The hassle to remake a house

A view of the living room and back glass wall from the kitchen. Neighbors fought the wall and rear expansion.
A view of the living room and back glass wall from the kitchen. Neighbors fought the wall and rear expansion. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff)

A homeowner had to make peace with neighbors who raised objections.

Posted: September 24, 2012

When your home includes your workplace and you spend most of your time there, it becomes more to you than just a place to sleep, eat, and occasionally entertain.

That's the perspective from which Rich Brome, 34, who heads a Web design and cellphone consulting service, searched for a house in the Washington Square West neighborhood about five years ago.

"I love the neighborhood where I lived a few blocks away and don't own a car, didn't want to buy one," Brome says. "I looked at about 20 houses before I found this one."

A man of definite opinions, he adds, "I found this and knew it was the one and knew what I would do for it, beginning with an addition."

But after Brome bought the historically certified 170-year-old townhouse on Pine Street, it also became the site of a neighborhood legal battle for a while.

It seems his desire to expand the footprint of his house at the rear upset his neighbors, as did his desire to glass in the new back wall, near his large fireplace.

Brome hired architect Jackie Gusic, who worked with him to map out his ideas for his home/office.

"Jackie was great to work with," Brome says. "She collaborated with me and took some of my ideas, and suggested hers in other places where I had no idea what to do."

For about six months, before construction could even begin, Gusic also went with Brome to multiple zoning hearings and before City Council.

"We wanted to expand the lot, which was 800 square feet, and were told the required size was almost double that, even though no one in the area has a 1,400-square-foot lot," she says.

"We needed a variance for that, and then neighbors complained that we wanted to tear down the 1970s-style house behind Rich's and claimed the house was historic, which of course it wasn't, and then there was a neighbor two doors down who claimed her house could fall down if we removed the rear wall of his house."

At one point, Brome says, a neighbor tried to get the law changed to protect the house behind his.

"We had to hire a lawyer to point out that it is unconstitutional to pass a code aimed at one person," he says.

Ultimately, that plan was dropped. After buying the house to the rear, Brome decided to rent it rather than demolish it.

His house, expanded by 130 square feet, is now a legal 1,625 square feet.

Brome and Gusic tried to make peace with his neighbors wherever possible.

"One of the things we did to please the neighbor on one side was to tilt the rear fence so the glare from the glass window wall wouldn't disturb them," Gusic says.

"We also hid the lights on the roof deck so they wouldn't glare in neighbors' windows."

Now that the acrimony has passed, it's hard to see what the furor was all about.

Approaching the 18-foot-wide brick rowhouse, with its paned windows and its little shrubs in front, in no way prepares a visitor for what's inside: A surprisingly modern interior filled with natural light.

You can see straight to the back of the house, 52 feet, and through the wall of windows to the patio.

Just inside the entrance is a gleaming stainless-steel kitchen nestled behind a natural maple island.

At the rear of the house is the living room, with its limestone-covered fireplace and comfortable furnishings in maple and leather.

"We reversed the kitchen and the living room," Brome says. "I don't care if a kitchen is noisy with street sounds, but it is nice if the living room area is quiet."

The project took about eight months, Gusic says.

"We removed the whole rear of the house and added nine feet from the front of the fireplace to the window, which includes the living room area," she says.

Overlooking the extended area of the living room is a second-floor mezzanine that comes out to the former rear wall. The second floor includes a sitting area and a guest bedroom.

On the third floor, the nine-foot extension gives Brome's bedroom a view of the rear patio.

The front room on the third floor is his office.

"It makes sense: Again, I don't care how noisy my office is, but I like my bedroom to be quiet," Brome says.

Upstairs from the third floor is the roof deck, surrounded with intricate metalwork.

Brome points out the deck's view of the Philadelphia skyline: Two Liberty Place; Symphony House; the Kimmel Center.

"Yes, I am happy with my house," he says. "And most of my neighbors and I now get along fine."

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