Richard Neutra spent the majority of his career in Southern California, where he created his most notable architecture and became one of the world’s iconic Modernists.
So, when Allen Fair and Nelson Tolentino discovered a Neutra house in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania (a small town a little over 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia), their first reaction was disbelief.
But there was no mistake in the Zillow listing. In the late 1950s, when Neutra did a teaching stint at the University of Pennsylvania, he brought a small dose of his brand of architecture to the Quaker State by taking on roughly six commissions for private homes.
For this midcentury modern-obsessed couple, it was such an amazing discovery, the New York City transplants still aren’t over it. “We had been collecting midcentury furniture for years, we talked a lot about the California indoor-outdoor design aesthetic, and we admired Neutra’s work,” says Fair.
“When we found a Neutra home in the area we wanted to live in, it was beyond anything we’d ever expected. We never even imagined gems like this existed around Philadelphia (but later found there are several in the area). It was way outside our initial budget, but knew this was worth going all in on it.”
Tolentino adds: “That it is in our zip code still boggles my mind—I call this the beyond-my-wildest-dream house!”
Back in 1959, Neutra designed the dwelling for David and Sarah Coveney and their children. Despite being in snow country, it has a flat roof and large walls of single-pane windows. Here, outdoor living isn’t a year-round pursuit, but the home features patios that connect the home to its wooded lot. (Fair and Tolentino admit they have to bundle up during the winter, but say it’s a small price to pay.)
Several years after Neutra departed for California, Sarah Coveney commissioned Thaddeus Longstreth, a local architect that had been Neutra’s acolyte, to create a window-lined addition that served as her art studio. Fair and Tolentino are only the home’s second owners.
Since it had been constructed, the home was treated delicately, with only a few modifications. The new owners were eager to do the same. “We consider ourselves the stewards of the house, not the owners,” Fair says. “We didn’t want to ruin what makes it special. Considering changing it made us very nervous.”
That said, after nearly 60 years, some of the rooms, particularly the kitchen and bath, were worn.
That’s when fate and technology stepped in. Through a local Facebook group dedicated to midcentury modern architecture buffs, they met Robert Jamieson, principal at Studio Robert Jamieson, who restored a Robert McElroy house for himself and his family.
As the relationship deepened, the couple developed the confidence to ask Jamieson to remodel their kitchen and bathroom. It was a prospect that delighted and rattled the architect. “It was an honor, but it was nerve-wracking as well,” says Jamieson. “I approached it with a gentle touch, and I was respectful of what Neutra had done.”
In fact, Jamieson looked at the project as both updating and turning back the clock for the house. “As time went by, the original owners altered the house slightly, likely just changing out things that were worn,” he says. "In the kitchen and bathroom, we were inspired by the original materials and sought to bring them back as much as possible."
Here’s an example: When the house was built, it was created with wood cabinets, travertine tile floors, and the laminate countertops that were then all the rage. At some point, the kitchen was updated by painting the cabinets white, installing maple-wood floors, and a tile countertop.
When Fair and Tolentino decided to update the kitchen, they selected a mix of walnut and wood cabinets, a porcelain tile with a travertine pattern, and a Corian countertop—and thus what was old became new again.
The materials may be akin to the original, but the look is more contemporary than a faithful recreation of the past.
“We didn’t want to live in a time capsule,” says Tolentino. “I heard this great quote: ‘Empathy is the cornerstone of design.’ The kitchen and bath design is empathetic to how we live and our current values which includes being influenced by Modernism. Buying a Neutra, I was a bit concerned that our needs would become secondary to conservancy, and I didn't want that. I prefer living in the present and maybe in my small way furthering the evolution of design.”
One of the bigger moves was to open up the wall separating the kitchen and the dining room. When this home was built, seeing the prep space from the entertaining area would have been unthinkable. Of course, now it’s a different story.
Jamieson paid homage to the past in the bathroom by designing a vanity based on a piece of furniture Neutra had created. For reasons lost to time (perhaps modesty or the need for shelter from the weather) a clerestory window that stretches across the backside of the home was covered over in the shower.
Jamieson reglazed the clerestory windows with insulated glass while preserving the original aluminum frames, letting light flood the new shower. The shower itself goes from the size of broom closet to the large proportions that people prefer today.
“We took some liberties, especially in the bathroom by creating a more open layout with the glass walk-in shower,” says Jamieson.
As the stewards of the house, Fair and Tolentino were comfortable with the idea. “When we researched the house with Robert, we realized two things: The architect left a lot of the kitchen and bathroom design to the original owner—and the owner adjusted and evolved the design a bit over time,” Fair says. “We felt OK about making updates of our own. We just used simple lines in keeping with the original design.”
For this couple, realizing their dream didn’t disappoint. “Neutra’s work was very intellectual, and it was all about creating environments where people can be happy,” Fair says. “It’s sad that people have forgotten some of the principles of midcentury design, and tend to build McMansions. Living here, and being connected to nature, is a wonderful feeling.”