As with all great love stories, Bobbie Ann Tilkens-Fisher and Matthew Fisher found their dream home when they weren't even looking.
The couple were happy living in their Northern Liberties rowhouse until they visited Bobbie's family in Wisconsin for the December 2008 holidays. Cocktails at an acquaintance's midcentury house piqued Bobbie's interest: What would it be like to live in one, and are there any in Philadelphia?
Back East she went searching, eventually finding the website Modern Homes Philadelphia, run by real estate agent Craig Wakefield, which hosts listings plus resources to learn about the history and significant players behind the region's considerable inventory of midcentury homes. Wakefield drove the couple around for a day.
On the tour was a house along a tree-lined street in Wallingford with an unusual angled roofline that makes the place look like a spaceship — or the Flying Nun. The Fishers fell in love with it, but the house was out of their price range, so they did their best to forget it.
A year later, Bobbie, who teaches art history and museum studies at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, and Matthew, president of an interactive design firm called Night Kitchen, heard from Wakefield. It turns out the home's faceted roof, era-appropriate small kitchen and bathrooms, and attached intact dentist's office didn't make for the easiest sell — the price had been reduced. The Fishers jumped at the opportunity and their moving trucks pulled up in May 2010. "We never thought we could have this house," Bobbie says. "But now that we do, it feels like we were meant to live here."
That's how the Wachs — the sellers and the home's original owners — felt, too. A letter written by the couple and distributed to prospective buyers on mimeographed yellow sheets tells of their deep connection to a house where they raised three children. It sketches the story of a young dentist and his wife who hired an architect to build a starter house with an attached office. "In 1958 the only real estate available for a home office was this piece of property," the Wachs write, "and the best architect we knew was Irwin Stein."
Stein, who has designed more than 150 midcentury modern homes in the Philadelphia region and in Florida, included some of his signature features — the wavy roof, built-in furniture, and a three-sided fireplace dividing the living room and sunken dining room. A perimeter of cove lighting — a ribbon of fluorescent lighting encased in Plexiglas and wood that wraps around the interior — is another Stein hallmark. The lightboxes snake around the rooms at waist height and over doors and windows to create a warm, indirect glow that frames and highlights each space.
The first phase of the Wachs' home was finished in 1961. The steel-reinforced cinder-block pillars and the curious roof were the first structures to go up. "It's a pretty traditional neighborhood," Bobbie says, "and I've heard that people were saying, 'What the heck are these people building?'" In 1968 Stein designed a two-story addition with a foyer, sunken den, laundry room, powder room, guest bathroom, and two more bedrooms. He also enlarged the master bedroom by enclosing a screened porch. An article in the Delaware County Daily Times called it "The Pagoda House." Bobbie sees the Asian influences but jokingly refers to the architectural style as "Frank Lloyd Wright meets the Brady Bunch."
"There's definitely a '60s vibe," she says.
When she and Matthew moved in, the interior was pristine. So their biggest project was removing the dental office's asphalt parking lot (the office had a separate entrance and driveway) and putting in a lawn. The other challenge was going from 1,500 to 3,000 square feet with a totally different style. The built-in furniture helped, and the Fishers had some midcentury pieces, like the Plycraft lounge chair in the living room that Matthew inherited from his father. Thanks to the cove lighting, floor-to-ceiling windows, and clerestory windows that extend even into the closets, Bobbie hasn't had to buy many lamps. And dinnerware and decorative ceramics were no problem as she has been collecting midcentury pieces for nearly a decade. A deep closet in the den is filled with some of her booty.
"I have a bit of an obsession with Homer Laughlin's Rhythm pattern," she says. "There are place settings here for at least 12."
Now that her love of a midcentury aesthetic had a home, Bobbie's frequent outings to thrift stores, flea markets, and auctions gave way to a clear purpose, and she dove in, completely outfitting the place by October 2011 for a house tour.
About 120 people attended, and most wanted to know where she'd found her furniture. Their interest persuaded her to go forward with At Home Modern, a business she launched on etsy to sell vintage furniture and accessories. Hers will also be one of the shops featured on SecondShoutOut.com, a curated online vintage marketplace that launches May 1.
The style of her shop matches the style of her home. "The whole house is vintage but comfortable," she says. "I'm OK if something has a ding or a scratch or isn't pristine."
When the Fishers moved in they did a lot of research on the interiors of that era. "You see a fair amount of interesting textiles," she says, explaining the Turkish rugs, a few from Craigslist and one from a trip to Turkey, in their living room. They re-covered the built-in couch near the three-sided fireplace with a Maharam fabric in Yves Klein blue. "I pushed for orange, but we already have a lot in the house," she says. "And that blue was used a lot. If you watch Mad Men, Joanie's always wearing those blue dresses." (She's currently hunting down the mirrored wallpaper in Don and Megan Draper's entryway to use in her powder room.)
Speaking of Mad Men, it's easy to imagine any of the cast sitting in the waiting area of the attached dentist's office. The wood-paneled room is like a time capsule — black wire shelves hang opposite a built-in couch with yellow vinyl cushions. The Fishers haven't yet removed the built-in receptionist's desk, although they did get rid of the dentist's chair to make room for exercise equipment. For now the rest of the dentist's office serves as storage for At Home Modern inventory.
Of course, furniture, art, and ceramics are secondary to architectural grace notes that have revealed themselves over time — like the way the living room is warmed by the sun on winter afternoons and the sunken den stays cool in summer. And then there's the lightbox along the catwalk where the cat likes to wedge herself for naps. As the house moves through day and night, the roofline and windows cast cool light effects.