Architecture

The Fantastic Flair of Samuel Yellin and His Fortress on the Main Line

March 3, 2020 | by Greg Prichard

Samuel Yellin, at right, with a striker on the floor of his forge in the 1920s. | Image courtesy of Samuel Yellin Metalworkers Co.

He was one of Philadelphia’s most skilled craftsmen. An artist of unique ability and unrivaled creativity. Respected by his peers and the community. But were his creative eccentricities compatible with the neighborhood he chose to call home?

Samuel Yellin, an iron worker whose name still holds prestige, had become one of the nation’s most sought after creators of architectural ironwork by the 1920s. He could twist a metal rod into a spiraling shape with a dragon’s head on its end with ease. Many of his commissions were to ornament extravagant homes, public buildings, and campus centerpieces. It was a time in American architecture when revivalist styles with European influences were increasingly the norm, and he helped make believable the illusions that new buildings actually came from distant places and times.

Yellin was a frequent collaborator with the architects Mellor, Meigs & Howe. Their work verged on the fantastic and whimsical at times, a perfect platform for Yellin’s often outlandish creations. When Mellor, Meigs & Howe needed an office, Yellin supplied the finishing touches. And when Yellin needed a workshop, Mellor, Meigs & Howe designed a building for him on Arch Street that was simple in form, but graphically unique in its detail and ornamentation. It was a partnership of equals, a merging of skills that shared a common theme and design intent.

The drafting room of Samuel Yellin’s studio on Arch Street. | Image courtesy of Samuel Yellin Metalworkers Co.

It is not a surprise that Yellin would hire the same architects to transfigure the 1896 home he purchased on Lancaster Pike in Wynnewood just a few miles west of the city boundary. By this time the storied Lancaster Turnpike had ceased being a toll road and was rebranded the Lincoln Highway, a cross-country route from Times Square to San Francisco. It was where the Main Line’s main commercial centers were found, although much of the “Pike” was still residential and even appeared to be downright rural in some spots.

Unlike addresses like Ardmore, Wayne, and Berwyn, Wynnewood did not have a commercial core of its own until the automobile-friendly Wynnewood Shopping Center opened in the 1950s. The Pike in Wynnewood was dotted with homes, gas stations, and the assorted ancient relic including a one-room schoolhouse and the wayside William Penn Inn. Most of the homes were not stately but could be considered on the higher end of the Main Line’s architectural spectrum. They were, after all, on the area’s most travelled road, so they were designed to be seen rather than to provide their occupants with privacy. Yet Samuel Yellin wanted both.

The Foering House

In 1896, a new home at 333 East Lancaster Avenue in Wynnewood was completed. The owner was John O. Foering, a Civil War veteran whose life was saved when his pocketwatch deflected a bullet during the 1864 Battle of Keennesaw Mountain. At the peak of his career as chief grain inspector for the Port of Philadelphia, Foering clearly wanted his home to be in a place of prominence on the eastern Main Line.

The home of John O. Foering as it appeared shortly after it was purchased by Samuel Yellin in 1924. | Image courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

The architect Foering hired was becoming increasingly prolific between Rosemont and Wynnewood. Henry Light Reinhold, Jr., who at the time was in a partnership with Clarence E. Schermerhorn, designed houses using what seems to be an architectural “kit of parts.” His standard residential home was a typical American Foursquare with a few embellishments. Each variant varied in depth and width, and depending on a client’s desires some featured brick quoins, fancier porch columns, more sizable attic dormers, etc. Foering’s home was set apart from its siblings by sporting a sizable porte-cochere and the date of its construction–1896–set into a cast plaster shield on the front facade. And yet in form it was a simple Foursquare, more notable for its location than its architecture.

Foering resided there for nearly 30 years, during which time its appearance apparently changed little. Yellin purchased the property in 1924. The home’s staid architecture was far from the metal worker’s taste, and while it seems odd that Yellin would have modified an existing home rather than build one that better suited his aesthetic from scratch, the simple form of the Foursquare provided an easy template from which to redesign anew.

From American Foursquare to European Fortress

In 1924 Mellor, Meigs & Howe went to work, creating a completely new personality for this typically Main Line home. The direction they took could be described as the other end of the architectural spectrum: they and Yellin decided it should be less American Foursquare and become more Medieval fortress.

This photograph shows the home nearly completed, and the terrace wall under construction. Note its close proximity to the Wimer house to the right. | Image courtesy of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Away went the fine details befitting a home at the beginning of the Colonial Revival movement. In came a two-story projecting bay that became the home’s most prominent frontal feature. Its main chimney was redesigned from a simple rectangular volume to a fusing of three stacks as one. And because no fortress can be completely exposed, a nine-foot wall was designed to encircle the Lancaster Pike-facing front yard. Mellor, Meigs & Howe are remembered for being unconventional and at times eccentric, but the Yellin house was unlike any other house of its size. It must have seemed especially out of place among the revivalist and late Victorian shingled residences of Wynnewood.

As one might expect, the home was filled with examples of the great metal worker’s art and ideals. The main entrance door was one example, as once described by Yellin: “The iron grill covering a circular hole in the upper half of the door is an echo of the days when a householder, rather than open wide his door to a stranger, looked from a window which was guarded from spear thrusts by just such iron work.”

The feature that Yellin seemed most proud of was the walled terrace on the east side of the house, as he told the Evening Public Ledger in August of 1925. “It is really an open-air room,” Yellin said, “inclosed on two sides by a high wall and on the third by the house wall, with the open side toward the street.” There was a fountain, and vines which he expected to grow over exposed rafters. Yellin said that he considered the plants to be as much a part of the house as the building itself. He described the terrace as strongly suggestive of effects not unusual in Spain, Italy, and other warmer European climates, all to be of tasteful and decorative character.”

In the earliest sketches the brick detail surrounding the front door bears a striking resemblance to that of Yellin’s Philadelphia studio, also designed by Mellor, Meigs & Howe. The final design was modified. | Images courtesy of Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia

If Yellin’s neighbors weren’t offended by the drastically different look of the house, the wall was certainly a point of contention. The archived plans for the home show two different schemes for the front portion of the wall: one at about nine feet and another at four feet in height. Other than this discrepancy the drawings are identical. These two different iterations are a clue to a neighborhood controversy revealed further in newspaper accounts and court papers.

A complaint about Yellin’s walls was brought about by Sydney B. Wimer, whose family owned the adjoining property to the east. Wimer cited a Lower Merion Township regulation stating that no part of a building could be constructed within 85 feet of the right-of-way. In early August 1925, a Montgomery County judge ordered work stopped and for the portion of the terrace already constructed to be removed. It was the nine-foot wall around the lawn that constituted its designation as a “building” instead of simply a landscape feature. A reduction in this portion of the wall’s height to four feet was all it took to become compliant with building regulations. Yet behind the 85-foot line the enclosure remained very tall, the rear and side walls of the terrace as high as the top of the home’s second story. There is no indication of how the Wimer family felt about these more massive walls remaining.

Commercial Conversion

In 1946 the widow of Yellin, who died suddenly six years earlier at the age of 55, sold the property to hairdresser Albert E. Blair. Its fate was sealed by the commercialization of the Pike. If the house were to survive, it would need to be adapted for commercial uses. Blair and his architect George Nauta told the Our Town newspaper of Narberth that they intended to preserve the spirit of the “Spanish architecture,” as they described it, while adapting the building for multiple commercial uses and a new life as a kind of compact shopping center. The controversial stone wall in front of the house was removed and parking spaces were installed. A retail storefront was constructed on the site of Yellin’s terrace, with the two-story high side and rear walls remaining to surround it.

This advertisement marketing the property for sale in 1979 contains one of the best depictions of the completed house. | Image courtesy of Lower Merion Historical Society

The house lived on as a commercial structure for decades, but its status as an architectural oddity was only enhanced with the onset of mid-20th century commercial structures on the Pike. On several residential lots to the east, the popular Stouffer’s restaurant occupied an uncomplicated modern building starting in 1955. Development pressures imperiled the house not only because of the difficulty of further adaptability but because of the value of the full acre of land it stood on. Being so close to the road, the house was an impediment to development elsewhere on the deep property that extended all the way back to the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line.

In 1979 the property was put up for auction, including its 160 feet of Lancaster Avenue frontage and the odd looking house that had survived through more permutations than possibly any other “ordinary” house on the Main Line. Not surprisingly, the property’s next owner saw little value in the former Yellin home. The permit for its demolition was issued by Lower Merion Township in September 1980, on the same date that the permit for a new structure was issued.

What replaced the Yellin house is an auto-oriented commercial strip with ample parking, although little navigability. The front of this complex, currently rented by a Nothing Bundt Cakes franchise, projects toward the Pike on or near the footprint of the Foering-Yellin house. There is no trace of that structure today, nor any memorialization that Yellin once lived there. In fact, few realize that this icon of Philadelphia design called Wynnewood home, as so many notable Philadelphians have.

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About the Author

Greg Prichard Greg Prichard is Lower Merion Township’s staff historic preservation planner. He is a graduate of the Historic Preservation Planning master’s program at Cornell University and a board member of both the Philadelphia Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians and the Radnor Historical Society. He operates Prichard Design & History Studio, an independent business specializing in interpretive signs for historic sites. Prichard has lectured about various topics including the train stations of the Main Line, discoveries from the Lower Merion Township Building & Planning Department archives, and the story of the 19th century Philadelphia photography studio operated by his ancestors.

2 Comments:

  1. Sid Sachs says:

    Thank you for this essay. I am a Yellin fan and live only a few minutes from the site.

    1. Terry Frank says:

      Sid Sachs, being a fan of Yellin, do you know where he is buried?

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