Part of what makes cities so stimulating visually are the layers and contrasts of time and architecture. For instance, the Beaux Arts architecture of the post office and 30th Street Station set off the monolithic gleaming glass of Philadelphia’s Cira Center. Dramatic contrast, don’t you think?
Sadly, this does not work as well in the suburbs, where, when it comes to new construction, distinctive style generally loses out to cost-efficient cookie cutter boxes that either consume large swaths of former farmland, intrude on empty lots in existing neighborhoods or become a trend called “tear downs” that slowly replace a neighborhood with a consumer-era tribute to “whatever is new is better.” (This general concept gives preservationists, who are just being environmentally aware, after all, the heebie-jeebies. It’s not just me; see previous post here
I can't live in someone's used house. Used houses are skeevy
Did you hear about the woman on Bravo’s “Housewives of New Jersey” who refuses to live in a used house because it’s just too skeevy? Could this be a sign of things to come as pandemics and germaphobia become regular features of life? Her custom-built house isn’t anything new or cutting-edge. It’s not exactly revival anything. It was certainly very expensive. It’s a style demanded by a client who aspires to be a Disney princess — one who believes that anything bigger is better and brand-new is best. Onyx, gold, marble, granite, with roller skates to get from one end of the house to the other.
The old house, lost in the trees: 213 Summit Avenue, Built 1894 for William & Amanda Garner (Photo by Lew Keen)
Having rejected the Disney princess role model early in my life, I rejoice when I see the old renewed instead of torn down to make way for the generic, neutral-to-sell box.
I live in an area where many post-war couples bought turn-of-the-century homes to raise their families. As time passed, the aging folk retired, sold out and moved away. Others remained in the home they knew and loved, but outstayed their ability to care for the property.
On my block, two little old ladies kept on in a house (see above) long after they could care for it or afford to pay others to do so. Attempting to avoid maintenance issues they obscured the true form of the house with siding and vinyl window replacements. The porch fell away. Entire window openings disappeared. Stories circulated about raccoons falling through the ceiling on the third floor. And just like the story of Sleeping Beauty, the landscape grew up and swallowed the building. It almost disappeared from view.
Eventually the ladies moved on and from all accounts the building was just too far gone inside and out from deferred maintenance and water damage. It appeared the 1894 house would become a tear down. A small earthmover appeared. I took photos to document the building before it was gone for good. I geared up for the arrival of something new, akin to what I’d seen under construction in the next little town. (seen above — what is with that window arrangement?)
Chainsaws ripped through the trunks of towering weed trees. As the lot was cleared, the house returned to the neighborhood. Trucks parked out front, dumpster after dumpster filled up. The kitchen addition was demolished. It was assumed the rest would follow.
But, what was this?
Some original details obscured, but windows in the tower are restored, and the return of the porch makes a huge difference to the presence on the street
The siding was stripped away and replaced with shingles. The flimsy storm door was removed to reveal the original entryway.. The porch was replaced. New windows were installed. With small top story window openings restored, the tower lost its gouty, pointless look and made sense again. The house’s scale and form feel “right” and the house has rejoined the street after more than a decade in netherland. Except for small detail work, the renovation is complete and a for sale sign invites a new family to claim the house as their own.
Demolition seemed like such a foregone conclusion that this makeover feels like a triumph. While some of the details aren’t quite right, the facelift takes this house back to its youth (see photo circa 1920s) and the neighborhood will be forever grateful.
Want to be my neighbor? For sales information contact Pionzio Construction, 215/760-9622 or 215/718-5754
4/10/10 Update: The house has a new family. Here’s hoping they’ll finish out some of the historic details that were overlooked in the renovation.
213 Summit Avenue, Built 1894