Haven: Clean renovation helps him move forward from loss

Over the kitchen table , the room continues the theme of cool repose, echoed in the modern artwork on the wall. Anthony and Paula Esposito agreed on the need to open up the once-boxy kitchen. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Over the kitchen table , the room continues the theme of cool repose, echoed in the modern artwork on the wall. Anthony and Paula Esposito agreed on the need to open up the once-boxy kitchen. AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 15, 2013

The inside of the brick rowhouse on South 18th Street is furnished so minimally, it makes a Shaker dwelling seem opulent.

"I'm a little compulsive about having things in order," Anthony Esposito says with a laugh.

But the clean lines and muted color palette throughout lend an elegant serenity as soothing as a Zen garden.

It took two major overhauls in six years to get it into its present incarnation, the result of love, sorrow, and endurance.

When Anthony and his wife, Paula, bought their Packer Park house in October 2005, things could not have felt more blissful.

For the South Philadelphia natives, the 1,550-square-foot find meant the perfect pairing: embarking on a restorative project and remaining close to family and friends. Plus, the three-bedroom/one-bath residence built in 1960 appealed to them because it is on a quiet mini-cul-de-sac with ample parking among green landscaping.

Before they could complete their move, however, Paula, then 40, started experiencing headaches, some severe enough to cause her to stagger. Tests revealed she had 11 brain tumors from metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer, plunging the couple into shock.

Immediately, Paula, a secretary at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, began intensive rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, while Anthony vowed to give his wife the dream home she envisioned.

"As it's happening, you think, 'This is not the life I chose,' " says Anthony, a general contractor who turns 45 in July.

He'd had a crush on Paula since his teenage years, and they became reacquainted in their early twenties and married in 1996.

Anthony says they were in accord about opening up the boxy kitchen, updating the bathroom, installing oak flooring in place of the parquet, and hanging new six-panel doors. They also kept the sunken living room and three bedrooms.

"During the rehab," he says, "Paula lived with her mother to get away from the dust and dirt," and she even experienced a brief cancer-free period. Sadly, though, the disease spread to her bones, and she died on Sept. 10, 2007.

His former life shattered, Anthony found he couldn't move from the house. But he also realized he couldn't pick up the pieces in those familiar surroundings.

He credits good friends for banding together to help him replace the traditional styling with a more straightforward Asian look. "So many friends not only worked tirelessly with me on the house, but on rebuilding my life."

An adventurous gut renovation started with the upstairs, turning the three bedrooms and bath into an expansive master suite that has a bed with a simple low wood headboard from West Elm. Brick facing and glass doors lead to a mahogany deck with cedar fencing. A DVD player and cable box are meticulously tucked into custom-designed cabinetry under a flat-screen TV.

Steps away is the tumbled-marble en-suite bath, with bronze faucets and a mahogany double vanity. The dressing area is framed by floor-to-ceiling closets that hide clothing and the washer and dryer.

A dramatic print of a rope bridge in Vietnam hangs at the top of the mahogany-and-maple staircase that seems to float down to the living environment. The ground-floor rear was lifted four feet, which jettisoned the sunken living room but added another deck - and a persistent yellow rosebush.

Anthony beams when telling the story: "I used to give my wife yellow roses all the time because they were her favorite. And in an effort to erase everything from the past, I thought I destroyed the bush. One day, it made its way through the cracks."

Inspired by his practice of meditation, he's placed Buddha statues on counters, benches, and among the few plants in his backyard.

The living room is defined with bamboo wall coverings and contains a sectional in rich brown leather and another flat-screen TV.

Illuminated by crisp appliances, the kitchen has quartz countertops and a glass-mosaic backsplash.

Complementing the home's minimalism is no-nonsense high-hat lighting. A contemporary glass fixture hangs above the blonde dining table.

The lower level was configured from a garage into an exercise room and an office with a bar. A framed picture of the Italian Market's Esposito Meats - no relation, just a nod to a shared surname - was a hand-delivered gift from the market's owners, and is a burst of color among understated tones.

For Anthony, the renovation has proved to be the best expression of trying to move on with his life.

"I'm basically a homebody," he says. "Over time, I've found a comfort and tranquility staying here."

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