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.
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.