Falling in love with the city and its fine old buildings - like hers

The living room and kitchen are now open, separated by a long bar that has seating, counter space, and storage for Willmoth's computer.
The living room and kitchen are now open, separated by a long bar that has seating, counter space, and storage for Willmoth's computer. (RON TARVER / Staff Photogapher)
Posted: February 09, 2013

When Pamela Willmoth first moved to Center City more than three years ago, she admits to having some doubts about downtown life. It was lonely and full of uncertainty, especially at night. Her experience walking to a convenience store felt a world apart from her hometown of Redmond, Wash., probably best known as the headquarters of Microsoft.

But now, Willmoth, 49, says she can't conceive of living anywhere other than a city full of lovely squares, hip restaurants, and prominent buildings - like the Phoenix, where she resides in a 1,080-square-foot condominium.

"I love how Philadelphia preserves its older buildings. I'll walk into a drugstore and be amazed that the building at one time was a bank," says Willmoth, a senior tax director at Comcast.

She was born in Connecticut, and her father died when she was 8, leaving her mother to support Willmoth and her three older siblings as a teacher for the Seventh-day Adventist Church at schools in California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Ohio.

As an adult, Willmoth ended up settling in Washington and working for AT&T for 20 years.

"Living in Washington was the longest I'd lived anywhere. As a child, I moved every few years," she says.

But when Willmoth, who's divorced, was offered a job opportunity that came with a cross-country move to Philadelphia in June 2009, it came at a good time. She was looking for a fresh start of sorts.

Her end destination was the Phoenix, a Georgian Revival structure that sits on the corner of 16th and Arch Streets, the longtime corporate headquarters of the Insurance Co. of North America. The circa-1925 building, a National Historic Landmark, was acquired by the Keating Organization in 2002 and divided into condominiums in 2006. During the massive renovation, 267 residences, with 32 unique floor plans, were designed throughout 16 floors. After renting an apartment there for a year, Willmoth bought one of the desirable one-bedroom, two-story units on the 14th floor for $305,000.

Although the condo's layout is appealing (the square footage is evenly distributed on the two levels) and has high ceilings and oversize windows that overlook the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the unit was dated and had fallen into disrepair.

The first step was hiring Philadelphia-based interior designer Susan Hopkins who, Willmoth says, came with a bold vision and endless possibilities. Hopkins and her team helped Willmoth embark on an end-to-end renovation that consumed eight months.

Down came several walls on the first floor, opening up the boxy kitchen to the living room. Antique white custom-designed cabinets went up that provide ample storage of Willmoth's glasses and dishes. To the left of the breakfast bar, a cabinet with vented drawers is the creative solution for concealing her modem, computer, fax machine, and office supplies that she needs when she works at home. Honed black granite countertops and a backsplash in a raised circular pattern were installed.

New appliances line up elegantly in the petite space. Pullout trash and recycling cabinets blend into the seamless surroundings. Because urban dwellings rarely have much counter space, a carefully designed walk-in pantry for storing food items is also equipped with wide counters and enough electrical outlets to accommodate smaller appliances.

Willmoth was able to repurpose most of the furniture from her former home to decorate the living room, including lamps, occasional tables, and a stone-topped coffee table. Both a tufted chair and its matching ottoman have new gray fabric. The ivory-hued sofa with gold and red tapestry, as well as a wingback chair, were also reupholstered. New pillows and draperies were custom-made in neutral shades to unify the room. A support beam became an architectural gem in the room, after the contractors discovered it while opening up the stairway.

Willmoth points out how a mistake was transformed into a stunning effect: Wall sconces purchased for the powder room didn't fit on either side of the oval mirror above the vanity.

"I really liked them, and I didn't want to return them," says Willmoth, so the design team moved the lamps past the corners, so that they now face each other.

More furniture from Willmoth's previous home, including an impressive armoire, fit perfectly in the master bedroom. Three crystal and metal chandeliers hang at different heights over the bed, which is draped with a white coverlet. To maximize space, the walk-in closet had a niche carved out for the washer and dryer.

Marble surrounds the spalike master bathroom that's both functional and luxurious, with black cabinetry, a water closet, and a roomy glassed-in shower.

One of Willmoth's favorite pastimes is writing fiction and poetry, so Hopkins wrote some of her favorite inspirational verses in black-and-white paint on a board that's been framed and mounted in the hallway. More framed art by Hopkins includes a blooming red flower in the powder room, a patchwork of fabrics in the bedroom, and a sketch of the condo's floor plans in the master bath.

Hand-scraped hickory flooring was installed diagonally, helping rooms to appear larger. The recessed lighting illuminates the soft taupe paint on the walls throughout the dwelling.

Rehabbing the condo was smooth for the most part, although Willmoth acknowledges working in a high-rise was uncharted territory.

"We were limited to using only one elevator, which held things up when a lot of supplies were delivered. We also had time restrictions on when we could work."

The city that once had her feeling apprehensive now is a place filled with good friends and a haven tailored just for her. "It's a very easy life," Willmoth says. "I can see myself here for a long time."

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