This month we’re revisiting another of my favorite stories. This one concerns a mid-century-modern home that a reader alerted me to about eight years ago. It was everything she promised. We photographed it in the summer of 2014, and the feature ran in March 2015. “You should see it at Christmas,” owner David Boland teased. So, we revisited the house – and our childhoods – last December.
Designed by French-Canadian architect Jean Deavercard, whose work was widely seen in the Main Line area, the house was built in 1956 by Manny Murray on land that once was a part of Media Heights Golf Club’s ladies’ 9-hole course. Deavercard was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “one with nature” philosophy. The one-story design featured modern elements such as a carport, both oversized and clerestory windows, radiant heat and an open floor plan. The house also served as an Armstrong Idea House – officially, it was known as the Malibu Ranch House. In addition to the latest Armstrong products, it featured such innovative products as drywall and Formica.
The original owners lived in the house until the early ‘90s. Between maintenance issues and the fact that ranch-style homes were no longer in demand, the house failed to attract new owners. A succession of real estate agents unsuccessfully attempted to sell it. An auction attempt failed as well.
Enter David Boland and Jim Brown. In their spare time – David owns The Groves, a retirement home in Ephrata, while Jim is the director of facilities at Ephrata National Bank – they flip, consult on and renovate houses. Their latest collaborative effort was renovating a house whose backyard adjoins theirs. They now operate it as an Airbnb.
David kept noticing the ranch house when he perused the MLS property listings. He obtained the pass key, intending to show the house to clients. But, before he did so, he stopped by for a quick inspection and decided the work that would be needed superseded his clients’ capabilities.
Curiosity prompted him and Jim to later venture inside the house. “Horrified” best describes their reaction. The shag carpets were saturated with water: 240,000 gallons of water had flooded the house when pipes broke during the winter of 1993. By summer, the humidity in the house was so high that the varnish on the wood paneling was melting. Outdoors, plants were growing atop the roof. Trees and shrubs were so overgrown that the house was barely visible. “Most people were convinced that the only option would be to tear it down,” David explained.
Still, they were intrigued. In their estimation, it had possibilities, so they made an offer with the intention to flip it. But, the more time they spent there, the more they liked the amenities it offered. They put their home in Ephrata on the market and when it instantly sold, they had no choice but to move into their fixer-upper and continue with renovations.
In 2008, David and Jim carried out an even more ambitious makeover, fully renovating the original house and enlarging it with additions that essentially surround the original structure on three sides. They also built a free-standing garage, overhauled the landscaping and created outdoor-living areas. The process took five years. The home they created is beautiful, interesting and inviting. It ranks as one of my all-time favorites.
It’s not an understatement to say that David loves to decorate for the holidays – all of them! Christmas is undoubtedly his favorite. He comes by it honestly. His parents decked the halls from top to bottom in the home where he grew up in Hollidaysburg.
Jim’s memories of decorating for Christmas fall at the other end of the spectrum. His parents simply put up a tree and modest decorations in their Leola home. “A tree was about the extent of it,” he says of their decorating efforts.
As adults, both followed the lead of their parents, with David maximizing his efforts and Jim taking a minimalist approach. David admits he was taken aback when he first spied Jim’s idea of a Christmas tree. “It was a really bad tree,” he remembers, explaining it was illuminated with blue lights, bubble lights and red lights that mimicked poinsettias. A dedicated dumpster diver, Jim had fished the lights out of the trash.
David and his two sisters made it a tradition to return to their childhood home each Christmas. Slowly, going home for Christmas became a memory, as his siblings moved, married and began to create traditions of their own. It became customary for David’s parents to celebrate the holidays at the home of one of their children. “All of us were rarely together for Christmas anymore,” David explains.
The tradition truly came to an end when David’s parents announced they weren’t going to decorate anymore. His sisters chose select items, so David “inherited” most of his parents’ decorations. The vintage decorations beautifully lent themselves to the mid-century-modern house.
Knowing how much he loves vintage, friends and family began gifting him with finds. “Things mysteriously come our way,” Jim says.
Always on the hunt, David and Jim also peruse antiques shops in search of relics of Christmas past. This summer, they took a cruise along the Danube River and found themselves at the epicenter of the European ornament industry. “Of course, we came home with ornaments,” David says.
Jim eventually succumbed to the vintage spell. One day, he was helping a resident at The Groves with some housecleaning, and she gifted him with a box filled with odds and ends. He took it home and lo and behold, he uncovered a rare Bradford Celestial tree topper. When David spied it, he exclaimed, “Where did you get that?” He had been searching for one for years. “My grandparents had one,” he explains. Prior to the internet, they were nearly impossible to find. “I never saw one anywhere,” he says of his search.
Jim also contributed a metallic tree to David’s collection. “I remembered my aunt and uncle had one, so I called my aunt and asked if she still had it and if she wanted it anymore,” Jim explains. His aunt gladly gave him the tree, which she stored in its original box.
In addition, Jim scored a large – he estimates 9 feet in diameter – wreath that a neighbor displayed each year. Noting its non-appearance for two consecutive holiday seasons, he stopped and asked about it. Its owner explained her husband was no longer capable of hanging it, so it was languishing in the garage. She offered it to Jim, who somehow managed to strap it to the top of his van and transported it home. “When I saw him coming down the street, I thought, ‘What in the world!’” David recalls.
Jim has also been assembling the elements of a vintage outdoor nativity. “This just might be the year that it happens. I just need to find a new baby Jesus,” he says.
Their collecting methods mirror their decorating styles. “David buys things knowing where they will go,” Jim says. David counters and says Jim is more compulsive as he will “bring things home and figure out where they will go later. We’re still trying to figure out a place for the wreath.”
Decorating the house commences over Thanksgiving weekend. David pretty much has it down to a science. Each room contains storage for decorations, including the kitchen, where the base of the island serves as a massive storage cabinet for holiday decorations. At least 10 trees are decorated. “It takes a while to decorate the trees,” he notes. Because so many of the things have family connections, decorating the house is like a walk down memory lane.
The decorations even helped to institute a new family tradition. Wanting to renew their tradition of celebrating the holidays together, the family agreed to start a new one by gathering at David and Jim’s home for a few days between Christmas and New Year’s. They also include old friends such as Rebecca from Hollidaysburg, whose family used to host a holiday party for which everyone brought a musical instrument to play for impromptu Christmas concerts. David and Jim adopted the tradition. “Now, it’s like we have two parties in one,” David says. “We usually have about 30 friends and family members here.”
David learned how important the party is during a conversation with his sister. “Decorating is a lot of work and we keep threatening to cut back, but then I learned how important everything is to my niece,” he explains. “Her mother told me my niece keeps a diary from our holiday events and records everything about them – who was there, what we ate, what we did, the decorations – in it. Apparently, she’s been doing it for years. When I heard that, I knew we couldn’t stop. I now think of it as our gift to her.”
David and Jim typically host at least three other parties during the holiday season. “Our friends look forward to it,” Jim says. “One year, someone asked me about it, and I said we might skip it because the house was such a mess [because of renovation work]. The person reacted as if the world was going to end, so we went ahead and had it.”
Next year’s parties are sure to be special, as 2020 will mark 25 years since David and Jim moved into the house. “After all this time, it’s still known around the neighborhood as the ‘party house’ because of all the entertaining the original homeowners did,” David explains.