The Walberts are in vogue. Ben, an architect, and Carole, a lawyer, drive SUVs. Teenage sons Ben and Alex like to skateboard. But at the end of the day, the family comes home to a 138-year-old Victorian mansion from the age of Lincoln and Grant.
The great thing about the Walberts' house is that it's a testament to the enduring nature and the adaptability of vintage American style.
Their exquisite 10-bedroom home is nestled in Jim Thorpe, a historic 19th-century community once called Mauch Chunk, where mountains tower over turreted churches and lacy ironwork supports the porches of old hotels.
Today, folks flock to Jim Thorpe to soak in it its charm, but there was a time when forward thinkers regarded the town's numerous Victorian dwellings as ugly relics suitable only to be torn down.
Owners such as the Walberts demonstrate how these grande dames of American architecture should be treated, not as museum pieces, but as dynamic minglings of yesterday's memories and today's aspirations.
"My parents thought we were crazy when we bought it," says Carole, who grew up in a modern home on Jim Thorpe's east side. "But now they love it and are over here almost every Sunday for dinner."
The home exudes a livable charm -- a comfortable quality that speaks of the lives that share it. Ben and Carole have furnished it with an intriguing array of antiques, and many of the rooms are beautifully restored with period ambience.
This commodious place first strikes a visitor as gracious, if not imposing. Its simple, stately facade of red brick and ox-bow linteled windows rises from the street with a dignity reminiscent of the hoop-skirted ladies who once raised their crinolines to shake off the street dust at its doorstep.
The foyer's inner doors have "God Bless Our Home" etched in the frosted glass. And that sentiment suits Ben's interest in preservation just fine.
The 60-year-old Allentown native's architectural firm specializes in the design, restoration, rehabilitation and upgrade of historic properties.
As a graduate student at Columbia University in New York City in the late 1960s, he studied with Charles Peterson, considered the founding father of America's modern historic preservation movement. Ben was one of the founders of the Old Allentown Preservation Association, which created the city's first historic district in 1976.
The architect describes his home's style as Philadelphia Italianate. Italianate, in fact, is what Victorians thought a home in Italy would be like with American improvements. One of several historic vernacular styles popular in 19th-century America, the style was in its heyday from 1840 to 1880.
According to Ben, his house was the type commonly lived in by upper-middle-class families in Philadelphia and New York during the Edith Wharton "Age of Innocence" era. It is a townhouse, in contrast to Jim Thorpe's best-known Victorian, the Asa Packer Mansion, an Italianate villa built as a summer home for the wealthy founder of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.
"It lacks the Packer house's wide porches and belvedere or cupola that is characteristic of Italianate style," Ben explains.
The house was built in 1868 for Alexander Butler, president of the Mauch Chunk Bank. "He had five children and needed a big house," says Ben. "For those days, this place was state of the art. It had hot and cold running water, a coal range in the kitchen and speaking tubes."
Speaking tubes were pipes that ran through the walls from one floor to another and functioned as a primitive intercom system. A speaker would remove a stopper and blow into the tube. This produced a whistle like sound at the other end. The person upstairs would remove their stopper, put their ear over the tube and listen for the voice from below.
"They would line them up so you knew which floor you were talking to," says Ben. "Those in our house were in the parlor. They were covered over and are no longer active."
To the left of the front door is the formal parlor. With high ceilings and tall windows, this ornately furnished room was where the Victorian family gathered for happy events, such as weddings, and sorrowful ones, such as funerals.
Windows at the far end of the room double as doors that open to the backyard and let in a breeze on warm summer nights.
"In the 19th century, this room would have been for formal occasions only, closed off and dark most of the time behind heavy curtains," Ben says. "There are accounts of some Philadelphia families who would spend $10,000, a huge sum in the 1860s, to decorate a room like this in Philadelphia Chippendale -- a style of furniture named for its creator, 18th-century English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale -- but have very little furniture in the rest of the house."
The Walberts have appointed their inviting parlor in period furnishings they describe as "eclectic." Among the antiques in the room is a small 18th-century Chippendale table that Ben is in the process of restoring.
"Ben has an eye for antiques. It is like radar," Carole says. "When we go into an antique store, it is like he is a magnet. The things are drawn to him."
The Walberts' parlor boasts a number of 19th-century lamps and other items from Ben's extensive collection of antique lighting devices. Four small table lamps made in Philadelphia in the 1840s rest on the room's large, coal black mantle.
And the mantelpiece is a work of art. The house was built with central heat and did not need fireplaces. So its mantelpieces were designed to be decorative outlets for heat vents and to display objects d'art.
Although the mantel appears to be black marble, it actually is crafted from slate from nearby quarries and veined to look like marble.
"Upper-middle-class Victorians wanted to create an elegant impression, but it would have cost a fortune to have marble shipped from Italy. So the slatemakers came up with this to please them," Ben says.
The Walberts treasure two antique cherry bookcases with glass doors and ornately carved corners that grace each end of the long parlor wall.
Now stuffed with books, these cases belonged to the founding partner of the former Leh's Department store, Horatio Koch, when he resided at 1204 Hamilton St. in Allentown. When Gen. Harry C. Trexler rented Koch's home, before he purchased his own in the early 1920s, he used the furniture as well.
"I like to say we have Gen. Trexler's bookcases," Ben says with a chuckle.
Adding to the eclectic mix of furnishings is a 1920s Art-Deco mahogany "Ibis" table, with two graceful, stylized carved birds that serve as legs.
Near the Trexler bookcase at one end of the parlor is one of Ben's favorite furnishings -- a Morris chair, which might have been in the house in the Victorian period although probably not in the parlor. The grandfather of all recliners, it was named for William Morris, the British social reformer and father of the Arts and Crafts movement, who favored hand-crafted furniture to pieces mass-produced by machines.
Although it actually was not designed by Morris, the Morris chair was first produced in 1866 by his craftsmen. The angle of recline of the back could be adjusted by manually securing it in a series of positions. The chair was an immediate success and remained popular into the 20th century. Its simple design was viewed as rather plain by High Victorian standards.
Another decorating touch in the Walbert home, also done in a style popularized by Morris, is the wallpaper -- a dark gray that shimmers with silver touches.
In discreet rebellion against Morris's simplicity, a lacquered cabinet adorned with a delicate Chinese scene stands nearby. Called chinoiserie, after the French word chinois (Chinese), it is a reproduction from the 1910-20s of a popular motif of the 1880s.
Directly across the hall from the parlor is a room the Walberts call the library. It is not full of books but does have some interesting antiques. Among them is a lamp with a bright green terra cotta sculpture of a Chinese-style half dog/half lion as its base. The figure is known as a foo dog. Ben dates the piece from the 1940s.
A visitor can't help but ask Ben about a 19th-century oil portrait that graces one wall.
"I could tell you that's a great-great-uncle of mine," answers Ben, with a grin. "But it's not. It is a painting we liked and we just decided to make him into an instant ancestor."
Another prominent piece is an oil portrait of Asa Packer in an ornate gilt gold frame given to Ben by Carole as a Christmas present several years ago. That same year, he gave her a framed and autographed engraving of Packer that hangs in the parlor.
Of particular historic interest in the library is an antique sampler, a piece of needlework done in the 18th and 19th century by young girls as a "sample" of their homemaking skill. The library sampler, which dates from 1834, reads: "Abigail Farr is my name/ Single is my station/ Mauch Chunk is my Dwelling Place and Christ is my Salvation."
Other distinct furnishings in this room include a tilt-top Empire table, named after a style created in France during the French Empire of Napoleon I, and a chandelier made in Paris in the 1840s.
The cheery dining room's most prominent feature is a large built-in china cabinet that reaches up to the room's 15-foot ceiling. On display are many antique pieces, including an English Spode collection.
The grand dining room table is no stranger to large groups of guests.
"The table belonged to the Butler family, and it has been with the house since about 1890," says Ben.
Above the table is what looks like a chandelier with glass globes. It was known as a gasolier, because its light came from gas jets not candles. Once in an Allentown home, it was purchased by the Walberts and converted to electricity.
On the dining room wall is a large painting of a rural scene in France. Titled the "The Road to Verdun," it was painted by artist Peter Gross, a 19th-century Lehigh Valley native who spent most of his adult life in France and died while visiting the United States in 1914.
On a chest below the painting is a blue and white Canton Ware tray. Named for the Chinese port where it was decorated and shipped, it was popular in Europe and America in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. George Washington had a preference for Canton Ware as did many New England merchants. The Walberts purchased their tray in Dublin several years ago.
Near it rests a carved, decorative American eagle from the Civil War era. Once a tavern sign, it was discovered during a family antique hunt in Milford, Pike County. Using razor blades, all four members of the Walbert family worked to remove layers of gilt paint and discover its original colors of red, white and blue.
Moving on to the kitchen, Carole explains its atmosphere.
When they moved into the home, she and Ben were confronted with a well-used 1940s kitchen. "It was shot," says Carole bluntly.
So, the couple decided to gut the room and build a kitchen that is both traditional and modern. While comfortable and a favorite hangout for the family, its decor strays most from the home's Victorian character.
Perhaps the most creative aspect of this transformation was the conversion of a portion of a long, narrow external grocer's alley adjacent to the kitchen to form a much-needed powder room for the home's first floor. The charming brick enclosure is a most clever adaptation.
The Walberts also have retained the original toilet facility, a two-seat affair they call the "indoor outhouse." Mauch Chunk Creek, which flows deeply underneath the house, at one time carried away the waste.
On the upper floors of the home, the Walberts have restored their bedroom, which features an antique sleigh bed and an 18th-century Pennsylvania German dower chest.
Carole calls some of the other upper-floor rooms "works in progress."
But she's up to the task.
Some people might be daunted by the task of taking on a Victorian like hers, but she can't imagine not living there.
"For us, it's just home," she says.