Haven: Downsizing into a condo proved to be right-sizing

Alborg's curio cabinet is filled with pottery from Toledo, Spain.
Alborg's curio cabinet is filled with pottery from Toledo, Spain.
Posted: May 25, 2014

Concha Alborg was ready for a new start. Her daughters were grown and married, and she'd retired five years ago as a professor at St. Joseph's University, after a long career.

So last fall, she sold the grand townhouse in Society Hill she'd owned with her late husband. And in January, she purchased a high-rise condo at Hopkinson House on Washington Square, kicking off a new chapter in her life.

Alborg, who grew up in Spain, came to Philadelphia 37 years ago to pursue a doctorate at Temple University. She fell in love with the vibrancy of the city and stayed.

"Philly is very much like Madrid - walkable, with neighborhoods that have big cultural identities," says Alborg.

Life was supposed to be different. When Alborg and her husband, Peter Segal, a musician, bought their 3,500-square-foot townhouse, designed by famed architect I.M. Pei, it seemed like such a good idea. But after Segal died of cancer eight years ago, the house felt too big, and eventually became too difficult for her to maintain.

Besides the allure of a place with low maintenance and a patio featuring fabulous views of the city, Alborg was attracted to Hopkinson House by the constant whirl of activities offered there, such as film forums, exercise classes, and courtyard concerts. When friends listed their 1,200-square-foot unit in the building, she jumped, sealing the deal for $500,000.

An extra bonus has been wonderful neighbors, an eclectic mix of families, millennials, and retirees.

"I needed help getting into a sari for a wedding recently. Two women came right over to help," says the sixtysomething Alborg. "This is the kind of community it is."

Moving into a condo that was a third the size of her former house, Alborg was forced to pare down many possessions. That new awareness of space made her more selective - and liberated her.

"I had to make decisions on what to keep and what to give away. The truth is, I feel freer with less," she says. (Since she has fewer closets, seasonal items like beach chairs and holiday decorations, as well as heirloom dishes for her three grandchildren, are kept at a storage center.)

Yet her smaller digs allow Alborg's diverse furniture and artwork to get the attention they deserve.

Two russet-hued sofas and a brown wicker arrangement fit perfectly in her living room. A regal French dining set sits beneath a statement-making chandelier. Persian rugs sweep the parquet flooring throughout.

Her daughters, Diana and Jane Day, took larger, cherished pieces like a china cabinet and an antique armoire. "That told me they appreciate the way they grew up."

Inspired by the sun-soaked landscapes and rich, rolling hills of Tuscany, where she attended a writers' workshop last year (she is now a full-time writer), Alborg painted her walls in bold yellows, greens, and oranges.

Often unappreciated in her townhouse, flowered vases, Latin tiles, and sculptures of nudes are dramatically cast against the eye-popping palette.

"A bigger house swallows your things," she says.

To showcase her traditional and vast collection of Talavera earthenware - many depicting images of peasants - a contractor installed a built-in curio. The glass front was designed by Media-based artist Patricia Myers. Nearby, high-tech lighting illuminates her cherished books on Ikea shelves.

The second bedroom has been repurposed into her study, with two desks surrounded by more books meticulously arranged in rows (works in English or Spanish).

Hanging on the wall are three abstract illustrations painted by her son-in-law, Dwayne Booth, a political cartoonist. The symbolic drawings represent Alborg's first English-written novel, American in Translation: A Novel in Three Novellas.

Corner windows in the master bedroom offer postcard vistas of Liberty Place, the Comcast Center, and City Hall. Glass shelving holds family pictures and treasured trinkets.

New fixtures were installed in the adjacent master bath, which also was enlarged three feet to allow for a linen closet.

Alborg balances her days writing and volunteering for such nonprofits as Raices Culturales Latinoamericanas, a group that raises awareness for Latin American cultures through art and educational programs. She also enjoys traveling and has been to Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

But there's no place like home.

"I wondered if I'd miss the cachet of a larger house," she says. "The surprising part has been that I couldn't have ended up happier."

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