PHILADELPHIA — The original owner of this Revolutionary War-era house in the Mount Airy neighborhood never could have imagined one day his home would have its own popular Instagram account or be decked out in over-the-top Halloween decorations. Nor could he have envisioned musket-bearing reenactors engaging in a mock military battle on his front lawn before huge crowds.
He undoubtedly would be surprised to find 221 years later a young preservation-minded couple pouring their passion into the house and working to engage with the community, which has welcomed them.
“We came for the house,” said Alex Aberle, who bought the home in April 2017 with Violette Levy, “but we’re staying for the neighborhood. … Germantown and Mount Airy are two incredibly diverse, eclectic and involved communities, and for the first time, we feel inspired to meet our neighbors.”
The transformation of Upsala from a home to a museum and then back to a home, is an example of how historical properties can return to their original use while still honoring their legacy. At a time when thousands of house museums are languishing, it offers a new way of thinking about how to preserve historical houses.
Upsala, a seven-bedroom, two-bathroom mansion on about 2½ leafy acres in the middle of an urban area, is considered one of the finest examples of Federal-period architecture in the Germantown area. But its historical value predates its existence. Twenty-one years before the house was built in 1798, the land was the site of a Revolutionary War skirmish known as the Battle of Germantown.
After capturing Philadelphia, British Gen. William Howe had his forces set up camp in Germantown at Cliveden, a historical property across the street from where Upsala now stands. From what became Upsala’s front lawn, George Washington launched a surprise attack. Although it failed, with the Americans suffering twice as many casualties as the British, it became a turning point in the war.
Upsala’s original owner was a wealthy Quaker, John Johnson III. His descendants remained in the house until the late 1930s when a bank took ownership, according to Tom Mayes, general counsel of the National Trust. For the next several years, it sat vacant.
After a fire damaged the house in the 1940s, the Upsala Foundation, a group of local preservationists, raised money to restore the home and open it as museum. When the museum closed in 2005 because of a lack of visitors, Upsala once again sat largely empty for years, said Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer of the National Trust.
The National Trust acquired Upsala in 2005 but struggled to find a use for it. Then in September 2016, it came up with a plan. In conjunction with Cliveden of the National Trust — which was Upsala’s co-steward — the house was put on the market with the goal of charting a new future for the property but also honoring its past.
Upsala was listed with Louise “Butter” D’Alessandro and Janice Manzi of Elfant Wissahickon’s Chestnut Hill office and offers were accepted for three months. Malone-France said the National Trust had worked with the brokerage before and was confident it could market historical properties with preservation easements.
Potential buyers were asked to submit a statement about their preservation experience, plans for the property as well as financials. The house was listed for $499,000 and came with a preservation easement that remains in perpetuity. Future owners had to agree to allow the annual Battle of Germantown reenactment to continue in the front yard. Other restrictions protect the exterior and original interior features such as flooring, windows, window surrounds, wainscoting, baseboards, door surrounds, fireplaces and their mantelpieces, and decorative plaster moldings. The easement also protects the wide variety of mature, nonnative trees.
Despite these restrictions, Upsala garnered nine offers and sold to Aberle and Levy, both 27, for $550,000. Because Upsala was a charitable property, proceeds are held by the National Trust to ensure the easements are monitored and for the ongoing care and maintenance of Cliveden, not for the Trust’s general operations budget, Mayes said.
Aberle and Levy are no strangers to real estate. They were friends in high school in Florida, married in 2016, and have flipped four other historical properties, mostly in Brooklyn and South Philadelphia. Aberle, a native of Mahwah, N.J., is a real estate agent with a bachelor’s degree in urban design and architectural studies from New York University. Levy, a native of Sarasota, Fla., has a master’s degree in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania and is a nanny.
The couple learned Upsala was for sale while wrapping up the restoration of a home in Philadelphia’s Queen Village, but felt the timing wasn’t right. When that flip sold, they decided to check it out.
“We were like, let’s just go look at it because we’re never going to be allowed back in after someone buys it,” Levy recalled.
Stepping inside, they were struck by the scale of the space — including 11-foot ceilings on the first floor and a massive, winding staircase.
“We sort of fell in love with it,” she said. “And the rest was history.”
Both the National Trust and Cliveden’s board felt Upsala’s best shot for long-term stewardship and preservation was as a private residence, with a preservation easement, Malone-France said. Although some of the other offers also proposed turning Upsala back into a home, others suggested options including a law office, nonprofit school, and a hybrid private home with gallery space and retail space, Malone-France said. Ultimately, Aberle and Levy prevailed.
Ted Reed, executive director of Cliveden’s board of directors, said he wasn’t surprised that the buyers were a young couple, given recent residential renewal in Mount Airy and Germantown.
“It’s a similar group of people who are buying houses, rehabbing them and restoring them,” Reed said.
Malone-France said she found the response “heartening and inspiring,” but adds she was particularly excited that the offer that rose to the top came from a preservation-savvy duo who understood preservation easements and had a well-thought-out plan for ushering Upsala into a new era.
“These folks — Violette and Alex — we could not ask for better stewards of this property,” Malone-France said. “And the fact that they are doing so in such a 21st-century way is even more delightful.”
The couple moved to the 6,724-square foot home from a 300-square foot apartment in South Philadelphia. Their four rescue cats, Marcel, Nemo, Will and Grace, enjoy following the sun from window to window each day.
Their first task after moving in, according to the self-described “clean freaks” was deep-cleaning the entire house. The house had been well-maintained but needed a good wash. They decided not to use any harsh chemicals, instead wiping down every surface, including the floors, with a mixture of water and vinegar. It was a big job because of all the woodwork in the house.
After installing central air conditioning on part of the second floor where the master bedroom is, they began painting each room themselves. The interior was largely pale yellow but now includes hues such as Turkish Tile, Roycroft Pewter and Mauve Finery by Sherwin-Williams.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Aberle said. “We’ve become pros. The running joke is we can paint a whole room from prep to finish in a weekend.”
Eclectic furnishings such as velvet sofas share space with a funky collection of vintage typewriters, juxtaposed next to elaborate 18th-century mantels. Modern art by artists John Holcomb of Topeka, Kan.; Mac Worthington of Columbus, Ohio; and Gunnar Montana of Philadelphia adorn the spaces.
“Each room kind of takes on a life of its own,” Aberle said.
The couple was pleasantly surprised to learn the dining room’s wallpaper is the lush scene “El Dorado” by French wallpaper company Zuber & Cie. Hanging art was a challenge because the home’s exterior is stone — technically “Wissahickon schist” — and interior walls are brick covered with plaster, Aberle said.
Upstairs, a two-stall bathroom pays homage to Upsala’s days as a house museum, while the unfinished third floor has blackened remains from the 1940s fire set by vandals.
The kitchen, located in the home’s rear wing, got “a little minor Home Depot reno — it was just a little facelift with new floors and a fresh coat of paint, but it made all the difference,” Levy said.
There are definite quirks. A stairway off the kitchen goes nowhere. A second-floor bathroom can be accessed by a rear stairwell but not from the front side of the home, where the couples’ bedroom is, without going down a ladder.
Shortly after moving in, the home’s two hot water heaters had to be replaced and one of the two furnaces wouldn’t fire up, but fortunately only needed a starter. And given the thick walls, WiFi reception is a challenge.
“We ended up getting a mesh system with 11 hotspots,” Aberle said.
The couple declined to say what they’ve spent on renovations and repairs to date.
“It’s definitely not cheap — it’s a lot,” Aberle said.
Substantial changes to the house can’t be made without written approval from the National Trust. When the rear of a copper downspout on the front of the home split and a patch failed twice, the couple asked to replace the damaged segment with an identical copper pipe that was thicker and might last longer. The request was approved in less than 24 hours, Aberle said
Would they ever take on a project like this again? “There’s so much work to do here that I don’t think we’ll ever have the opportunity to start this in another house,” Aberle said.
The couple, who are not required to remain in the house for any length of time, launched the Instagram account (@historicupsala) shortly after moving in. A big reason? While the home hadn’t been open as a house museum in more than a dozen years, “we were very conscious of the fact that what was once a public resource would now be private,” Aberle said.
The account has more than 2,800 followers and Aberle said he and Levy work to share the home’s transformation and their lives in a way that’s “safe and able to respect our privacy and our boundaries and everything.”
At the request of the National Trust and subject to the couple’s approval, people affiliated with educational organizations, professional architectural associations and historical societies may be permitted access to study the property, Mayes said.
Strangers sometimes knock wanting a tour or message the couple on social media hoping for a look-see. Usually, they politely reply that they don’t offer tours, but do welcome the community in other ways.
Aberle and Levy hosted an invite-only cocktail party earlier this year and raffle for the neighborhood. They loan their yard to organizers of the annual Mt. Airy Day neighborhood block party. In August, the couple held the first annual “Side Hustle Street Fair +Picnic!,” which drew about 100 vendors who promoted their alternative trades or side jobs on Upsala’s front lawn.
They’ve also come to embrace Halloween. Last year, they transformed Upsala into a reproduction of “Alice In Wonderland,” replete with a mushroom field, Mad Hatter’s tea party and the Queen’s croquet court. Aberle was Tweedle Dee and Levy was the Queen of Hearts.
“We love doing Halloween because it’s a chance for us to engage with the neighborhood,” Aberle said. “The house sort of necessitates a grand gesture.”
And each year they invite friends to watch the reenactment of the Battle of Germantown from their upstairs rooms.
“Our first year in the house we had no idea what to expect so naturally, we threw a party,” Aberle said of the spectacle, which draws thousands.
Levy added: “People think it’s fun to have somewhere to go to have front-row seats to the reenactment.”
A half-hour after the couple closed, the doorbell rang and the neighbor’s young son delivered a homemade card. It read, “Welcome to the neighborhood, we’re so glad to have you!” Two years after working to making this place their own, Levy said the experience has been rewarding for the couple — and the neighborhood.
“We just keep hearing a lot of like, ‘It’s nice to see activity because there wasn’t activity here for so long,’ ” she said. “People appreciate seeing lights on at night, seeing us out in the yard and just having someone in the space.”