Thursday, July 31, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Handiwork from 'Mr. Fix-It'

Jack Coben has added to and revamped a home in Huntingdon Valley, earning the title sewn on his shirt.

The master bedroom of the home Jack and Anna Coben have lived in for 25 years. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)
The master bedroom of the home Jack and Anna Coben have lived in for 25 years. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)
The master bedroom of the home Jack and Anna Coben have lived in for 25 years. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer) Gallery: At home with Mr. Fix-It

Jack Coben arrives at the door of his Huntingdon Valley rancher sporting a shirt with "Mr. Fix-It" embroidered on the pocket. The shirt is a gift from his son, and he decides to break it out for his photo op.

About the nickname: Coben has spent the last 20 years of his retirement adding to and revamping the house he and wife, Anna, have shared for 25 years.

The tinkering actually started way back when he and Anna, now married 64 years, were raising four boys in a Pine Valley split-level. That was long before Home Depot became a favorite male destination on Saturdays and TV home shows proliferated.

Jack Coben's DIY training included night courses in drafting at Drexel and Temple universities before World War II. In the Navy, as an aviation spare-parts analyst, he worked extensively with blueprints. For the Pine Valley house, he designed two additions.

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When the Coben boys grew up and moved out, Anna and Jack downsized to the rancher, situated on a gracious half-acre lot on a quiet street not far from their first home.

This house, a modest 1,800 square feet, had seen better days: The bare cinder-block basement had water problems, the kitchen was dated, and the roof needed repairs.

Not exactly what most retirees are looking for, but then Jack Coben is not your typical retiree. In this house, there would be plenty to keep him occupied for years to come.

After installing a French drain, he partitioned the basement and finished it as separate rooms: one for his workshop and exercise area, another for laundry, a third for entertainment. The finished rooms almost double the size of the house. The gaming area is where he meets friends for his biweekly pinochle games.

"The basement is 90 percent mine," Jack says unapologetically. On the walls are travel photos and busts he has sculpted.

Upstairs, he gave his bride what every woman wants: closet space and her own master bathroom.

In the adjacent master bedroom, closet space was limited, and the couple had shared a small bath.

"I stole space from the hallway and other bedroom to add a double closet to the master bedroom," Jack explains. Then he put an addition onto the back of the house behind the master bedroom.

The space he designed to house Anna's bath is grand even by today's standards, with a whirlpool tub, bidet, toilet, double sink, and windows overlooking the couple's garden. To the room, Jack attached a walk-in closet.

A second bump-out he designed, a screened-in porch off the kitchen, has been converted to a sunroom. To make the adjacent first-floor living spaces flow, he opened up doorways. A pocket door once separated the kitchen from the dining room - "I opened up that wall," Jack says.

The dining room also flows right into the living room, which the couple uses every day. "We had a formal living room in our other house that was barely used," he says.

The space is filled with Asian art the Cobens have gathered over their years of travel - from Chinese screens on the walls to Anna's collections of butterflies and bells. Light pours into the room through a giant picture window.

Jack began sculpting in wood and metal years ago. "I took a short course at Cheltenham Art Center," he says.

Outside the house stand four giant metal works, including a fiberglass-and-metal fisherman figure that stood for decades in front of their Atlantic City abode. Jack's wood carvings are smaller and sprinkled throughout the house.

For years after raising her boys, Anna Coben volunteered for Jewish Family Services. Both she and Jack talk with great pride about their sons, scattered across the country, pursuing their careers.

One son who lives in this area owns a bookstore, Between the Pages, in New Castle, Del. For the store, Jack hand-built magazine racks and cabinets.

"He is always doing something. He always has been," Anna says, holding up a wooden sculpture and explaining the challenges in making something so small and intricate. "Nothing surprises me about what he does or can do."

Jack Coben is as humble about his home renovations as he is about his artistic pursuits. Then again, he's assured his skills are always in demand.

"My friends are always trying to draft me to help them with projects in their houses," he says. "I tell them they can't afford me."

Contemplating life before they moved to the fixer-upper in Huntingdon Valley he so loves, Jack adds, "I really don't know how I ever had time to work before I retired."


Is your house a haven?

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Kathleen Nicholson Webber For The Inquirer