Negotiating a long rehab

The revamped bathroom, finished with glass tiles from Mexico. "When we disagreed," Amy Stein says, "we would start all over."
The revamped bathroom, finished with glass tiles from Mexico. "When we disagreed," Amy Stein says, "we would start all over." (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

A pair of architects took 20 years to agree on each detail.

Posted: October 19, 2013

Looking at the 19-century redbrick house in Washington Square West, you may wonder why it took 20 years to renovate a 932-square-foot space.

When you hear that every detail had to be a compromise between two married housing architects - the ones who live there - then it becomes immediately clear.

"Ever since we bought the house in 1994, we looked at it as a mock-up, a chance to try out different ideas before they were built and [to] perfect our profession," said Anthony Miksitz, who heads his own architectural firm. "When we disagreed, we got a chance to look at the problem together and work things out."

His wife, Amy Stein, clarified: "When we disagreed, we would start all over from scratch and work it out until we agreed."

There were the small hurdles - like the color of the kitchen, which was changed about six times. Finally, Stein got the final say, deciding on a cream with a green tint. "We tried various colors," Miksitz said, "and I still see them as yellow. . . . Amy sees cream, and I see yellow."

And then the big things, as in 2003, when a cavity appeared in the small street in front of their house, a result of the breaking of the original 1832 sewer pipe.

"A trash truck sunk in the hole and veered almost to crash into our house, the same year that we had just finished a lot of work," Stein said. "After a lot of discussing with the city where the responsibility lay, we ended up paying for their sewer repairs."

The project's beginnings trace back to when the couple met in architecture school at Kent State University in Ohio, and, after graduation, spent time in Europe before deciding to live in Philadelphia - pedestrian-friendly with small buildings and houses, reminiscent of European cities. They lived in a rental while Stein was illustrating an architectural book for a Princeton University professor, and Miksitz was working for a Philadelphia firm.

Their goal was to buy a historic house in a nice neighborhood that they could rebuild.

"We knew we could change the inside of the house," said Stein, who now works for MGA Partners, "but we couldn't change the neighborhood."

So they rode all over Philadelphia on their bicycles, meeting their real estate agent, who gave them the keys to houses in West Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, and every Center City neighborhood. ("She didn't even try to sell us anything, because she knew that we knew what we wanted," Stein said.)

When they found their dilapidated house, then a rental property, it was perfect for them. The "fixer-upper" was on a street of tiny houses, and they would be the first owner-occupants.

"We gutted the house and drew plans putting it back together authentically," Miksitz said.

There were fireplaces in almost each of the nine rooms. The small kitchen and living room were separated by a thick wall with a tiny door. The doorway to the back of the house was also tiny.

Initially without a car, the couple would have lumberyards deliver their orders, and a nearby hardware company on South Street - now closed - lent the couple a utility cart to take tools and other supplies to their house.

They retained the original heart-pine floors and stairway to the third floor, which is where they started work.

"The room was actually a dormer, with half of the roof coming down so an adult couldn't stand up," Stein said. They extended the ceiling, now 10 feet high.

They cut lumber for joints, built a glass cabinet for a closet in the closet-less master bedroom, and labored over the bathroom, finally finished with blue and green glass tiles from Mexico.

Miksitz would draw the first round of plans. Revisions would come from both. Nothing was installed until both agreed.

Each took part in installing lighting, doing carpentry work, even tackling plumbing.

"The only thing we didn't do ourselves was the roof and the brick pointing," Miksitz said.

The couple broke through the wall between the living room and kitchen - which required installing steel beams to support the area - and put in a glass door and panels leading to the patio.

Then their son, Max, now 10, was born, "and we had to slow down," Stein said. Miksitz's second-floor office became Max's, which got a bed and a built-in bureau.

After a stint in the third-floor family room, Miksitz now shares a workroom-office in the basement with Max and Stein, everyone with their own laptop.

Last year, the living room was tackled. According to Max, the room had been a dumping ground for all the furniture and stuff in the rest of house while they were working. Like nearly everything else, they gutted, painted, and repaired windowpanes.

Now, the room is endowed with a Saarinen chair, named after the famous Finnish architect Eero Saarinen.

"We both love midcentury modern, and it fits in even in this more-than-200-year-old house," said Miksitz, who received the chair as a birthday present from his wife and son.

Finally, everyone agrees, the house is finished.

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