at the base of the hill taking up every panel of glass, create a bright, warm atmosphere inside. In winter, the snow and the bare branches make the inside feel both darker and more open.

But it’s not only the exterior of the home, it’s also the layout that makes the Sheppard unique.

“The way there’s so much glass and the way it’s organized, it does feel like a machine,” Brahler says, adding that he can clearly hear his children playing in one room while he’s cooking in another. The house is constantly working to carry sound and light in ways that align with people’s expected behaviors and needs.

Wall-to-wall windows create a treehouse feel throughout the home.

That’s all part of its design. Built in 1952, the house is one of the first Weise designed as an independent architect with his own firm.

The prolific architect has a long history in and around the city, although he’s not as heralded as many of Philly’s other modern architects.

Weise, who moved to Philadelphia with his family when he was a child, studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, after which he worked for a year in the office of George Howe and Louis Kahn, according to the American Architects and Buildings (AAB) website.

Weise continued his work with some of the country’s best-known modern architects, studying under Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer at Harvard, and later attending Black Mountain College, an experimental liberal arts college that became one of the country’s “new Bauhauses” during the mid century.

After returning to Philly in 1949, Weise started his own office, later leading a group of architects in the redesign of I-95 along the Delaware River.

“Weise’s group succeeded in having a portion of the highway depressed below street level, retaining some access from the city to the riverfront,” according to the AAB website.

He had an influence over many significant city structures, including the restoration of Head House Square in Society Hill and the adaptation of Eastern State Penitentiary.

But Weise also had a sizable influence on midcentury homes in the suburbs, creating places that drew on a more European modern style, says Craig Wakefield, a real estate agent and midcentury modern expert.

The Sheppard is a classic example of Midcentury Modernism, with a boxy look and flat roof.

Wakefield points to several of Weise’s pieces in the Philly suburbs, like the Bernard Weise house, built in 1950 for Frank Weise’s brother, as examples of a more international style of architecture. The Bernard Weise residence, like the Sheppard, conveys the illusion that the upper level of the house is floating over the lower.

“Frank Weise was an example of early residential modernism in Philadelphia,” Wakefield says. The lack of recognition for Weise—at least compared to Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi—could be due simply to there being fewer Weise pieces.

“It’s not a body of work over several years, it was beginning of his career,” Wakefield says of the architect’s residential work.

And yet for the residents of Weise homes, the architect’s talent is clear.

“(Weise) had a really skilled hand at how he put things together,” Brahler says, comparing the Sheppard to Mies van der Rohe’s iconic Farnsworth House in Illinois. “I never come around the corner and wonder why a wall ended that way.”

Still, for all of Weise’s genius in the Sheppard, a 70-year-old home can only remain in good condition for so long after the paint starts to peel and the windows start cracking.

And in 2010, that’s how the Brahlers found the house.

Renovating with Weise

A focal point in the Sheppard, the fireplace has terra-cotta pieces and a green marble base.

It’s not that the Sheppard is haunted by the ghost of Frank Weise, Brahler says. But he pauses before adding, “I feel his presence.”

That feeling comes from the expertly designed cabinets hidden behind the bedroom closets, and the sea-green glass and terra-cotta pieces embedded into the fireplace. But nowhere is it as obvious as in the packet of Weise’s original hand-drawn plans, which Brahler obtained from the UPenn archives shortly after buying the home.

Amid those early 1950s plans are pages on pages of sketches of Weise’s earliest concepts for the Sheppard: ideas for window placements, the outline of the home’s steel beam exoskeleton, and shorthand notations.

“Dead flat,” Weise wrote on one sheet, referring to the flat roof, which contractors would later urge the Brahlers to make pitched. (They never agreed.)

“No splashing ladies,” the architect had written on another page near the bathroom design, referring, the Brahlers think, to the arguably kitschy ornamentation found on some bathroom tiles.

They’re the first drafts of a home that could be; notes that the Brahlers want to use as guidance as they bring the home back to life.

One of the first projects the couple embarked on was restoring the original floor. When they bought the home, the floor was covered in a thin layer of cork, but the material started to deteriorate after the birth of their first child. As an infant, their son would crawl and yank at the corners of the floor.

“We just ripped it up,” Brahler says.

It turns out the 7-month-old was helping them uncover something valuable: Red-tinted concrete, which Weise had envisioned for the floor in his original designs for the building. Though worn and fading in color, the concrete still had flecks of metal that made it glimmer. The Brahlers decided to bring this long-forgotten aspect of the home to life. They added a little more color to the concrete to enhance the red hue, and polished it to bring out the metal flecks.

Weise’s original vision for the floor included a red tint to complement the home’s shelving and fireplace.

Now that red-tinted floor is a prominent feature of the home, accenting the similar burnt red colors in the terra-cotta pieces on the fireplace, and Weise’s original red cabinets that line the main hall.

Next, the Brahlers tackled the kitchen, the centerpiece of the home, with an L-shaped counter and frosted glass cabinets.

“Just paint it all white,” one friend had told them when he entered the non-renovated kitchen and saw the yellow trim of the cabinets against a pink tile wall. And so the Brahlers did, tackling the “old-school”—as Michael Brahler calls them—cabinets first.

But when they ripped up the backsplash, Weise had another secret waiting for them: sea-green paint.

Going on what seemed like another suggestion from the architect, the Brahlers took the color as a starting point for a more modern kitchen, finding what Amanda Brahler calls “modern retro” oval tiles in the same sea green that Weise had originally envisioned.

“We put back the ideas of the time period… so the backsplash feels more like the ’50s and ’60s,” Michael Brahler says.

The final piece of the kitchen was emblematic of the collaboration between the two architects: an all-white, retro gas oven and stove to replace a bamboo laminate appliance that the last owners had brought into the space.

Amanda chose the stove after seeing it on cooking shows.

“We both have strong opinions.” Amanda Brahler says, but the stove seemed to bridge a gap between them. It was somehow both retro and contemporary, and likely as close as the couple would get to whatever the original stove looked like.

The Brahlers have differing opinions on Weise’s original layout for the kitchen.

“He’s always thinking about how to bring [the house] back to what was intended,” Amanda Brahler says of her husband. “He liked that element. I liked the style.”

The Brahlers say they gave a lot of weight to every decision from the moment they moved in.

“For at least a year we didn’t touch it,” says Amanda Brahler. They had to live with the place first, getting in tune with the style of the house, and learning which original elements to preserve and restore.

“We were torn about touching the outside and the inside,” Amanda Brahler says. Doing projects gradually has allowed the couple to take their time on every decision.

“I don’t think a day goes by where I don’t think about what Weise did here. Knowing where he was in life—he was in his early 30s—for him to execute this house,” Michael Brahler says. “It was probably one of his first houses that he ever did, and it really blows my mind sometimes how tight it is.”

Looking forward

On a late February afternoon, Michael Brahler sits in a corner of the house, Weise’s packet of plans spilled on a table in front of him, plotting next steps.

First, the windows, he says, pulling back enormous white curtains to reveal a pane of floor-to-ceiling glass with the backyard beyond. Snaking across the upper-left corner of the foggy panel is a thick crack. The curtains hide it—and others like it around the house—well.

The 70-year-old glass is fogging, cracking, and needs to be replaced.

They’ve had a hard time finding someone to touch those panes. The 8-foot-by-6-foot pieces of glass were embedded into T-shaped steel beams with putty over 70 years ago, and in that time, the putty has gotten harder, essentially cementing the glass into the beams.

The only answer, Michael Brahler says, is to lay down tarp and break the glass. He plans to enlist a few friends to help, and when the project is finished, he’ll be able to install replacement panes that he’s getting from a seller in New Jersey. Still, it’s a feat that will likely take several summers.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Michael admits. “It’s been so long coming. We’ve just been dancing around it for years, and I’m curious about how it’s going to go.”

It would be amazing if a contractor “came to our rescue,” Michael Brahler says, but he’s not holding out too much hope. He’s learned that’s par for the course with living in a unique midcentury home—a lot of the repairs and upkeep you have to do yourself.

“We’re becoming in tune to what the house needs,” Brahler says, comparing replacing the 70-year-old glass panes to how others might repaint their home every decade. “You live with it and see.”