Haven: Moving to the suburbs while keeping a bit of the city

The couple's 8-year-old daughter has her own space in one of the many bedrooms on the second floor.
The couple's 8-year-old daughter has her own space in one of the many bedrooms on the second floor.
Posted: March 24, 2014

Bridget McQuate and Ralph Johnson's reasons for living in South Philadelphia evaporated about the time they changed jobs and their daughter reached school age.

McQuate's commute to a then-new suburban job put a damper on the walkable-city idea she embraced while working in Center City.

"I got pretty sick of walking two miles to the train and then two miles when I got to my stop," says McQuate, a marketing manager for a Conshohocken architectural firm.

Johnson, a computer analyst working in West Philadelphia, says it was stimulating to live in the city when he managed an art gallery there for eight years while earning his master's degree. But it lost its luster when the family failed to win a spot in a desirable Philadelphia charter school.

"There are good [public] schools in the city, but we weren't in any of the districts of those good schools," he says.

So the couple decided to move, and, after looking at about 40 houses online, found a 3,000-square-foot Colonial Revival house with columns and a front porch in the Elkins Park section of Cheltenham Township.

The stone-and-stucco house, which has seven bedrooms and a large yard, is just a few blocks from one of the township's libraries and their daughter's elementary school, in the historic Ogontz area.

Because Elkins Park is an inner-ring suburb and the population is very diverse, Johnson says, they didn't feel they were deserting the city for the suburbs.

"Our old house sold for more than this house, and the taxes are nothing compared with paying for private school," he says. "In fact, our old house sold pretty quickly, and we had to move fast."

Three years ago, the family settled in, paying for their bargain with hard work. (Previously in residence had been an elderly couple who owned the house for about 40 years.)

The exterior was the first priority: It needed painting, and the roof had issues.

There were unexpected problems, Johnson says: "We discovered that the former owners had contractors in to replace the roof, only a contractor had placed one new roof over another, so we had to remove each old roof before a new one was installed."

The large front porch was enclosed with a screen that was patched and full of holes. The couple removed the screen, letting more sunlight into the living room.

Inside, McQuate says, a redo was in order, as well.

"Each room was covered with bright blue wallpaper, and the floors had layers of linoleum or wall-to-wall carpet, and the windows were decorated with poofy fabric."

And the redo isn't finished yet.

"No, the next project is removing wallpaper and lead paint in the laundry room," Johnson says. "The lead paint can be very dangerous."

Despite the work still to be done, McQuate and Johnson's house now looks as though it belongs among the other houses on their leafy suburban street.

Many vestiges of their life in the city remain, however.

A brass horse stands on the mantel of a large white fireplace on a wall between two doors leading to the porch. Above the fireplace hangs a painting by Celia Reisman. The horse, painting, and a wooden ship from Mexico represent some of the many pieces Johnson bought during the eight years he managed the art gallery near Rittenhouse Square.

The treasures stand out in the sparse but elegant style of the McQuate/Johnson house. The floors are polished oak; the dining room furniture is a clean teak wood that makes the space seem quite large.

Upstairs are bedrooms galore: a very pretty pink room for their daughter, now 8; a master bedroom suite; a guest suite for when McQuate's parents visit from Arizona, and storage rooms that aren't used.

But it wasn't just the need for a good school that precipitated their move, McQuate says, attaching a leash to the collar of a recently acquired floppy-eared puppy, their second dog.

"We wanted extra space outdoors and an old house," she says, "and we now have those things."

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