Op-ed: Lessons Learned & Magic Found At Neutra’s Hassrick House In East Falls

 

The Hassrick House has become an incubator of creative historic preservation studies since the former owners opened up their home to architecture students at Jefferson University in 2015. The school purchased the home in 2018. | Photo: Hussain Aljoher, courtesy of Jefferson University

The Hassrick House was designed in 1958 by famed modernist architect Richard Neutra for Doll and Ken Hassrick. As a wedding present, the Hassricks were given three acres and a Bugatti Coupe. The land was gifted from Doll’s family parcel off of Schoolhouse Lane in Northwest Philadelphia. In more recent history, the house has been used for a living artifact of learning lead by architecture students at Jefferson University. The program unofficially began in 2015 when the former homeowners, George Acosta and John Hauser, welcomed students into their house to experience the magic of the Hassrick House for themselves.

“Be a Part of the House’s History”

We all gathered around George Acosta in the courtyard. He was filled with excitement and clenched a white binder to his chest. George sat down on the small wooden chair and opened the binder on his lap. He took a deep breath and began reading the words of another time. “My dear Mr. Neutra…” George quickly jumped into character, portraying all of the eccentricity on the page, “Before I get carried away with the house let me tell you how much we enjoyed meeting and talking with you…” One could feel that he connected with the words on the page as if they were his own. “We are so convinced that your ideas of a home are also ours that we found that we kept saying, ‘Oh, don’t put that down, he knows.’ George looks up at us with a smile. “We don’t want to build with the idea of impressing anyone (your name is enough to do that)”, he whispers, “We simply want a warm, friendly, gemütlich feeling… Ken says Zen. Is this possible? This is to say, the house must work efficiently, pleasure the eye, comfort the soul, and warm the heart.” 

As George said those final words, his voice resonated with emotion and care. We all slowly came back to reality, fading away from our imagination of the past, picturing the life of who wrote this, and what a life she must have lived here. It was quiet. You could hear the wind rustling through the tall trees surrounding us and feel the warmth of the sun on the glass and salmon-colored stone. Our focus shifted from George to taking in our surroundings, imagining the past playing out in front of us. He closed the binder and paused for a moment to look over the group. He stood and thanked us before we slowly returned to our tasks.

This memory resonates strongly with the power of a place to evoke feeling. To feel the warmth of the house, to feel it reaching out into nature, to be transported to another time, to feel the comfort of the wood and the life of the home. This was during the summer of 2016. I had just completed my second year in Philadelphia University’s Bachelor of Architecture program. I had decided to enroll in a class that focused on a mysterious building adjacent to campus. I convinced my friend and classmate, Anna Ayik, to enroll with me. We were told that the house was designed by Richard Neutra, and that it was special, that you just had to visit once to understand its magic.

View past the Hassrick House’s kitchen into the formal dining room. | Photo: Madison Emig

George and John owned the Hassrick House at the time. They had moved to Philadelphia from Los Angeles in 2007. George and John often visited Palm Springs, where they had many slow drives by their dream residence, the Kaufmann Desert House designed by Richard Neutra in 1946. According to John, “One night George was browsing the internet look at real estate for sale. He called out ‘You have to see this house. It’s a Neutra in Philadelphia!’’’ The next day they were at the property. It was in significant disrepair. However, when George and John first walked up to the Hassrick House they looked at each other and both said, “We are buying this house.”

They had compiled research on the home from the Thaddeus Longstreth Archive, held by the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the Neutra Archives at the California Polytechnic State University. They gathered artifacts such as correspondence between the original home owners, Barbara “Doll” Hassrick and Ken Hassrick, and Richard Neutra as well as Longstreth who managed many of Neutra’s East Coast projects. In the day described above, George was reading Doll’s first letter to Mr. Neutra, which describes what the Hassrick family would like in the house.

George and John opened their home to students with the hopes of shaping a unique learning experience about modern architecture, history, and drawing. Andrew Hart, the professor teaching the course, was excited to get us on board. The enthusiasm made us want to be involved even more. The images of the house I had seen fed into my fascination with history and storytelling. When I read the course’s description, “Be a part of the house’s history,” I was sold.

The Passion of Student-led Preservation

The class comprised mostly of graduate construction management students who wished to get hands-on experience with drawings and surveying in Imperial standards of measurement, as they were largely accustomed to Metric. The first cohort of the class, as Professor Hart called them, had been focused on drawing. Students created drawings from surveys and had taken beautiful photographs of the house on an experimental whim. This course always has, and always will be, lead by student interests and what they wish to explore. Our goal, as the second cohort, was to prepare a set of drawings to submit to the National Park Service’s Historic American Building Survey with the hope that it would be entered into the National Archives. During our second class meeting we walked over to the house for the first time. We left the school, cut through a thicket of trees, and arrived at the home.

Driven by curiosity, Anna and I went looking for the house one evening before the course began. We turned down the long stretch of Cherry Lane framed by beautiful trees. We drove past the house quickly and turned around slowly at the circle driveway of the neighboring stone house. As we crept around the circle, we saw the Hassrick House for the first time. It was glowing from the inside, quiet life radiating at its intimate center. It felt like the scene of a play, the landscape as its stage. I was mesmerized for a moment. Then, we quickly drove away.

As the class stood at the front of the house, in the gravel driveway off of Cherry Lane, I remember thinking that it felt protected from this angle, like it was hiding away its special mysteries from the street. We stayed here as Andrew spoke about the house, but eventually our natural curiosity began to take over. I walked up to the wall near the entry and touched the salmon-colored stone block. It was cool to the touch. The texture was coarse, yet almost buttery like wet sand. We slowly walked around the entryway, compressed into a single line of people. One by one, we turned the corner to the large sliding glass doors. These doors–the secret that the front of the house was hiding–opened the house to the landscape and connected the two as one. I was in awe seeing this up close for the first time, noticing all of the little details that added to the effect–the brick bridging the span between interior and exterior, the reflection of the trees to the inside. Something clicked. Looking inside the glass door was like looking through a portal into another era.

One goal of the course was to undertake an accurate site survey for the Historic American Landscape Survey. We spent the bulk of our class time measuring and drawing the landscape by gridding out the site like a graph and using these lines to locate the trees and capture their dimensions. We divided up into teams, laser measures in hand. We all took a lesson in surveying taught by Evan McNaught, the lone undergraduate Landscape Architecture student in the course. I have vivid memories of Anna perched on top of the septic tank cover, swatting away bugs in the summer heat, precisely drawing our dimensions as we called them out to her. One lucky class day, after an event the homeowners hosted at the house, George graced us with leftovers of shrimp, plantains, and miniature key lime pies.  We sat on the lawn between Anna’s spot and the large glass doors and thanked him for the food before gobbling up all of the shrimp. George and John had always welcomed us with open arms into their house, but this moment still rings particularly true to their kindness and hospitality.

Grace Messner, Jessica Radomski, Adam Hoover, and Shannon McLain work on their 2019 class timeline. | Photo: Andrew Hart

Working with the graduate students created a unique learning environment. Many of them had undergraduate degrees in architecture or had real-life experience as construction managers, but were not familiar with the Imperial system of measurement or some of the software programs that the class wished to use. The three undergraduate students, including myself, had much less experience and education than the graduate students, but we had grown up with the Imperial system and knew some software, so they asked us to teach them. Our cohort featured a mix of majors. We had construction management, architecture, interior architecture, and landscape architecture. We all had something to learn from each other.

Throughout each course, we had lectures to discuss the context of the house. James Doerfler, the director of Architecture Programs, presented on the context of modernism, discussing how Richard Neutra’s work was influential within the architectural movement. David Briener, the associate dean of the College of Architecture and the Built Environment, presented in-depth research on the growth and history of Schoolhouse Lane. In addition, the summer cohorts received a lecture from George inside the house, discussing the restoration process and philosophical approach.

During the summer of 2017 the class went on to its next phase. The goal was to create a historical report to submit along with the Historical American Building Survey documents. Kevin King, who at the time was about to enter his fifth year of the Bachelors of Architecture program, spearheaded the effort. He had already been interested in historic preservation and founded the club “Students for Historic Preservation” on campus. Kevin’s report was thorough and relied heavily on the information of the letters of correspondence, which allowed him to pull dates and facts from the stories told. George and John’s desire to ensure that students would be able to continue using the house as an educational tool allowed a relative miracle to happen on July 1, 2018. Jefferson University pooled its resources and purchased the iconic home.

Learning Through a Living Artifact

Now that the school owned the house, we had to interact with it differently–mostly from a distance. Undeterred, a small group of us mobilized in order to continue advocating for the house. Anna, Evan, Kevin and myself, led by Andrew, created presentations, designed postcards to share information about the house with others, as well as gave tours to  visiting lecturers and administrators of the architecture department. One lucky evening, Barbara Klinkhammer, dean of the architecture school, organized a special dinner in the house to host renowned lecturer, architect, and academic Thom Mayne to kick off the semester’s lecture series. We had been encouraged to give Thom a tour and George followed along with us. The interaction between George and Thom was very interesting, as they disagreed on certain details, but this allowed us to gain more insight into the house and how complex restoring buildings can be.

When the tour entered the master bedroom the discussion turned even more lively. I was telling Thom the story of how Doll and Ken had a white Bengal tiger rug in the bedroom in an effort to depict the Hassrick’s eccentricity. Thom laughed, then immediately turned his attention to a particular detail: how the wood from the interior visually extends out past the glass. He pointed at this and said, “That was the first detail I stole from Richard Neutra.”

It was great to see George again at the dinner. After everyone else left, he was filled with emotion. He seemed so happy to see students continuing to work with and learn from the house. So many students, including those who had never seen the house, care deeply about it. 

The Class of 2015 meets inside the Hassrick House at night. | Photo: Andrew Hart

Now, in Spring 2019, another course is underway. The fourth cohort comprises of undergraduate students. We are focusing on developing an oral archive of the history of the house, as well as an exhibit, a model, and photography of both the house and all of the students that have taken the course. This class has clearer goals than its predecessors, but is still led by student interests. We have all gotten swept away in the stories unfolding from our research, constantly finding unexpected gems and new leads.

We are a group of self-proclaimed design nerds, fueled by the excitement of discovery, finding more information than we ever thought we would. It only took Jessica Radomski, a sophomore enrolled in the course, two days to sort through The Philadelphia Inquirer articles and find a photograph of Doll Hassrick. We now have multiple images and articles to connect the personalities in the letters with all of the stories. As the class description states, “Buildings are silent witnesses to the past. Rediscovering the ‘stories’ of a building’s many lives relies upon piecing together archival, physical, and ethnographic evidence.” We are interpreting documentary evidence to develop historical narratives.

This house has been used as a collaborative learning tool in different ways throughout the course’s different iterations. It has produced wildly different outcomes because of the student-led structure. The house has an inordinate amount of potential to continue this track of different possibilities to explore. Whether students want to focus on historic preservation, sustainability, research, documentation, furniture building, a film, a children’s book, etc., there is endless potential for coming up with new ways to learn through the house. Because of this, it should be preserved, not only because it is a Richard Neutra house, but because the home is a living artifact of learning and it relies upon the energy, creativity, and exploration of students.

***

Soapbox gives readers, contributors, and staff of Hidden City Daily the opportunity to share their thoughts on topical issues with smart, engaging discussion. Have an idea for an op-ed? Drop us a line and join the conversation: editor@hiddencityphila.org

About the author

Shannon McLain has been involved at every possible level in the utilization, documentation, and exploration of the Hassrick House as a platform for learning at Jefferson University. From her time as a 2nd year student making field measurements, a 3rd year student recruiting others to continue the work, giving tours to a 4th year student providing tours to Thom Mayne, to funding scholarly research and publication of her and her fellow students experiences. It is likely there isn’t an inch of the house she has not measured, read about, written about, or emailed another student to photograph. McLain has been a steadfast supporter of the preservation and education work at the Hassrick House, the architecture program, and the College of Architecture and the Built Environment.



2 Comments


  1. What was Doll’s maiden name? Am curious about the gift of the land and its prior ownership.

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