Haven: The Walzer home in Northeast Philadelphia

Mike Walzer is posing for photo sitting a gothic chair in sun room. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer )
Mike Walzer is posing for photo sitting a gothic chair in sun room. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer )
Posted: May 27, 2012

Michael Gerard Walzer has taken that old saying “A man’s home is his castle” to heart, quite literally transforming his home into one.

From the outside, the circa-mid-1930s, three-story fieldstone-and-wood structure looks like any other in his Northwood neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia. But step beyond the curtain that separates the foyer from the living room, and the look and feel of a medieval castle (complete with two thrones) is immediately apparent.

Gargoyles of every shape and size can be found throughout the house: on tabletops, on the floor, in a stairwell; molded into corbels jutting out from the walls, or embedded into the corners of faux cast-iron doors.

“I’ve never been afraid to push the envelope and try new things,” muses Walzer, who has gone to great lengths to create a distinctively weathered look reflective of the period.

He and wife Tracia purchased their home from a physician back in 1996, shortly after they married.

“In hindsight, the real selling point for us was the basement, because the rooms that the doctor had used for his personal office, a waiting area, and patient examinations proved to be ideal spaces for both Michael’s art and musical pursuits,” recalls Tracia.

The Walzers weren’t sure, at first, how they wanted to decorate. The medieval theme evolved, at least in part, from a gargoyle votive-candle holder Michael made for Tracia from crystalline wax.

The house and its arguably unconventional decor are really an extension of Michael Walzer’s persona as an artist, musician and craftsman. His hair is long, he has a mustache and goatee, and his on-the-job wardrobe includes an extensive collection of ruffled shirts and a beret.

“Much in the same way successful businesspeople exude a certain image by how they dress, I’ve found that people can more easily associate my look with that of Old World European artists and master craftsmen by wearing Renaissance-style clothing” says Michael, who is in his early 50s.

It’s all about perception, as the house also demonstrates.

To replicate the look of stone walls, he applied layers of joint compound with a textured roller, then scraped off the excess with a blade. Two large medieval and Moorish-inspired tapestries hang on those faux stone walls in the living room. Above a fireplace opposite the larger tapestry is a mirror around which Michael has placed distinctive Gothic-style molding that he designed and crafted.

Hundreds of large push pins in square ceiling tiles on the first floor replicate the look of iron bolts, which were used for both decorative and structural reinforcement applications in days of yore.

The dining room features intricately designed parquet flooring, a diamond-patterned mirrored wall that looks like Tudor leaded glass, lamps with dragon heads, faux forged-iron panels attached to the windows, and a large table with lion heads and paws carved into its legs.

Hand-painted fleurs-de-lis accent the ceiling in an otherwise modern kitchen.

In the second-floor master bedroom, Michael used water-base varnish to give a frosted look to some of the windows and applied stenciling to create fleur-de-lis de lis and medieval cross patterns on the windows, the floor and the doors.

In the hallway, two century-old oak panels, inlaid with Gothic-style patterns, are mounted to the wall. Yet another tapestry, with images of unicorns and foliage, hangs on the landing between the first and second floors — Michael says he saw it in a magazine, though he acquired other items through antique shops and estate sales, among other means.

A local garden center provided the source material for lion heads embedded into second-floor faux-iron doors — they were replicated from a mold made from an ornamental clay lion head he found there. To the doors themselves, Michael applied a black acrylic glaze to the sanded-down wood, adding shades of blue, green and orange for a tarnished forged-iron look.

Two rooms on the second floor depart radically from the medieval. One, formerly a nursery for the Walzers’ sons, Dane, 13, and Raun, 11, has a celestial theme, complete with hand-painted planets, a crescent moon and sun, and tiny white lights affixed to the ceiling. The other room is painted as a jungle.

Michael credits much of his skill in wood-graining, marbleizing, stenciling, and gold and silver leafing to classes he took at the Hussian School of Art in Old City, from which he graduated in 1981, and to his tenure as lead artist with Adolph Frei & Sons, a firm involved with numerous church and historic-building restorations.

“Michael has done several different projects for us since the mid-1980s and is remarkably adept at restorative and other highly detailed work,” says Dan Hinds, superintendent of the historic Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania Masonic Temple across from City Hall.

The Walzers acknowledge that the look they’ve created in their home isn’t for everyone, but they are nevertheless content to call it their castle.

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