Haven: Veteran renovators tackle a French Colonial in East Falls

In the living room of their East Falls home, Larry Benjamin (left) and Stanley Willauer Jr.
In the living room of their East Falls home, Larry Benjamin (left) and Stanley Willauer Jr. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 16, 2012

Homeownership can make us crazy and crazed, often at the same time. Just ask Larry Benjamin and his longtime partner, Stanley Willauer Jr. — they will admit to having felt as much, and having acted as such.

To elucidate: Benjamin and Willauer spent eight years renovating a sweet rowhouse in East Falls. The rehab, occurring in the early 2000s, went beyond the typical kitchen redo and new roof.

In this neighborhood, many houses still have radiator heat, so central air-conditioning isn't common. These two wanted it, but Willauer, a former architecture student (as was Benjamin), didn't want to disturb existing soffits in the 1,000-square-foot house. Preserve the architecture, he says.

So the couple had a 2½-ton commercial AC unit crane-hoisted onto the roof. They removed the second-floor ceiling and ran ductwork along the rafters, then put flexible ducts into the closets to get to the first floor.

After that project, "I think we were bored," says Benjamin, a communications specialist with Styron, the global materials company based in Berwyn. And, maybe crazy, he says, because work on the house was complete.

But enthusiasm for redoing another, even larger house swayed them, though the couple, who now are both a bit past 50, didn't want to leave East Falls, or their friends, or access to the parks for their dogs Coco and Toby, or an easy commute into Center City.

So in 2007, three blocks from their rowhouse, they found a vacant 2,200-square-foot French Colonial built in 1932. The house seemed perfect, Benjamin says, so they bought it. But it turned out that the property, which had been in foreclosure, had issues beyond the roof that it clearly needed. Among them: extensive termite damage in the flooring below the sunroom, which a finished basement had hidden, and joists and walls so damaged that the house needed stabilization.

"We knew about the roof going in, but the hidden and concealed damage led to much anxiety," says Willauer, an interior designer who has made all the home's draperies, chair coverings and bedspreads, and the master bedroom's rust-colored ultrasuede headboard.

Then there were the gutters: They didn't work. Water ended up in the basement.

"I remember one particularly bad week: The basement had flooded twice, there were squirrels in the chimney, and a dead bat in the basement. I decided to make a nice dinner," Benjamin says. "As we sat down to eat, all the lights went out because of a power failure. I just started crying.

“Selling the house wasn't an option — who'd buy it? I think Stanley was ready to bail even if we lost money, but I was determined to make this wreck a home."

Eventually, the infrastructure problems were travails no more, and decorating and redesigning rooms became Job No. 1. With Willauer's artistic and sewing talents and the couple's love of hunting for consigned furniture and trash-picking, the fun began.

Former owners had modernized the kitchen, but it was too contemporary for Willauer's and Benjamin's tastes — "I believe great design ended in 1945," quips the latter. So from a neighbor's trash heap they pulled a porcelain-over-cast-iron sink, the kind nearly everybody's grandmother or great-grandmother had at one point. Of course, it still had its attached drainboards.

They replaced the countertop next to the stove with Willauer's butcher-block dining table, which he says he had been hauling around for years.

A peek at the original double-hung windows showed sash chains — not designed for the faint of heart. Will they leave those windows in?

"If we can, yes," says Willauer, who hails from Easton; Benjamin grew up in an apartment in the Bronx.

The couple met in the late 1980s in Center City: Willauer was a front-desk man at a high-rise, and Benjamin was delivering newspapers.

Eventually, Willauer worked for both F. Schumacher & Co. and Kravet Fabrics in Philadelphia. He learned to sew after taking a class, and his work is manifest throughout the house.

In the living room, Schumacher zebra-striped velvet, at $200 a yard, covers the seats of two chairs. The chairs together cost only $150 from a consignment shop. "We like to mix it up," Benjamin says.

In the dining room, full-length drapes — three-quarters deep pink, the other quarter split between two different patterns — frame the French doors. Walls and ceiling are pea-soup green.

In older houses, Willauer says, the walls are uneven, so painting the ceiling the same color envelops the room with color. "The ceiling just disappears," Benjamin says.

In fact, there isn't a dull color in the house. In Benjamin's study on the third floor, the walls are chartreuse. Their neighbors' house is all white: "They come over here, and they twitch," he says.

In the study, Willauer made Roman shades with a glen-plaid pattern that has a fine chartreuse line running through it. The glen plaid "brings masculinity into the space," he says.

Though this house isn't finished yet — a bathroom and deck still need attention — Willauer has looked at a property in Wayne.”

"You would love that house,'" he reportedly has told Benjamin.

But Benjamin says he has "renovation fatigue. So far, I have been turning a deaf ear."

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