West Coast architecture in the Wissahickon gorge
Pulling off Lincoln Drive, you may have noticed four distinctive “modernist” homes on that wooded stretch of Gypsy Lane. The houses are boxy, angular, flat-roofed. They’re rather seamlessly incorporated into the steep Wissahickon hillsides here, with dramatic decks and expansive windows making the most of the scenery. While each one is quite different from the other, they’re obviously of the same architectural style.
Indeed, three of the four were designed by the same guy, a local talent who left his mark on famous landmarks all over the country, and also right here in NW Philly.
Galen Schlosser (1912 – 2002) lived in East Falls and Mount Airy, passing away at age 90 after outliving two wives. He had a long career as a supervising architect with Louis Kahn‘s world-famous firm, where he helmed such acclaimed projects as the Salk Institute in La Jolla (1960) and Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum (1972).
Louis Kahn, by the way, has local roots as well: from 1957 until his death in 1974, he was a professor of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. His style is considered monumental & monolithic — his heavy buildings do not hide their weight, nor materials, nor construction. He’s also considered a visionary with a uniquely spiritual connection to the built environment — colleagues often said that every building was a temple to him.
Two of the most influential architects of the 20th Century, Louis Kahn and Galen Schlosser no doubt inspired and challenged each other to exciting new approaches and perspectives that residents and visitors to this area can enjoy.
The Modernist Houses of Gypsy Lane
#1. Starting at the top of the hill, this Schlosser below has it all: decks, windows, slopes, arches, angles. And views! Maddeningly hard to photograph, the house almost hides from the road then opens out in back with several levels of decks overlooking a beautiful craggy creek bed.
#2. This brick house, above — named “Schlosseresin” (1965) — was designed and built by Galen for his family, in collaboration with their input. In 1987, they all sat down on the deck together to share thoughts and reflections on their home, captured in a short video you can watch HERE on youtube. The production is basically a home movie but it’s quite sweet and interesting. Lots of great interior and exterior shots really bring the design to life. Warning: includes cantilevering anecdotes, the term “mega wrench” and a Frank Lloyd Wrong joke.
#3. Moving down Gypsy Lane, past some unremarkable construction, you’ll find the first-built of all Schlosser’s houses at the bottom of the hill, sitting way back off the road. The property pictured below shows a swimming pool that has since been filled in by its new owners, who purchased the house a few years ago from foreclosure. They started some work on it, then COVID hit and recently activity seems to have started up again, maybe? We don’t know, we’re just neighbors, lol.
Awesome piece of property, though! Love how it backs up to a great trail in the Wissahickon that looks down over Lincoln Drive. It’s nice to follow it up to Historic Rittenhouse Town, where you can poke around history or catch one of the rustic trails leading deep into the park system. Forbidden Drive comes in here, too, at nearby Ten Box.
BONUS: A Brute Fourth
But wait, there’s more Modernism! Back up at the very top of the hill, at the intersection of Gypsy and Schoolhouse, our fourth Modernist house crouches along a grassy hillside, facing Jefferson University’s Ravenhill campus. Built in the late 50’s, this eye-catching structure was designed by Irwin Stein after studying with Brutalist master Paul Rudolph at Penn.
Btw, “Brutalism” is a style of architecture that favors structural elements over decoration, highlight bare materials and minimalist construction. FUN FACT: the name comes from the French word for raw concrete, “béton brut,” which features heavily in Brutalist design.
This lively, sprawling residence was created as a home for Stein’s brother, and later the architect would live here himself for awhile:
The home is striking in its use of raw concrete, with intentionally crude materials and construction. Brutalism has its roots in Communist “bloc” housing, with a bare-bones approach that many love to hate: the Round House downtown is a good example. Our own example of East Falls Brutalist architecture calls to mind more West Hollywood than Downtown Leningrad, although perhaps that explains the “Red” accent paint…? 😂
For another local Modernist masterpiece, check out the fascinating Hassrick House nearby, on Jefferson University’s East Falls campus. It’s a fine example of another local rock star architect, Richard Neutra, whose style was so popular he even has his own font! It’s kind of amazing to think of how impactful our area has been in defining a universally-recognized aesthetic.
This article was updated in June, 2023