A House Sighs 'Thank You' A Dingy, Antiquated 19th-century Townhouse Captures A Woman's Heart, And After A 6-month Renovation Its Patina And Character Gleam Brighter Than Ever.

Posted: September 15, 2000

Sometimes, a dreary-looking house calls out to you, suggesting a future together if only you'd breathe new life into it.

When Antonia Hamilton visited a 19th-century townhouse north of Fitler Square, she heard the call.

On the plus side, the place had lots of sunlight and some workable interior spaces in which she and her husband could be comfortable now and into retirement.

Hamilton was intrigued with features that lent character, such as a staircase that branched into two directions at the second-floor hall - heading up 14 steps to the left, 11 to the right.

And while she was glad to find room out back to park a car, she was happier still to sense a feeling of community in the area.

"I saw it and fell in love with it," Hamilton said. So even though she had previously been looking at Center City real estate with her spouse, she snapped the place up on the spot.

"I came home and said, 'I've found this. I hope you like it.' "

"It wasn't an ultimatum," recalled her husband, Carter Leidy, after they moved in last month. "I just thought she had had a wonderful day shopping."

Amid a mix of furnishings that reflect their differing yet complementary styles, the couple discussed the extensive makeover that preceded their move from a modern Chester County townhouse - from the gutting of walls, to the discovery of a privy pit in the courtyard, to the choice of paints that fill their newly refurbished home with color.

"I loved the convenience of the modern house, but I missed the character of older homes," Hamilton noted from her circa 1870 address. Leidy was "happy in West Chester, but loves Philadelphia," his wife said.

In what is a second marriage for both, the couple anticipate a life in which they'll walk to restaurants, take in movies, and sample from the city's rich cultural banquet.

The tour began in the high-ceilinged green living room, where formal pieces like a Queen Anne sofa and a French secretary play off the textures of earth-toned Turkish rugs and irregular pine floors. Throughout the house, textiles, statuary and beads Hamilton picked up in travels to Turkey, Egypt and West Africa as well as intriguing dolls she bought from an Ann Arbor, Mich., dollmaker flavor the mix.

"If you see something formal, it came with Carter. If you see something wacko, it came with me," Hamilton joked, pointing to little black-and-white wooden cows she had juxtaposed with graceful ceramic figurines of Napoleon and Josephine.

In the lower-ceilinged dining room, faux-painted maroon walls and those wonderful pine floors provide a warm background against which a modern lighting fixture can pull together other elements.

But what made Hamilton think she could handle such a big project? The work went on for six months and cost about 75 percent of the purchase price.

"I had brought other houses to life, in terms of colors and textures and being inventive," Hamilton said.

"I had been working from the skin out. Here, it was from the bones out. Maybe, it was a progression."

Luckily, this house had "good bones," said architect Edward Bell of Phoenix Design Architects in Center City. He developed the renovation plan with Hamilton, along with input from Alan Mack, a Chicago interior designer and longtime Hamilton friend, and contractor Chip Construction in Glenside.

"This house has the patina that comes with age," Bell said in January before the work began. "It's a beautiful period house that's not had a lot of work done to it so the damage is minimal." He cited the rough pine floors that were nearly black.

After a sanding and sealing, they would look "antique with a distressed quality" and have a lovely reddish-brown color.

The house, though, needed updating - some of the spaces could be more usable, heat efficiency needed boosting, plumbing improved.

On the first floor alone, the tiny kitchen would have to be expanded; the handicapped-accessible bathroom would be replaced by a nook; and the wall between the entrance hallway and the living room would be demolished and replaced by columns, to yield a more open feeling and offer a view of the beautiful curved staircase at the back of the room.

But wouldn't tearing down the wall cause the house to collapse? Hamilton protested.

She also questioned the size of the dining-room lighting fixture, dubbing it "a spaceship," and fretted about some of the paint choices Mack suggested - among them the lively yellow-tinged green that brightens the dim living room and makes the upholstered pieces pop.

Now, Hamilton adores it all.

"I had to get there," she says. "We had to keep talking."

* As the work progressed, Hamilton was increasingly drawn to the site. A new Center City job as director of an arts organization (she had been working in Chester County) provided the access.

"I'd come by on the way in to work, or on my lunchtime.

"Occasionally, at the end of the day when everyone would be gone, I'd talk to the house . . . and had the sense it was breathing a sigh of relief.

"It had looked so sad, so dreary."

Leidy, meanwhile, was relieved that he didn't have to manage the renovation. From the start, Hamilton had made it her responsibility.

"I've had renovation projects to last me a lifetime," said the investor, developer, and manager of commercial rental real estate.

Nevertheless, he "tried to nip in and out" to cover items that were being overlooked. He had the fireplaces converted to gas. Then, he had the musty, dank basement transformed into usable storage space and a darkroom for Hamilton's grown daughter.

In his third-floor studio, which has the best light of any room in the house, an easel seems to beckon. Leidy hopes to create more pastels as he settles in, but this afternoon he was still tying up business before leaving the next day to go fishing with his son, Carter Jr.

"I can't wait to get out sketching in the neighborhood," he said, exploring "dark alleys, peeking into interesting gardens. I like the variety of architectural styles.

"I'm also excited about the possibility of taking a course at the Academy of Fine Arts and would like to get on the fast track with a language at Penn."

Leidy's studio is at the lowest level of a third floor that cascades. Adjoining it but a few steps up is a bathroom. A few steps up from that is a sitting room (remodeled from what had been a kitchen). And adjoining it on the same level is the guest bedroom.

You won't find the second-floor rooms level, either. Hamilton's studio, which is to the left off the landing, is a little lower than the master bedroom and bath, which are a few steps up to the right.

"When she's back there in her studio, it's not as if she's on the same floor," Leidy said. "She has more privacy."

So what was the idea behind the levels?

"That's pretty typical from my experience with Philadelphia houses of this vintage," Bell said, "particularly houses which are a little more grand. What I typically see is that the front of houses have higher ceilings, and the back of houses, which were housing for staff," have lower ones.

That, of course, affected what was built on the floors above them.

* Her own family history also plays into Hamilton's home. In photos in her studio, you'll see two ancestors who were Philadelphia police officers - her great-grandfather, James Magee, and his son, Hugh.

And on a wall hangs a framed bill showing a breakdown of the $239 it cost to bury James in 1898.

"It cost $10 to preserve the body," observed Hamilton, who was born in Philadelphia and raised on the Main Line. She left the area to study at Smith College, returning in 1991.

Leidy, who was raised in Manhattan and came to Philadelphia to attend Wharton, also has roots here.

For one, there's his great-uncle, Joseph Leidy, whose statue stands in front of the Academy of Natural Sciences.

He's credited with "putting together our first sense of the shape of dinosaurs from bones," Hamilton said.

"I drive by the statue sometimes and see the family resemblance."

Diane Goldsmith's e-mail address is dgoldsmith@phillynews.com

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