Secret Philly

Secret Philly: The for-sale house Albert Barnes built before his famous museum

There’s only one real piece of the famously quirky collector’s work left in use for its original purpose: His other house in Merion Station.

Jenna Eason/Billy Penn

Nearly every piece of property associated with renowned art collector Albert Barnes now has a different use than he intended.

The building that once served as his residence in Merion Station and housed his artwork for decades now sits mostly unused, a pricey storage facility that critics of Philadelphia’s takeover of the foundation believe will be cast off for sale. The nearby house Barnes lived in before the foundation was built is now home to St. Joseph University’s office of advancement. Another Barnes home in Chester, the Ker-feal estate, has been closed and unused for years.

There’s only one real piece of Barnes’ design work left in use for its original purpose: His other house in Merion Station.

Barnes built it in 1914 for a friend. He didn’t actually live there himself. For about 35 years, Dr. Michael Toaff has called it home. He’s been trying to sell it for the last three (if you have $1.7M lying around and love art it might just be the house for you). Toaff showed us around earlier this month, explaining the story of the house and how he’s been able to keep so many of Barnes’ original touches.

The house’s story

Jenna Eason/Billy Penn

The house is located at 379 N. Latches Lane in Merion Station, catty-corner from the past site of the Barnes Foundation. In the early 20th century, before the completion of the Barnes Foundation in 1925, Barnes was living at a house across the street that is now the advancement office for St. Joseph’s. He decided to build a new house for a friend.

Basically, he was tired of his neighbors. It was kind of a class thing. There were tenements located just to the north, and he was able to wall them off by purchasing the new land and building the new house.

The roof is still composed of the same Belgian tiles as 100 years ago. Toaff said he found extra tiles under the porch after he moved in.

Out front, an old sundial rests on the house’s facade.

Jenna Eason/Billy Penn


Jenna Eason/Billy Penn

The upstairs of the house isn’t anything special. It’s been renovated and modernized. But the ground level features many of the same effects from Barnes’ day, and Toaff has added to the atmosphere by filling the living room with 100-year-old furniture.

Barnes stayed local for much of the house — the floors, beams and doors are made from red oak from the area. He went far, far away for many other effects, such as the fireplaces. He imported eight from Paris.

Jenna Eason/Billy Penn

Next to the kitchen, in a closet, there’s an old telephone that’s been in the house since its earliest days.

Clearly he felt this was not a very respectable thing,” Toaff said. “So he hid it under the stairs.”

Jenna Eason/Billy Penn

When Toaff moved into the house in the 1980s, shortly after finishing a fellowship program at Penn, he had no idea the house was designed by Barnes. He heard about it from a friend and later confirmed it through property records and mentions of the house in books about Barnes.

Like many neighbors, he was dismayed when the Barnes Foundation moved from Merion Station to Philadelphia.

We didn’t want it out of here,” Toaff said. “It was a decision to give Philadelphia a present, too big of a present. Billions of dollars.

It’s painful to see. How can you do that? But politics is not a clean thing. I didn’t say dirty. I said not very clean.”

Since retiring a few years ago, Toaff has taken up painting as a hobby. He took about two classes and then started teaching himself. And so, in a twist of fate, now landscape paintings of international locations he’s visited now hang in the house built by one of the world’s foremost collectors of renowned art.

Jenna Eason/Billy Penn


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