Haven: A house with a sense of adventure

A folding screen artwork called "Homage," by Karl Olsen and homeowner Bill Russell, decorates the second-floor landing. Russell crafts decorative painted-wood furniture and has a workshop in Frankford.
A folding screen artwork called "Homage," by Karl Olsen and homeowner Bill Russell, decorates the second-floor landing. Russell crafts decorative painted-wood furniture and has a workshop in Frankford. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 09, 2013

Among the many ingredients that went into Mary Galgon and Bill Russell's house in Northern Liberties are a few less-than-conventional building materials, their senses of adventure and innovation, and just plain nerve, to name three.

These are, after all, people who tell a story of a visit to Thailand with their son, when, Russell says, "we rode an elephant and sat in a square wooden seat driven by a man who sat on the elephant's head and controlled the animal with his feet."

No, they weren't afraid, he says, "because we knew they had done this many times, and this is the way this man made his living."

Building this house, it seems, also was a matter of having faith and just going for it.

Sitting on their porch late on a recent summer afternoon, encircled by bamboo plants, the couple explain their decision.

"We owned a house in Bella Vista, and as the neighborhood was becoming more fashionable, it became expensive to live there and pay taxes," Galgon says. "We had two boys getting ready for college."

"So," says Russell, a noted craftsman in decorative painted-wood furniture who has a workshop in Frankford, "we sold the South Philadelphia house and made enough money to build this house if we kept the costs down, as well as to pay for our kids' college."

Their boys graduated - one son is a graphic artist in Pennsylvania, the other teaches in Thailand.

And the house? Galgon, an artist who graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and also works as a physical-therapist assistant, says she loves the place.

"I never had a garden before," she says.

Their dwelling is sleek, stucco and modern, tucked between other houses on an up-and-coming Northern Liberties block.

Before hiring someone to do its design, Russell says, he talked to his brother, a builder, who said that the couple should hire "the right" architect to get all the things they wanted.

"We wanted lots of light, and it was important that every room opens up to the outside, and Mary needed a studio, and we both saw the need to keep costs down," he says. "If we like something, we try to see if it works in the house."

One of the things they wanted to see work in their yet-to-be-built home was a wooden kitchen rescued from a mansion that was being remodeled.

"I could see the wood was fine cherry, and it included a refrigerator, all for $2,500," Russell says. "Petra worked very hard and managed to get it to fit into our kitchen."

That would be Petra Stanev, who with husband Stephen Potts makes up StanevPotts Architects, the team charged with designing Russell and Galgon's house.

The design is a success, the homeowners say. The sleek beige structure is about 2,400 square feet in two and a half stories. A curved half-story on the top floor provides Galgon with her studio/work space.

Interior skylights help the light flow through the house. Simple, bright rooms are arranged around a stairwell with light wells. Every room connects with the outdoors through a balcony or a doorway.

The arrangement of living room, kitchen and dining room on the first floor, bedrooms on the second floor, and the art studio on the third half-floor encourages cross-ventilation.

When the house was finished in 2009, Potts says, it cost about $140 a square foot. Savings were achieved in many ways.

"On the third floor, we have wooden roof rafters arranged in a scissors pattern, two at a time, which is less expensive than heavier beams," Potts says. "We used stucco over wood for the exterior rather than drywall, and, of course, there was the mansion kitchen.

Plus, he adds, Russell and Galgon "are both very handy, and they did a lot of the interior woodwork and molding on their own."

The house is "flexible for the future," Potts says, and the roof is built to support grass and plants if the couple decide to develop a green roof.

It's turned out to be just what they envisioned, the homeowners say.

"We weren't so hot on contemporary design as much contemporary function," Russell says. "We wanted to have the house comfortable for us and fairly maintenance-free - and it is."