Rehabbing an old gem in West Philadelphia

Two of the house's front pillars, with a sycamore tree in the background. Left, an exterior view of the West Philadelphia twin. The porch was restored, drawing attention from neighbors as well as honorary citations from the University City Historical Society.
Two of the house's front pillars, with a sycamore tree in the background. Left, an exterior view of the West Philadelphia twin. The porch was restored, drawing attention from neighbors as well as honorary citations from the University City Historical Society.
Posted: February 26, 2012

Nissa Blocher didn't have to see the grand three-story twin in West Philadelphia to decide to live there. The then-medical resident trusted her fiance, Victor Brubaker, a contractor and old-house aficionado who had been searching for the right house with good bones.

She had only two conditions - that the house have a garage and a way to get into the basement from the outside - and this house had neither. So it goes sometimes.

Still, the dignified, circa-1902 classical revival house was within walking distance of Clark Park, a market, a pet store, and several restaurants. For Nissa, who was attending the University of Pennsylvania nearby, and Victor, a former chef, that was too good to pass up.

"I just fell in love with all the intact original details: the leaded-glass windows, the wood trim, the mantel, the window seat," says Victor, who now runs his business, Victor Brubaker - Builder, out of the dwelling's second-floor office. "It's completely coincidental I moved back here."

Originally from West Philadelphia, he spent most of his childhood in southern Africa, where his father did missionary work. He worked in the restaurant business for 20 years before turning to architecture and "rehabbing homes before it became a spectator sport."

His first house was a fixer-upper, a 1920s bungalow in Trenton. Victor went on to rehab several Italianates in that city's historic Mill Hill district, where he admits to developing a passion for cast-plaster molding, one of several additions to the new house.

Nissa, who grew up in a Spanish-style home in St. Louis and went to medical school in Phoenix, had rehabbed a house in Arizona, even teaching herself how to do electrical work.

That was one of the things that attracted him to her, Victor jokes. The couple met online, and one of their dates revolved around pouring a concrete slab in a basement.

They bought their 2,600-square-foot West Philly twin in spring 2005, commuting from New Jersey for six months while $80,000 in renovations were completed. They updated plumbing and electrical service, installed new windows and central air-conditioning, refinished the floors, repaired the roof, and remodeled the 21/2 baths.

Outside, Victor restored the porch, drawing attention from neighbors as well as honorary citations from the University City Historical Society.

Kitchens are important to Victor, who graduated from the Restaurant School in Philadelphia and cooked at the French eatery Lahiere's in Princeton for 10 years. The rehab of this particular kitchen included reconfiguring the layout and setting the work space off from the path to the back door.

"Kitchens can be made too big sometimes," he says. "You just want enough space for two people to work comfortably."

They chose black limestone counters, a subway-tile backsplash, a farmhouse sink, and a commercial range. For contrast, they embraced a 100-year-old maple butcher block and an iron pot hanger, and turned the underused back staircase into a first-floor pantry and second-floor linen closet.

Most noticeable is the bar separating the kitchen from the dining room. They constructed it from salvaged oak paneling and closet trim from a historic home on Sansom Street undergoing improvements.

"He can churn out a whole party from this place. It still respects the period," Nissa says.

The living room is painted a lively green and dominated by a leaded-glass bay window and double doors that lead to the dining room.

In the mudroom, a dog cage is covered with ribbons from their pet's agility training, Nissa's latest hobby. The golden retriever - who came with the name Jimmy, after Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins - can open the back door.

Upstairs, the office is lined with stately bookshelves and flooded with natural light. A minimalist desk sits in the middle. As with all the other rooms in the house, the walls were repainted from baby blue and decorated with art and antiques from the couple's travels to Bolivia, Vietnam, Morocco, Turkey, and Cambodia. One wall features a poster from a recent mountain-climbing trip.

A nearby fireplace, lined in magenta tile, is covered with a wooden overmantel flanked by two griffins. The piece was stolen during construction but recovered a day after they were married - the pair found it in a Lancaster antiques mart.

Standing on the landing of the original staircase, the couple say they occasionally muse about moving closer to Nissa's endocrinology practice in Elkins Park, or to northwest Philadelphia, where many other grand old houses can be found.

"Every time we think about moving, they open a new restaurant down the street," Victor says.

Holding the banister, they say that they are content with the neighborhood and the house - and that, really, there's only one thing missing.

"We have to find the little pineapple that goes here," Nissa says.


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