by Pete Mazzaccaro
When most people think of Chestnut Hill architecture, they think of grand, 19th century homes built with Wissahickon schist.
But the Hill also is home to its fair share of modern homes, including the famous Vanna Venturi House and Louis Kahn’s Esherick House, both a stone’s through from Pastorius Park.
On Saturday, Oct. 10, a new modern home designed and built by local architect Elie-Antoine Atallah, will be part of Design Philadelphia’s weeklong “Shift Everything” event and will be open for tour to the public from 1 to 5 p.m.
The architect built the house for himself on land he bought on St. Andrews Road in 2011. He and his wife, Maureen, also an architect, planned the house, built it and moved in in October of 2014.
Atallah is the principal of Studio of Modern Architecture, a center city firm he founded in 1991.
Atallah, who grew up in Beiruit and Paris, moved to Mt. Airy in 1990. He and his wife had been looking to build a house and finally got the chance to buy land in Chestnut Hill – a feat that isn’t easy. And it’s one that introduced its own challenges, with the lot located within the Wissahickon Watershed.
“We had to determine what sort of footprint the lot would allow,” he said. “It turned out to be pretty small. We had to make choices. So we cantilevered part of the house over the footprint’s edge, which is acceptable. But we don’t have a garage.
“Both my wife and I are modernists. We live a very modern life in every way. When we started designing it, it was getting to generic modernist. But the Northwest at large has a very distinctive feel to it.”
In designing the house, Atallah turned to Kahn, who built quite a few homes in the area.
“Louis Kahn is one of my heroes,” he said. “I looked at his work and tried to grasp what he did. Looked at his material and how he used space. I used brick and cedar. Didn’t want to do an all-glass house.”
The result is a home in which bedrooms are built in a stack of suites, three in all, one above the other. The rest is open living space with plenty of natural light from large windows. It’s a house Atallah says he, his wife and their 17-year-old son have settled into.
Atallah said he’s been pleased to find that his neighbors have really taken to the home. And so has the general public. He said that one day as he was working inside the house, he noticed a large group of cyclists come to an abrupt halt in front of his home to stare at it.
“A lot of the neighbors were very welcoming,” he said. “When I garden or do stuff in the yard – St Andrews is big for joggers, bike riders and dog walkers – we get a lot of good comments. Children are totally taken by it. I should have put a camera on the roof to capture their reactions.”
Atallah said those touring his home on Oct. 10 would find art by two local artists in the house. There is a piece by sculptor Chris Ward and paintings by Kathy Hozack.
“They are wonderful people,” Atallah said. “I love the work they’ve done.”
Atallah’s firm has built many homes in the area. He said he knows of others who would like to do the same. Now a resident of the neighborhood, he understands why.
“We could have built in Lafayette Hill,” he said. “But this neighborhood is walkable. It feels like a village, and that’s very attractive, especially as you get older and you can have all your amenities and friends here.”
Anyone interested in registering for the tour can do so at 2015.designphiladelphia.org/events/shift_in_life_style. Registration is $5.