Architect Malcolm Wells launched an eco-friendly building in South Jersey decades ago

A tour of 6 Dale Ave. at Cherry Hill had barely started when the superlatives began.

“You never thought something like this would be in South Jersey,” said Joe Bozza, the real estate agent.

“It really feels like you’re in a totally different place,” said owner Terri Wallace. “Because you really are. “

Welcome to the earth-sheltered office building – in fact, two adjacent structures built below grade and topped with vegetation – that Malcolm Wells designed to house his architectural firm.

The resort right next to Cooper River Park opened in 1972 and exemplified the architect’s mid-career shift from creating distinctive, often dramatic, but fundamentally conventional buildings to something that was, literally, , Deeper.

Wells has become an advocate for building most structures at least partly underground to preserve the natural environment. Some critics have questioned his rationale, but Wells’ enthusiastic promotion of his refreshing and radical notion ultimately earned him a reputation as a visionary and passionate force for sustainable architecture.

His call to cover roofs with topsoil and seed them with native vegetation may have sounded odd in the late 1960s, but various types of green roofs are much more common today, even in downtown city ​​of philadelphia. And in 1971, Wells published an article describing the measurements he proposed to assess a building’s impact on things like stormwater drainage, energy use and waste disposal, decades ago. before the LEED green building certification system.

“Dad built the office on mistreated land and showed that you can create beauty out of something unwanted”, her daughter, sculptor Kappy Wells, said from his California home. “He made a statement: nature can be restored.

»READ MORE: Let’s reinvent urban green spaces as a way to promote social justice | Rebuilding Philadelphia

His brother Sam Wells, an architect who also lives in California, said their father was inspired in part by Rachel Carson’s bestseller in 1962 Silent spring, as well as by the suburbanization of his native South Jersey. The demolition of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, for which he had designed an RCA flag which looked like a space-age record player, to Wells seemed “a horrible mess,” his son said.

“Mac felt that destroying less land could serve as a way to retain water, provide habitat and store carbon,” Sam Wells said, adding that the family “would love to see the [Cherry Hill office] suitable for proper reuse, whether as office, non-profit or other workspace.

Wells nestled the structure in the slope of a mound above North Park Drive. In the mid-1960s, the state used a prominent estate to claim a slice of its property to build the Cuthbert Viaduct on Route 70; his old above-ground office on the corner of Cuthbert and North Park still stands and is not for sale.

The earth-sheltered upper building has a green roof and floor-to-ceiling windows and doors leading to a courtyard and the entrance to the lower building. This structure, which housed Wells’ newsroom, has a large central skylight and direct access to the wooded banks of a tributary of the Cooper River.

“Being here, you get an in-spirit appreciation for what he’s accomplished,” said Wallace, who purchased the Cherry Hill property in 2006 to house Creative Red Oak, his public relations firm.

“Owning the building has been a real honor,” she said. “And the freshness factor is off.”

After Wallace and his three employees started working from home due to the pandemic, however, the owner decided to bring the office underground to the market. “Let’s see who else is going to enjoy it, as much as I hopefully,” she said.

Building – asking price $ 199,900 – has generated a lot of interest during the 18 months of its listing.

“I could have sold it to 20 people who wanted to live there,” said Bozzo, who works for the Real Estate Agent Daniel R. White in Haddon Heights. A township zoning exemption would be required to use the structure for purposes other than office space.

Wells was born in Camden and raised in Haddonfield and served in the Marine Corps during World War II. He established his architectural practice in what is now Cherry Hill in 1953. He is best known locally for the distinctive and spectacular homes, churches and libraries he designed, primarily in Camden and Burlington counties, as well. than in Stone Harbor, where his Wetlands Institute the seat is a landmark.

He died at the age of 83 in 2009.

The Earth Shelter Office “was his signature building,” said Bill Bolger, director of the retired historic monuments program in the Philadelphia regional office of the National Park Service. He is an advocate for preserving the office for use by an educational institution or nonprofit organization that would draw attention to the architect’s impact in South Jersey and beyond. of the.

“The office laid out everything it was trying to defend and the issues it raised regarding the responsibility of the built environment to be ethical and non-destructive,” Bolger said. “Mac was at the peak of his career when he said, ‘I’m changing. I will follow what I believe is right.

In 1965 Wells wrote a manifesto – he later described it as “a controversy against anything that has ever been built on the face of the earth” – which was published in Progressive architecture and was titled “Nowhere to Go but Down”.

The provocative essay attacked the erasure of nature by the built environment with an almost Old Testament ferocity. The reaction was mixed; a reader wrote a letter to the magazine’s editor suggesting that Wells’ notion of an underground future “would have been more credible” if “written by an ostrich.”

Nonetheless, Wells was soon a prominent advocate of what he preferred to call “soft architecture.” A talented watercolorist and illustrator, a learned and witty writer, he has published a dozen books, including How to build an underground house and Reclaim America; given conferences Across the country; and became a bit of a media celebrity, which he was adept at handling.

Sam Wells recalls that a Philadelphia TV station sent a crew to South Jersey to do a story about his father, not because of his ideas, but because he commuted to work by bike and by bike. was coming back. The elder Wells, who sported a sturdy beard decades before such beards became a big thing, was also a game show contender. Tell the truth.

After a panel of the show’s judges unanimously identified him as the famous man who wanted people to live underground, Wells won a carpet sweeper. “And our house didn’t even have a carpet,” Sam Wells said.

Like Bolger, preservation attorney Martha Wright, who owns and lives in a Cherry Hill home that Wells designed for her own family, said the office should be creatively redesigned.

“We have a civic duty to preserve it and share it with future generations,” she said. “This is an opportunity for the Township of Cherry Hill and the Cherry Hill Historical Society to embrace, celebrate and recognize someone who made a difference and who was very forward-thinking when it comes to the environment. “

In addition to the office, Wells’ South Jersey work includes half a dozen striking homes in the Hunt Tract and Wilderness Acres neighborhoods of Cherry Hill. His residential orders provided the township with a welcome touch of style during its mid-century rise.

One of these houses was demolished a few years ago; two from Wells South Jersey’s best-known, if not necessarily popular, buildings – the Cherry Hill and Moorestown Public Libraries – have also been demolished since 2000. Some locals have found the facilities unappealing or even ugly.

READ MORE: For Old Moorestown Library, ‘It’s Time To Go’

But Wells continues to attract new, younger admirers like Kevin Hofmann, assistant professor of architecture at both Kean University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

Hofmann grew up frequenting the library designed by Wells and First United Methodist Church in Moorestown, and said the two buildings sparked his interest in architecture from an early age. And as an NJIT student, he did a summer project to research, tour, and catalog buildings in Wells, South Jersey.

“If you know who Mac is, there’s a good chance you’re a fan,” he said. “It says a lot about the power of his work to live beyond him.”

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