Historically Speaking – THE HOUSE THAT BOOZE BUILT

February 11, 2010

By Fred B. Adelson, Ph.D.
Professor, Art Department, Rowan University

Gordon House by Weise

Gordon House by Weise

After World War II, Collingswood established itself as a flourishing South Jersey residential community, expanding beyond Haddon Avenue toward the Cooper River. This area, which was originally a vineyard, had become the Camden County Country Club by the early 1900s. Due to increased local opposition to policies that allowed members to golf on Sundays and drink alcoholic beverages, the club closed and vacated its 9-hole course, providing substantial acreage for development. Collingswood, in a promotional brochure, touted itself as the “Long Island of Philadelphia,” a family-friendly borough where “no saloon is tolerated in the town and the complete freedom of the place from all the evils that are generally attendant on the licensed selling of liquor.”

In August 1951 Jack and Evelyn Gordon began plans for a new suburban home, having a lot surveyed not far from the Cooper River. Relocating from Camden, they officially took possession of this parcel in the Vineyard Farms area of Collingswood. The Gordons commissioned Frank Weise of Philadelphia to design a new home for their family of four, suggesting a rather enlightened Modernist taste.

Though finished architectural renderings date from June 1952 and estimates for construction had then been solicited, it is not known exactly when the three-bedroom, two-bath residence was completed. Plans were under way to install heating ducts “in two loops in the trenches.” (Letter from Edward C. Cahilly to Mr. Cummings dated October 13, 1952, 254.III.17. Frank Weise Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania [hereafter cited as Weise Collection]) by the fall of 1952; thus, it seems likely the Gordons must have moved into their finished home sometime in 1953. It is rather ironic that Jack Gordon, who owned Admiral Liquors and its ultimately infamous Admiral Lounge in nearby Pennsauken, would decide to live in a staunchly dry town. Nonetheless, they remained there for approximately 20 years, not selling the house until February 1973.

Having five owners in its nearly 60-year history, the residence has survived remarkably well in a town that has seen considerable change since its heyday of the 1950s. The one-story floor plan has been left alone, so the modest residence retains its authentic footprint. The current owners, Ken Bere and Jerry Mazzola, purchased the property in 2000, as Collingswood was beginning to make its comeback; and they have been respectful custodians. Without forsaking its original character, there have been some minor alterations and judiciously conceived adaptations, like the master bath; but none take away from its overall distinctive design.

As a teenager, Frank Weise (1918-2003) moved from New York to Philadelphia, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and working briefly with George Howe and Louis Kahn. Weise continued his studies under Walter Gropius in the graduate architecture program at Harvard. For a short while in 1945 he also attended the progressive Black Mountain College in North Carolina. When the Gordons commissioned Weise in the early 1950s, he was beginning his career in Philadelphia that ultimately lasted more than 50 years. The architect maintained an office at 1004 Pine Street and a studio/home on Chadwick Street, which is still owned by his daughter.

Between 1949 to 1962, Weise realized about 30 single-family residential commissions scattered around greater Philadelphia; many still exist, including a substantial two-story music room and four-bedroom addition to the home of Albert Appel in Elmer (Salem County) that dates back to 1959. Unfortunately, Weise has been underappreciated and largely forgotten, yet he was an active figure in the city’s cultural scene, helping to establish the Wilma Theatre and the Theatre of the Living Arts. Weise was also deeply concerned about urban development, especially along the city’s waterfront and Penn’s Landing. He strongly opposed and advocated against an elevated expressway that would sever the historic district from the river. Edmund Bacon, the strong-willed city planner and director of the city’s planning commission, absurdly accused Weise of “not living in the age of the automobile.”

To satisfy the Gordon commission, Weise designed a 1,900 square-foot residence for the couple and their two children, which was built for approximately $17,522, “using Mr. Gordon’s contractor for plumbing and heating.” (Philip Bernheimer dated June 17, 1952 254.III.17. Weise Collection) [It is interesting that Jack Gordon wrote to the architect informing him that Bob Scarborough, a then major residential developer in Camden County,”wasn’t particularly interested as he had a lot of work.”(Note from Jack Gordon to Frank Weise dated January 22, 1952. 254.III.17. Weise Collection)]. Even though Weise may have studied with Gropius, the Gordon House looks less Bauhaus and more Usonian. Indeed, the wing-shaped roof rising in opposite directions up to the outer walls is a bold departure from the flat, horizontal roofline of International Style buildings. The Collingswood house with no attic or basement has a rather compact floor plan and light-filled public spaces that suggest more scale than their actual physical dimensions. The built-in furnishings (sofas with their foam rubber seats no longer survive), millwork, a cantilevered roof, and Cherokee red concrete pad, immediately bring to mind Frank Lloyd Wright. Though there is no documentation, it is possible that Weise may have had direct familiarity with Wright’s recently completed Usonian house for the Sweeton family that was located between Haddonfield and Moorestown and less than 8 miles from Collingswood. Interestingly, in 1951, Wright was also the subject of a significant traveling exhibition that was organized by and first seen at Gimbel’s Department Store in Philadelphia.

This mid-century residence isn’t a mere imitation of Wright but incorporates several inventive design features that clearly reveal Weise’s signature. “Ventilators” in the fixed glass curtain wall could be opened to allow cross breezes, but their placement creates a syncopated rhythm of squares to ornament the front wall of the house; three remain prominent survivors of the original design. Without air conditioning, this was a practical way to lower room temperature during warm summer months. There are five doors with brushed nickel hardware pragmatically placed between studs that lead into what was originally a “Ping pong room” on the back side of the house. According to notes by the architect, a pulley system was planned (no vestige of this is presently visible), so a “ping pong table could drop down from [the] ceiling,” (Notes in file, 254.III.17. Weise Collection), making this playroom extraordinarily versatile for family entertainment. Today that space is used as a separate dining room. The doors give it a dramatic presentation akin to a cruise ship announcing that dinner is being served.

On the opposite side of the house is the private family area. The two children’s bedrooms, which are symmetrically reversed, have interior walls of opaque glass that affords privacy but allows some light to filter into the narrow hallway. At the end of this corridor in the bedroom wing there is another small open play area with pocket doors that connect directly to the master bedroom.

On the exterior, the projected rafters that extend from the roof on the front of the house were originally planned to have awning canvas sag between them (Notation on drawing, 254.V.A. 5. Weise Collection), so this functioned like both a shaded entry and a carport. Lastly, a covered porch on the back of the house was designed with a hole in its roof to accommodate an existing tree (no longer there), effectively bringing nature into the house.

In 1952 while working on the Gordon commission, Weise was also collaborating with researchers at Cornell University to develop an efficient, compact kitchen that could be mass-produced, moderately priced, and easily installed. Three principles guided its layout: “Build the cabinets to fit the woman. Build the shelves to fit the supplies. Build the kitchen to fit the family…” (Gardner Soule, “New Kitchen Built to Fit Your Wife,” Modern Mechanix (September 1953), p.172). Though the Gordons did not want dishes and pots exposed in the kitchen, the rather low (conceivably scaled for Evelyn Gordon) and very narrow cabinets seem a bit problematic today. A former owner of the house had commented that the kitchen was more conducive to making reservations than recipes. Interestingly, there is a prominent built-in unit that functioned like a partition between the kitchen and the original dining area; it had opaque glass sliders through which food was passed, so it would have been used like a buffet server with drawers that originally had leather pulls “to be spaced at random by architect on job.” (Notation on drawing no. 5, 245.V.A. 5. Weise Collection).

Although all attempts to locate members of the Gordon family have proved futile, Weise ultimately gave his client more than a residence but some immortality. The house does reveal an owner who undoubtedly wanted to make a statement, veering away from suburban convention. It is a testimonial to Mr. Gordon’s individuality and still remains quite visually compelling, even without the big “A” from the original Admiral Liquors that a previous owner had wanted to purchase for its roof.

Messrs. Mazzola and Bere are committed to preserve and attentively care for this modernist beauty as if it were a family member. Mr. Mazzola says it is “amazing how the house has a life of its own, and we don’t try to change it.” At times he does admit that it isn’t easy to find workmen, who will patiently work around the home’s unique features. The Gordon House demonstrates how a modest-sized Modernist home still remains livable in the 21st century without loosing its authentic aesthetic character. Above all, Frank Weise certainly deserves greater recognition.

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