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Malcolm Wells' Ellis House, Cherry Hill, NJ: Forclosure Sale
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DRN



Joined: 10 Jul 2006
Posts: 3513
Location: Cherry Hill, NJ

PostPosted: Tue Jul 31, 2012 10:42 am    Post subject: Malcolm Wells' Ellis House, Cherry Hill, NJ: Forclosure Sale Reply with quote

Interested in a 1960's modern house on 2 acres in a quiet wooded neighborhood, that boasts two, possibly three houses designed by Wells and another by an architect named Louis Kahn? This house, designed by Mac, has been vacant for some time and needs work, but is serviceable. If you know someone in the Philly area who might be interested, or someone who may want to move here and has a passion for good buildings and organic design, please pass this on.

See realtor's listing:

http://www.realtor.com/realestateandhomes-detail/221-Munn-Ln_Cherry-Hill_NJ_08034_M57336-66905?source=web

The listing notes the possibility of "take down". I'm working with the realtor and the bank to strike that part. I'm hoping to get a walk through later this week. I'll send any pics I take to SDR. In the meantime, I'll send SDR a scan of an October 1965 House Beautiful spread of Mac's renderings for the house.

The Cherry Hill Historical Commission, of which I am a member, has no means to protect this house from tear down. In my capacity as the Township's resident Mac Wells and recent modern building hugger, I've been working to get the Commission to recognize noted buildings less than 50 years old as significant (most of Wells' work in the Township falls into that category), but no protectives yet.
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SDR



Joined: 17 Jun 2006
Posts: 15940
Location: San Francisco

PostPosted: Tue Jul 31, 2012 1:07 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

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Paul Ringstrom



Joined: 17 Sep 2005
Posts: 3895
Location: Mason City, IA

PostPosted: Tue Jul 31, 2012 1:08 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

What kind of moronic realtor provides one, very poor, exterior photo of the house as part of his listing?

One begins to wonder whether or not realtors are actually interested in selling anything.
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Laurie Virr



Joined: 25 Jul 2009
Posts: 471

PostPosted: Tue Jul 31, 2012 7:16 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I was working in Mac Wells’ studio when he designed the Ellis house.

If I recall correctly, Mr Ellis was a highway contractor.

Mac always worked incredibly quickly: the design of the Ellis house, together with the presentation drawings took just 2 days.

His ability with pen, pencil and watercolors was outstanding. He was extremely gifted. All his perspectives were drawn as he would have liked the building to look, and he tended to exaggerate the horizontal. In this regard, he was astonished that I could set up a 2 or 3 point mechanical perspective: the concept had never occurred to him.

Once the design was complete, and accepted by the client/s, he lost interest, and passed the detailing to one of his draftsmen. On more than one occasion I heard him reply to a query from one of the latter, ‘Oh, just draw a few lines close together, and we will sort it out on site.’

It was a privilege to work for him, and I have based my practice on that which I learned whilst in his employ, altho in contradistinction to his approach, I agonize over the details.

He was a truly remarkable human being.
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peterm



Joined: 13 Mar 2008
Posts: 5797
Location: Chicago, Il.---Oskaloosa, Ia.

PostPosted: Tue Jul 31, 2012 10:31 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Do you think that he had thought abut the design for some time beforehand? Two days for this is astounding... Do you remember him making any sort of rough sketches in preparation?
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Wrightgeek



Joined: 07 Jan 2005
Posts: 1548
Location: Westerville, Ohio

PostPosted: Tue Jul 31, 2012 10:34 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Fantastic insights only available to someone who was intimately involved in the process. Thanks for taking the time to share your memories with us, Laurie.
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DRN



Joined: 10 Jul 2006
Posts: 3513
Location: Cherry Hill, NJ

PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2012 8:20 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Laurie:
I'm glad you chimed in on this thread. From the publish date of the article in House Beautiful, and its note that the house was in construction in 1965, I suspected you may have been in Mac's office during the time of this commission.

I must ask this question: Was there any "cross pollination" that you know of between this project and the RCA Pavilion Mac designed for the 1964/65 New York World's Fair? I ask this because of the use of circular geometries in the house plan, which to my limited knowledge of Mac's work in this era, was used to a great extent only in this house and the RCA Pavilion.

For those unfamiliar with the RCA Pavilion, a plan can be seen here, scroll down:
http://www.nywf64.com/rca05.shtml
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Laurie Virr



Joined: 25 Jul 2009
Posts: 471

PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2012 6:06 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

wrightgeek:

Thank you for your kind remarks.

You are probably aware of a post made by Paul Ringstrom on 23 September 2009 related to the topic ‘Designing Your Natural House’. I had written of my experiences whilst working in Mac’s studio, and Paul sought my permission to incorporate the information into that particular thread.

What I failed to mention was his practice of farming out the smaller commissions that came to the studio to those of us in the drafting room. These projects were in house competitions, and had to be worked on during our free time. Dead lines were tight, and Mac was the judge of the designs. The successful design was always under his aegis of course, but the designer was assigned the resultant fees. It was a nice touch.

I recall having returned to the studio after dinner one evening to work on a design. Expecting to be alone, I was surprised when sometime later Mac entered the studio by way of the drafting room and from behind me peered over my shoulder. Pointing to a masonry mass on my drawing he asked me why I had placed it in that location. I replied, ‘It just felt right.‘ His response was, ‘That is good enough for me,’ and he walked away. He fully understood that good design is intuitive, and is not capable of the explanations so beloved by the faculty of colleges of Architecture.

Peterm:

Mac Wells had a thriving practice in 1963-64. He was the architect of choice for RCA, and besides designing its pavilion at the New York World Fair, accepted commissions from it to design a number of buildings associated with the U.S. space program. There was an earth sheltered office/manufacturing plant at Reading, Pennsylvania, for an enterprise producing construction fasteners, together with churches, a library, and numerous private residences.

I never saw him make a rough sketch. He drew the modular grid, and immediately began committing his concept to it, working at tremendous speed with T-square and triangle. Most presentation drawings were complete within 3-4 days of taking receipt of the briefs.

DRN:

There would appear to be some discrepancy with the relevant dates. I was in Mac’s studio from 1963 thru 1964, and initially involved in the final stages of the supervision of the World Fair building. [I have one of the copper semi-circles to be seen on the elevations of that building in my studio].

The Ellis house was designed whilst I was working at Cherry Hill, and I distinctly remember the discussions that took place with regard to the method of flashing to be adopted where the circular elements abutted or penetrated the roof.

To my knowledge the RCA pavilion was the first design in which Mac used circular elements. Almost contemporary with the Ellis house design was another for a small plaza in Camden, New Jersey, and it used circular elements, altho not as successfully as was the case with the other two aforementioned works. The diameters of some of the brick masonry planters were small, and the choice of having headers on the external face determined that the joints were very wide, even ugly.
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SDR



Joined: 17 Jun 2006
Posts: 15940
Location: San Francisco

PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2012 6:27 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Making circular architecture with rectangular building elements will always be fraught with (aesthetic) peril. The ideal for a curved brick wall is custom brick units molded to the correct radius -- obviously. Not every client has the budget to indulge his architect thus. (An interesting case-in-reverse is Jacobs I, where surplus brick from the Johnson Wax building, including radiused units, was employed in the erection of flat walls -- or so we are told.)

Buildings composed of cylindrical elements must have been "in the air" in the mid-sixties; a RISD professor named Lester Millman was responsible for a new bus terminal in Providence, c. 1964, where sweeping vehicular traffic patterns were the impetus for its multi-cylinder plan.

I would hope that our resident architects might have done better than did Mr Wells when it came to the layout of the clothing storage area of the girls' dormitory at the Ellis residence. It's the collision of the orthogonal with the circular which sometimes stumps us ?

SDR
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peterm



Joined: 13 Mar 2008
Posts: 5797
Location: Chicago, Il.---Oskaloosa, Ia.

PostPosted: Wed Aug 01, 2012 11:33 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Laurie- thanks for the detailed response. What an incredible learning experience it must have been to work with someone so talented and sensitive. Intuition is too often killed by over analysis and second guessing. His trust in you must have certainly helped increase your confidence as a designer. The best gift that an employer/mentor could offer...

I'm curious, did you ever design any earth sheltered structures in Australia? Was Wells already experimenting in this area when you worked with him?
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Laurie Virr



Joined: 25 Jul 2009
Posts: 471

PostPosted: Thu Aug 02, 2012 1:53 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

peterm:

i am pleased that you found the above comments of interest.

During the first two years of my Architecture studies I found myself in a school where Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier were worshipped. I considered their work to be cold, hard, and frequently poorly detailed. It did not look like shelter to me. I did not disguise my disdain, and as a consequence the professors responded accordingly. I kept my spirits high by subscribing to Elizabeth Gordon’s House Beautiful, and it was in that magazine that I first encountered the Architecture of Mac Wells.

Midway thru a degree in Architecture it was mandatory to acquire at least one year of practical experience. To that end I wrote six architects in the U.S.A. seeking a position in their studios, but it was the time of the Cuban crisis, and Alfred Browning Parker and Albert Ledner, among others, had little work.

Mac offered me a place in his drafting room, and arranged for me to be granted a work permit.

I expected to be engaged in furnishing working drawings, but when I arrived at his studio he threw me in the deep end, asking me to design a house at Norfolk, Virginia, for very important clients. The male was a member of the board of RCA, a corporation that had given Mac his start, and offered him a continuous stream of commissions.

I was introduced to the clients, discussed their briefs, and then left to my own devices. When the design was complete, Mac assessed it briefly, and called the client into the studio. The design was accepted, with one minor amendment, and I was on my way. It was so different from the humbug I had been subjected to at college.

Following that experience I was given every opportunity: more designs, access to the extensive professional library, visits to building sites, including the New York World Fair, a key to the studio. I responded by working long hours, keen to demonstrate that I appreciated what was being offered. Architecturally, I grew like corn in the sun. Moreover, my efforts were rewarded with large salary increases, and these were supplemented by the fees I received for winning some of the in house competitions.

When I returned to Australia to complete my studies, I was quietly confident. I reasoned that I had been tested by fire in the U.S.A., especially in relation to the initial experience of being asked to design the house at Norfolk, Virginia, and that I was fully equipped to counter any professors who had a particular wheelbarrow to push.

Working for Mac was an incredible experience. How many architects of his stature would have behaved towards somebody who was still a student, as he did to me? The debt I owed him, spiritually, could never be repaid.

We continued to correspond frequently until the end of his life, a period of more than 45 years. He never visited this country, but I made journeys to Brewster, Massachusetts, at regular intervals.

It will be a long time before we see his like again.

His interest in earth sheltered buildings evolved during 1964, and his first tentative steps were taken at the Construction Fasteners building mentioned above. The client was excellent, and was accepting of having the walls bermed. Mac was able to experiment with butyl rubber sheeting, and details that he would later employ in his fully earth sheltered work.

I have attempted to persuade clients to build earth sheltered houses in Australia but to no avail. I have been able to build some with bermed walls.
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SDR



Joined: 17 Jun 2006
Posts: 15940
Location: San Francisco

PostPosted: Thu Aug 02, 2012 2:50 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

DRN sends photos of the Ellis residence. He writes:


The house is very dramatic and should sell itself to a buyer looking for architecture rather than just a house. It needs work, but nothing is so onerous that the house couldn't be reroofed, 3 or 4 windows reglazed, carpets removed, some mold abated, and thouroughly/professionally cleaned inside and out, installation of smoke, CO detectors, and GFI circuits in wet areas such that a buyer could move in and gradually do the rest of the work of restoration/renovation. The roof is cedar shake and original (47 years old), in need of replacement. The curved flashings Laurie spoke of have held up well considering the deferred maintenance (the laundry drum's flashing has leaked and is in need of replacement, I would examine all) and a couple of the domed skylight flashings have failed causing leaks, but the drums themselves are stalwart...reinforced CMU with cast in place floors and roofs...true pill box construction. The curved incursions into the rectilinear grid give a sense of playfullness to the spaces and there is truly a feeling of discovery as one walks through the house.




3
Approach to front porch

4
Basement

5
Carport and rear of house

6
Front porch

7
Living room fireplace and main entry

8
Master bedroom looking toward bathroom drum

9
Rear of house

10
Southwest corner looking across front
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peterm



Joined: 13 Mar 2008
Posts: 5797
Location: Chicago, Il.---Oskaloosa, Ia.

PostPosted: Thu Aug 02, 2012 3:39 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Really nice...

It's unfortunate that once again, wood has been painted.

It appears that most of the spaces haven't been altered. And considering the size of the lot, the price seems reasonable...
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SDR



Joined: 17 Jun 2006
Posts: 15940
Location: San Francisco

PostPosted: Thu Aug 02, 2012 9:04 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

With all that painted stucco, perhaps the wood too was intended to receive paint ?

As I read these photos, the realization of this design is about form rather than about material. A sensitive re-coloring of the various surfaces might bring out its best qualities ?

One is reminded of B Pfeiffer's interpretation of the Ralph Jester design . . . a sort of reductive abstraction of Wright's design ?

SDR
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Roderick Grant



Joined: 29 Mar 2006
Posts: 8420

PostPosted: Fri Aug 03, 2012 12:53 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

The walls to either side of the living room fireplace, are they marble? Or faux?
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