Meet: Alex Aberle and Violette Levy, young preservationists who’ve made Upsala mansion – formerly a historic house museum – their home.
War zone: Once a year, the couple are required to allow their front yard to be turned into a battlefield for a Revolutionary War reenactment.
There’s no place like home: They dressed their historic mansion up as the Emerald City for Halloween.
When Alex Aberle and Violette Levy bought the 18th-century Upsala mansion last spring, they weren’t at all dissuaded by language in their contract that obligated them to host a Battle of Germantown reenactment on the front lawn every year.
“It wasn’t really a deal-breaker for us,” Levy said. “If anything, it made it more interesting.”
And over the year they’ve owned the property Levy, 25, and Aberle, 26, have made Upsala more interesting, too.
As the first private owners of the mansion since it was converted into a historic house museum in the 1940s, Aberle and Levy have been documenting their renovations on Instagram for fascinated Philadelphians and historic preservationists under the handle @historicupsala.
“Because it was open to the public for so long, we felt on some level like we were taking this resource out of the public hands,” Aberle said. “So it was important for us, as much as we’re able, to share what’s going on, what challenges we face, and how it is to live here.”
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The couple are also active in the Germantown and Mount Airy communities. They recently attended Mount Airy Day wearing hoodies that read “What the heck is Upsala?” to answer just that question for curious passersby, and they go above and beyond in dressing up their house for holidays.
For Halloween, they turned the 2.45-acre property on the 6400 block of Germantown Avenue into the Land of Oz by bathing the mansion in emerald lights, creating a yellow brick road, and turning 200 red umbrellas into a field of poppies.
“We had people stopping their cars in the street,” Levy said. “It was great.”
And, of course, there’s the battle reenactment. Although Upsala wasn’t built until 1798, well after the 1777 Battle of Germantown, the property served as the staging ground for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War fight. Last year, the couple hosted a party during the reenactment and guests watched the battle from their windows.
Luckily, the redcoats did not lay siege to Upsala.
In April 2017, Levy and Aberle — who met in high school in Florida and have been married for two years — beat out eight other offers by paying $550,000 in cash for the West Mount Airy property, $51,000 more than the asking price.
In choosing a buyer, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Cliveden Inc., co-stewards of Upsala, said the new owners needed previous preservation experience and the financial ability to take care of the property.
Although they are young, Levy, who is getting her master’s degree in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, and Aberle, a Realtor, had already flipped historic properties in Brooklyn and in Philly’s Old City and Queen Village neighborhoods.
While still adhering to the preservation rules in their agreement, the couple are already making the mansion their own. They’re repainting the walls, and they’ve hung bright, modern art around the house.
They’ve had to work with staircases that lead to nowhere and a ladder that leads down to a bathroom. Levy’s had a standoff with a squirrel in a hallway, they’ve found a 1944 bank book in a cabinet, and the couple have spent weekends digging through archives and photos for as much information as they can find about the property.
Because while everyone else calls it Upsala Mansion, they call it home.
Want more We the People?
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- Scott Evans and Anastacia Fahnestock: In a quest to preserve the peculiar, the couple created Bella Vista’s Narnia.
- Check out the full We the People archive here.