A Pair of Intrepid Fixer-Uppers Turn Philadelphia's Historic Upsala Mansion Back Into a Home
OWNERS: Alex Aberle and Violette Levy
LONG-TERM PLAN Violette: Alex and I met when we went to high school together in Florida. I came to grad school here for architecture and Alex was in New York, where we had started rehabbing historic properties in Brooklyn. I eventually switched to the historic preservation program, and we began rehabbing historic rowhouses in South Philly. We came across a Curbed article about how the National Trust was selling Upsala with a preservation easement, and we said, “Let’s just go take a look.” The rest is history.
Alex: Our previous home was 300 square feet! Our plan was to eventually move into a bigger home when we were ready to start a family. We absolutely fell in love with the house, and it did need a lot of work to make it into a home. We figured it would take us as long to do the work as it would for us to be ready to have a family.
HISTORY LESSON Alex: Before the house was built, the property was the staging grounds for the Battle of Germantown during the Revolutionary War. According to local lore, Washington’s army set its cannons up on what is now our front lawn. They fired across the street at Cliveden [a National Trust Historic Site], which was occupied by the Redcoats and owned at the time by Benjamin Chew, a suspected British sympathizer. Cliveden still has scars on its facade from cannons that were fired off of our property.
The main block of Upsala was built in 1798, and it was mostly lived in and owned by the same family, the Johnson family, until the late 1930s. The Johnsons lost it to the bank—we assume because of the Depression—and the property was vacant for a few years. Finally, in the 1940s, a group of locals bought it from an insurance agency, did a pretty major restoration, and opened it shortly thereafter as a house museum. In 2005 the museum closed, unfortunately, due to lack of visitorship.The museum gave the property to the National Trust. From 2005 on it was managed by Cliveden and used as a field office location for the National Trust. Eleven years later, the Trust decided to put it on the market. We first saw the property in December 2016 and we closed at the end of April 2017. We moved in the day after closing.
OLD-HOUSE LIVING Alex: The kitchen appliances date to the late 1960s or early ’70s. And it’s funny: With the exception of the dishwasher, which was leaking, all the other appliances still work, and we still use them. It sounds like such a cliché, but we’ve learned firsthand that they really don’t make things like they used to.
Deep cleaning was the first priority when we moved in. Then after that, we did all the painting ourselves. It was slow going at the beginning, but now we joke we’re expert painters and can do a room in two days.
Violette: Beyond painting and just making things aesthetically ours, we put in air-conditioning on the second floor, which was a lifesaver during our first summer here—and our second summer. And we have plans to expand that, but we’re also working on making the house as efficient as it can be while we respect its history.
Alex: Last winter, it was a huge shock to see how much it cost to heat this house. My mission this year is to better insulate it and weatherstrip the windows and doors and see if we can knock down the heating costs.
SHARED SPACE Alex: When we closed on the property, the National Trust put an easement in place. The easement protects the exterior, and on the interior, it protects all of the features that attracted us to the house in the first place: the window surrounds and the wainscoting and the marble fireplaces and the mantels and the decorative plaster moldings and the staircase. All the things that make this house special, I’m pleased to say, are all protected.
In addition to that, per the easement, we have to allow Cliveden to use our front lawn for the re-enactment of the Battle of Germantown every year. It doesn’t require any participation from us, outside of letting them set up shop, but we have been throwing our own viewing parties, because we have a great view from inside the house. It’s a good excuse to share the space and do our best to keep people able to see it without compromising our own ability to live here.
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Violette: That’s exactly why we started the Instagram account [@historicupsala], too. We were very conscious of the fact that we were taking this resource out of the public realm, and so we wanted to make sure that we were letting everybody know what was going on. We wanted to make sure that as much as we can document stays in the public realm.
I’ve also spent a lot of time photographing certain details of the house to document it in a “proper” sense, which is something that I probably would not have known how to do without my historic preservation degree.
TAKING CARE Alex: We have a spectacular pine tree about 30 feet away from the house, and it has five massive trunks. Two are angled directly toward the house. We had big steel cables put in between the trunks so that if the tree gets struck by lightning or one of the trunks falls off, they don’t come crashing down on the house. It’s been a lot of little projects like that, just making sure we’re doing everything we can to ensure the longevity of the building first.
When we got here and started to parse through our intentions, we realized that as nice as it is to have art on the walls and tchotchkes around to make it look homey and lived-in, really the most important part to us is ensuring the building is standing beyond us.
You know, we see ourselves as the current stewards, but we hope (and we’re trying to do everything in our power to make sure) that the building stands long beyond what we do.
Violette: We’re very, very happy we took this on, but we also maybe didn’t realize everything that was entailed with taking the project on from the very start. It’s been a huge lesson in what preservation really is.
Alex: The house is about 12,500 square feet. There’s plenty of room for our four cats, but they all seem to hang out in the same room. Wherever we’re sitting, all the cats are within a 5-foot radius.
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