Haven: Belmont Hills house made more habitable in two stages

In the first stage of expansion, an old, cold porch was razed and replaced with a dining room - heated with radiant panels in the concrete floors. The connecting sunroom has a new wood- burning stove.
In the first stage of expansion, an old, cold porch was razed and replaced with a dining room - heated with radiant panels in the concrete floors. The connecting sunroom has a new wood- burning stove.
Posted: October 21, 2013

If it could talk, Diana Post's "little square house," as she calls it, would probably like to thank the letter carrier who delivered architect Shep Houston's New Yorker magazine to her by mistake about 10 years ago.

As these things go, it was quite the fortuitous mail mishap.

"Shep also lived behind my house in West Philadelphia," Post says. "I returned the magazine and found she was my neighbor just when I was looking for an architect."

Houston, she says, had worked with many Main Line homeowners who "love their old houses and want to improve them, not tear them down."

Post was living in a dilapidated 1880 frame house in Belmont Hills that she bought in 1997, and she decided it was time to improve it.

Among other things, she and partner Elizabeth Milroy used their porch year-round to dine with guests, but in colder weather, the screens had to be covered with tarps. Plus, the house had only one bathroom.

At first, Post and Milroy didn't feel crowded in the 1,200-square-foot house, because both were spending so many hours where they worked. Milroy was a professor of art history at Wesleyan University in Connecticut; Post worked at the Wistar Institute and studied at the University of Pennsylvania. It was more a part-time house than a full-time address.

And even though it was "rather dark," Post had fallen in love with the house.

"It was located on the highest hill in Belmont Hills," she says, "and had a 270-degree view of the area" from the front yard.

"As soon as I got out of the car to see the house, the first thing I smelled was wine fermenting in someone's house," Post says. She later learned that winemaking was not unusual in this historically Italian American neighborhood.

But the intriguing fragrances weren't all that appealed.

"I wanted more light and a safe, congenial neighborhood," Post says of her move to Montgomery County. She also wanted to garden, and "I wanted neighbors who got to know my dogs' names when we run or walk in the area."

But then the house became more than just a part-time place to live. Post started her own business, working from home as a manager for nonprofits. Milroy took a job locally, becoming curator of education at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

So they hired Houston to make their house more habitable, believing she could be sensitive to a dwelling so similar to her own.

"We didn't want to tear down the house and rebuild," Post says. "I have too much respect for the style of the buildings here in Belmont Hills and love the two- or three-story houses, largely built by Italian workers in the 19th century."

Houston, who shares that admiration for their neighborhood's style, made changes to the house in two stages.

The first, in 2007, added 250 square feet by tearing down the porch and replacing it with a dining room in the same footprint.

Walls lined with windows give the impression that the room remained a screened-in porch. As a dining room, however, the space is comfortably heated with radiant panels in the concrete floors. The room connects to a sunroom with a new wood-burning stove.

Four years later, the house was again expanded, adding a guest bedroom, office, and library for Post, as well as access to a garden behind the house.

In the office, a rich blue embraces the walls, a soothing warm glow against the white frames of the windows and French doors.

In the library, built-in shelves hold books and a collection of small vintage bottles.

That second expansion brought with it two decks that spread out along the back of the house. The lower deck leads from the sunroom. The upper deck, several feet higher, also serves as the roof of Post's office, allowing its ceiling to be higher than the adjacent guest room and hall.

"The upper deck is our favorite dining deck," Milroy says, "and we eat out here six months a year."

Sitting recently in the dining room/porch, amid all the windows, Post said she felt very wise to have bought this house.

"I love the fact that the history of the town is genuine," she says, "and this is now my neighborhood."

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