Alex Aberle and Violette Levy stand in front of their 16-room, 6,724-square-foot structure with 12-foot-high ceilings, revitalizing one of Mt. Airy’s most historic homes into an airy modern …
by Elizabeth Coady
Two hundred and forty-one years after American soldiers set up camp on the grounds of the Upsala Mansion at 6430 Germantown Ave. (now in Mt. Airy) to prepare attack against the British in the Battle of Germantown, a new clash rages at the imposing historic mansion.
History predominates outside the house, built in 1798 and touted frequently as among the finest examples of Federal-style architecture. An American flag flies above its expansive green lawn where, once a year, a reenactment of Philadelphia’s only Revolutionary battle is contractually required to take place. A plaque at the mouth of the driveway announces its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
But inside the 16-room, 6,724-square-foot structure, the modern stylings of newlyweds Alex Aberle and Violette Levy are winning. Here, colorful pop art and modern furnishings captivate while blending seamlessly with 18th century mantels and 12-foot-high ceilings, revitalizing one of Mt. Airy’s oldest homes into an airy modern residence.
No matter that a second-floor bathroom has only two “stall” toilets — remnants from the house’s museum days — and that the unfinished third floor still shows scars of a 1940s’ arson fire set by local vandals who broke into the then-vacant home. “It was beautiful when we walked in the door,’’ said Aberle, 26, of his first visit to 6430 Germantown Ave. just hours before bidding on it closed. “We just fell in love.”
The couple, married almost two years, outbid at least eight other offers last year to win the right to buy the house from the National Trust for Historic Preservation for $550,000 in cash, $51,000 above the asking price. The Trust, in conjunction with Cliveden, Inc., had owned and managed the property since 2005, when it was sold by the neighborhood Upsala Foundation for $1. Low visitorship compelled the Trust to return the museum to the open market in 2016, with the required annual reenactment as caveat.
From 1798 to 1938, the house was a residence for John Johnson III and his descendants. But, according to Aberle, Johnson’s grandson, Dr. William Norton Johnson, died with debt, leading a bank to seize it and evict his surviving wife. Then four years later, the roof was burned off after neighborhood kids set fire inside. Nearby residents rallied to raise funds to save and convert the house into the Upsala Museum, which operated until 2005.
“People still knock on the door and ask for a tour,’’ said Aberle, who in addition to his wife, shares the space with four felines named Will, Grace, Nemo and Marcel. Aberle’s sister also lives in a rear second-floor suite with her own cat named Scrappy.
The duo see their ownership as a sort of public trust in stewardship of the historic property. So they invite the curious inside by way of Instagram where, under the account name “HistoricUpsala,” they post “before” and “after” pictures of interior changes, historic architectural details such as the attic stairway that goes nowhere, and show off their eclectic design style.
In the first-floor office, a crushed velvet green couch and two modern paintings serve up delicious eye candy. Across the hall to the north is the library furnished with a mix of old and new, including an 1824 James Gordon grandfather clock that was owned by the house’s original owners. The couple bought it this year at a public auction of items from the museum’s collection.
A stained wood slab in organic shape serves as a dining table in a room wallpapered in a 1940s wallpaper with a lush moody floral scene. Water stains on several panels only add to the room’s dramatic effect.
In the couple’s second-floor bedroom, an upside down field of faux white hydrangeas designed by Levy creates a floral canopy. Across the hall is a room with cat-climbing furniture and a ladder down to the house’s only functioning bath.
Aberle grew up in Mahwah, N.J., where his father rehabbed properties.
“I sort of grew up in the business and always anticipated doing the same thing myself,’’ he said. Violette Levy grew up in Sarasota, Florida, and the two met when Aberle’s family moved south when he was in high school. The relationship grew “organically,’’ and “it’s been fun,’’ Levy said.
“We were just really good friends for a long time,’’ said Levy, who this spring graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate program in historic preservation. Their friendship continued into college as she attended Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts and he, New York University. The friends visited each other often and then rehabbed and flipped a single-family home in Brooklyn while they both were in college.
Upsala is the fifth home that the couple have purchased and rehabbed, although they say this one they intend to keep. The third floor eventually will be rehabbed into three bedrooms and a bath, an amenity that the current interior sorely lacks. There is only one bathtub for 16 rooms. But the remaining rooms are massive and bright, dwarfing any other perceived flaws of the home.
The couple went all-out last Halloween, turning the exterior's facade and lawn into the Wizard of Oz's Emerald City. They discovered that the scale of the property demanded that they go big when decorating. They had so much fun and got so much positive feedback that they’re planning on dressing up the house again this year.
The reenactment requirement was no sore point for the couple, who said that last October’s faux battle was exciting. While war raged on the lawn, friends wined and dined inside and viewed the mock battle through the upstairs windows. Among the day’s most amusing sights was seeing kids exit a “triage tent” wearing eye patches, fake bandages and stained in fake blood. “It was really a special day,’’ recalled Aberle.
“I was never particularly interested in history as a subject,’’ said Aberle, a Realtor with Elfant Wissahickon in Chestnut Hill, “but now that we live in a piece of history, I feel almost compelled to learn the history of our house through the lens of America.’’