An earth-sheltered office in Cherry Hill shows the roots of green building
In the 1960s and '70s, N.J. architect Malcolm Wells explored ways to use less land, save water, and protect habitat.
A tour of 6 Dale Ave. in Cherry Hill had barely begun when the superlatives started.
”You’d never think something like this would be in South Jersey,” said Joe Bozza, the Realtor.
”You really feel like you’re in a totally different place,” said owner Terri Wallace. “Because you really are.”
Welcome to the earth-sheltered office building — actually, two adjacent structures built below grade and topped by vegetation — that Malcolm Wells designed to house his architectural practice.
The complex just off Cooper River Park opened in 1972 and exemplified the architect’s mid-career pivot away from creating distinctive, often dramatic, but fundamentally conventional buildings toward something that was, quite literally, deeper.
Wells became an advocate for building most structures at least partly underground to preserve the natural environment. Some critics questioned his sanity, but Wells’ enthusiastic promotion of his refreshingly radical notion eventually earned him a reputation as a prescient, passionate force for sustainable architecture.
His call for covering roofs in topsoil and seeding them with native vegetation may have seemed outlandish in the late 1960s, but various kinds of green roofs are far more common today, even in Center City Philadelphia. And by 1971 Wells published an article outlining his proposed metrics for assessing a building’s impact on such things as storm water drainage, energy consumption, and waste disposal — decades before the LEED green building certification system.
“Dad built the office on a maltreated piece of land and showed that you can create beauty out of something unwanted,” his daughter, the sculptor Kappy Wells, said from her California home. “He made a statement: Nature can be restored.”
Her brother Sam Wells, an architect who also lives in California, said their father was inspired in part by Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestseller Silent Spring, as well as by the suburbanization of his native South Jersey. The demolition of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, for which he had designed an RCA Pavilion that resembled a space-age record player, struck Wells as “a horrible waste,” his son said.
“Mac felt that destroying less land could serve as a way to retain water, provide habitat, and store carbon,” said Sam Wells, adding that the family would “like to see the [Cherry Hill office] adapted for suitable reuse — whether as an office space, a nonprofit, or other work space.”
Wells nestled the structure into the slope of a knoll above North Park Drive. In the mid-1960s the state used eminent domain to claim a slice of his property there to build the Cuthbert overpass across Route 70; his former aboveground office at the corner of Cuthbert and North Park still stands and is not for sale.
The upper earth-sheltered building has a green roof and floor-to-ceiling windows and doors facing a courtyard and the entrance to the lower building. That structure, which held Wells’ drafting room, has a lofty central skylight and direct access to the woodsy banks of a Cooper River tributary.
“Being here, you get an appreciation for the spirit of what he accomplished,” said Wallace, who bought the Cherry Hill property in 2006 to house Red Oak Creative, her public relations firm.
“Owning the building has been a true honor,” she said. “And the coolness factor is off the hook.”
After Wallace and her three employees began working from home because of the pandemic, however, the owner decided to put the earth-sheltered office on the market. “Let’s see who else is going to appreciate it, hopefully as much as I do,” she said.
The building — asking price $199,900 — has attracted plenty of interest in the 18 months it has been listed.
“I could have sold it to 20 people who wanted to live in it,” said Bozzo, who works for the Realtor Daniel R. White in Haddon Heights. A township zoning variance would be required to use the structure for non-office use.
Wells was born in Camden and grew up in Haddonfield and served in the Marine Corps during World War II. He established his architectural practice in what is now Cherry Hill in 1953. He is best known locally for the distinctive and dramatic houses, churches, and libraries he designed, mostly in Camden and Burlington Counties, as well as in Stone Harbor, where his Wetlands Institute headquarters is a landmark.
The earth-sheltered office “was his signature building,” said Bill Bolger, a retired historic landmarks program manager at the Philadelphia regional office of the National Park Service. He’s an advocate for preserving the office for use by an educational institution or a nonprofit that would bring attention to the architect’s impact in South Jersey and beyond.
“The office exhibited everything he was trying to advocate and the issues he was raising about the responsibility for the built environment to be ethical and nondestructive,” Bolger said. “Mac was at the peak of his career when he said, ‘I’m changing. I’m going to follow what I believe is right.’”
In 1965, Wells wrote a manifesto — he later described it as “a polemic against everything that had ever been built on the surface of the earth” — that was published in Progressive Architecture and was titled “Nowhere to Go but Down.”
The provocative essay assailed the obliteration of nature by the built environment with an almost Old Testament ferocity. Reaction was mixed; one reader wrote a letter to the magazine’s editor suggesting that Wells’ notion of a subterranean future “would have been more believable” if “written by an ostrich.”
Nevertheless, Wells soon was a prominent advocate for what he preferred to call “gentle architecture.” A talented watercolorist and illustrator, and an erudite, witty writer, he published a dozen books, including How to Build an Underground House and Recovering America; gave lectures across the country; and became a bit of a celebrity in the media, which he was adept at handling.
Sam Wells remembers a Philadelphia TV station sending a crew to South Jersey to do a story about his father — not because of his ideas, but because he rode a bicycle to and from work. The elder Wells, who sported a robust beard decades before such beards became a big thing, also was a contestant on the TV game show To Tell the Truth.
After a panel of judges on the show unanimously identified him as the famous fellow who wanted people to live underground, Wells won a carpet sweeper. “And our house didn’t even have carpets,” Sam Wells said.
Like Bolger, preservation advocate Martha Wright, who owns and lives in a Cherry Hill house that Wells designed for his own family, said the office should be creatively repurposed.
“We have a civic duty to preserve and share it with generations to come,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for Cherry Hill Township and the Cherry Hill Historical Society to embrace, celebrate, and recognize someone who made a difference and was very forward-thinking about the environment.”
In addition to the office, Wells’ South Jersey work includes a half-dozen striking houses in Cherry Hill’s Hunt Tract and Wilderness Acres neighborhoods. His residential commissions provided the township with a welcome dash of style during its mid-century rise.
One of those houses was demolished a few years ago; two of Wells’ best-known, if not necessarily best-loved, South Jersey buildings — the public libraries in Cherry Hill and Moorestown — also have been torn down since 2000. Some locals found the facilities uninviting or even ugly.
» READ MORE: For Moorestown's old library, 'time for it to go'
But Wells continues to attract new, younger admirers like Kevin Hofmann, an adjunct professor of architecture at both Kean University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
Hofmann grew up attending the Wells-designed library and First United Methodist Church in Moorestown, and said both buildings sparked his interest in architecture at a young age. And as an NJIT student, he did a summer project researching, visiting, and cataloging Wells’ buildings in South Jersey.
“If you know who Mac is, chances are you’re a fan,” he said. “That says something about the power of his work to live beyond him.”