South Jersey's titan architect is still standing tall

Martha Wright treasures the Cherry Hill house Malcolm Wells designed and built for himself and his growing family after World War II.

"I'm not living in a museum," says Wright, who bought the place in 2005. "This is an oasis. And I'm taking care of it."

The public may have soured on some of Wells' institutional work: A decade ago, Cherry Hill tore down a public library he designed, and Moorestown may do the same.

But for Wright and residents of the dozen other Wells houses that gave Cherry Hill some of its cachet in the 1950s and '60s, the legacy of South Jersey's best-known architect - who died at 83 in 2009 - is alive and well.

"For me, it started with the Cherry Hill Library, which I thought was one of the greatest buildings I'd ever been in," Wright says. "As a friend of mine said, there was a sense of discovery around every corner."

The same could be said for Wright's house; not for nothing was it featured on the cover of House Beautiful in October 1962.

"This is the dining room," says Wright, inviting me to sit at a long table that was designed by Wells himself and made from a plate of iron, surfaced in brick.

Kevin McIlmail, a graduate student doing a research fellowship about Wells, joins us.

"We are in the Hunt Tract, which 'Mac' developed in 1948," Wright, who grew up in Cherry Hill in the 1960s, says. "He laid out all of the streets . . . and this was the first home he built here."

Constructed in three stages on a sloping stretch of former farmland, the dramatic, multilevel, multi-winged house seems somewhat inspired by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Wells admired. It offers an abundance of built-in furniture, fireplaces, sliding doors, nooks and crannies - there's a hidden stairway, even a tunnel - as well as gracious interior views and glorious outdoor vistas.

"I look out on 21/2 acres," says Wright, a marketing professional who works from home. "It's my own private Idaho."

The Camden-born Wells was an engineer who became certified to practice architecture in an era before advanced degrees were required.

He designed about 80 homes, churches, and institutional and commercial buildings, most in South Jersey, before shifting focus in the late 1970s to writing about and advocating for sustainable architecture.

"I'm documenting his homes - taking photographs, interviewing the owners, looking at original documents," says McIlmail, who's working on a master's degree in infrastructure planning at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark.

He gives me a tour of the Hunt Tract and introduces me to Eunice Clarke, who lives in the house Wells built for her and her husband, Charles, in 1952.

"We had looked at houses, but they were just houses," Clarke, 95, says. "We wanted something that was special for us."

A retired associate provost at Temple University whose late husband was a lawyer, Clarke sits on a low sofa opposite a wall of windows. A magnificent wall of stone is behind her.

"Mac had a feel for raw materials," says Clarke, who designed some of the furniture and decorative brickwork in the house.

"He was sensitive to natural materials, and to his clients," she adds. "He knew what we wanted, and he felt he could give it to us. And he did.

"My husband said, 'Mac, this house is going to outlive us.' And Mac said, 'It should.' "

While some newer owners, like Wright, also are loyal stewards of Wells' work, other of his homes have been altered and expanded beyond recognition.

But McIlmail says he's heartened to hear that a vacant Wells house in another Cherry Hill neighborhood will be restored.

It ought to be.

856-779-3845 @inqkriordan