Landscaping Creates a Bucolic Setting for a Mid-Century Modern Home in Montgomery County

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Craig Wakefield lives in a glass box surrounded by over 300 varieties of plants, shrubs and trees.

When he bought his mid-century modern home in the Rydal section of Abington in 2015, there were no gardens or sloping lawns, just trees and weeds. The two previous owners had taken care of the 1949 International-style structure with its floor-to-ceiling windows, but had left the land uncultivated.

“I’m the first gardener,” Wakefield said.

Wakefield lived in a modern 1955 building in Chestnut Hill. “It was bright and joyful, but I longed for a more architecturally meaningful Modern Classical beginning,” he said.

He then had a dental practice in the city center and was also a real estate agent, so he knew the market.

The Rydal house “was waiting for me when I walked through the door”, he said. “During this first visit, I was able to see the garden rooms which can now be seen from the house.”

For more privacy, he planted trees and shrubs around the perimeter of the property, then set about creating “garden rooms” – six so far – on the three-quarter acre lot. .

For the garden between the garage and the house, he adapted different levels of light. There is a bed for shade plants, such as the blue-green Eastern Woodland Fern; one for succulents, including the deliciously named chocolate cherry and firecracker sedums, and another for pink coneflowers and other sun-loving plants.

Wakefield replaced the patio at the back of the house with crushed stone, perennial plant beds, and two shallow rectangular pools modeled after the much larger Barnes Foundation pool. When the sun is shining, he says, “the reflected light from the swimming pools dances across the living room ceiling.”

Each of the gardens has a sculpture as a focal point, including two kinetic sculptures by Jeff Kahn, which sway in the breeze. Wakefield designed the White Outdoor Lamp, a giant slinky-like silver coil and corten steel obelisk that, as it ages, forms a rust-colored surface layer that protects the metal below from deterioration. Planted nearby is one of Wakefield’s favourites: a tall red and green smoke bush with puffy, smoke-like flowers.

The home’s original owner, Matthew Leibowitz, an advertising graphic designer whose clients included RCA and General Electric, commissioned architect Arthur White to design the two-level residence.

When Wakefield bought the house, “I had to put in a new roof; otherwise it was in good condition,” he said. The heating and air conditioning systems had been updated. The kitchen had been renovated, but both bathrooms still had the original gray fittings. Built-in cabinets throughout the house were unpainted wood with occasional paneling in bright colors. The kitchen and entryway slabs were intact, but the original carpeting had been replaced with hardwood on the first floor and cork downstairs in what had been Leibowitz’s studio. Wakefield kept the cork and replaced the hardwood with vintage black marmoleum, a kind of linoleum.

He had seen pictures of the house when it was first furnished and had duplicated the layout of the living room with two Bauhaus-style black leather and chrome chairs, a gray sofa, and a pedestal coffee table. Aqua tulip chairs and a white round table furnish the dining room.

The master bedroom is on the first floor, along with a room now used as a den, with a dividing curtain where Leibowitz’s two daughters slept. Abstract art, including several paintings by Wakefield, decorates the walls. Where there is no glass, the exterior of the house is stone and cedar painted white. Bright yellow on the garage door and blue and red on the front doors were the colors chosen by White.

Although he liked the style of the house, Wakefield preferred English gardens to modern gardens. “They have more variety,” he said. With the exception of planting large trees, he does his own digging, mulching, mowing and weeding. He makes lists and knows the Latin names of “thousands” of perennials he has planted over the years, continually throwing out and replacing what doesn’t work. To further his knowledge, he visited gardens in the United States and abroad and took horticultural courses at Longwood Gardens in Chester County.

Wakefield, 57, retired from dentistry four years ago after 25 years in practice. He still sells real estate, but is ready for a third career as a landscaper, creating gardens for others.

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