It’s become a routine for architect Chris Greenawalt: move to a new city, purchase a home, renovate.
First came a house in Seattle, a former squat that Greenawalt and his wife purchased and gut renovated. Next was an 850-square-foot condo in Boston, where a smaller-scale kitchen revamp became the first project for Greenawalt’s firm, Bunker Workshop.
So when the couple and their two children (ages 9 and 4) decided to return to Philadelphia, where Greenawalt and his wife lived after college, a renovation was inevitable.
But their Philadelphia home is the one that almost got away.
Just as Greenawalt and his wife got more serious about the move, visiting the city to attend open houses, they came across a 3,000-square-foot townhouse in the city’s Northern Liberties neighborhood. It featured Victorian details, exposed brick, and a staggered stair that created higher ceilings in the more formal front rooms and lower ones in back. “We thought it was really cool but assumed it was going to go pretty quickly,” Greenawalt says, too quickly for his wife to complete her work relocation in time.
The couple forgot about the Northern Liberties house and moved on, but three or four months later, relocation imminent, they walked up to a property on their agent’s list and had a moment of recognition. The townhouse was still on the market. “We were like, ‘oh my gosh, we’ve been here before,’” says Greenawalt. And having spent the day viewing what he calls “pretty terrible houses”—due to his eagerness to redo “the most derelict properties imaginable”—they were ready to commit.
Greenawalt immediately started thinking about the redesign. On the scale of his past projects, it might fall somewhere between that Seattle gut renovation and the Boston condo kitchen, while also giving the family “the luxury of doing what we want,” says Greenawalt. “There wasn’t going to be a lot of work, but it had enough charm and character that you could really do something with it.”
The family had to be able to live in the house while work was underway, so he divided the remodel into two stages, first tackling the master bedroom suite, created out of two smaller rooms that Greenawalt combined, and then wrangling the kitchen-dining area.
The revamped house also had to serve multiple functions: In addition to being the family’s home, it would be a “showcase” for Greenawalt, who was rebuilding his architecture practice in a new city.
“I have clients coming here and I want to sort of show them the ideas I’ve had and wanted to try,” Greenawalt says, “but also respect that this place has a lot of character and not get too in the way of it.”
One piece of character he preserved is the massive, ornate gold mirror that hangs in the home’s front room. Another is the central brick chimney that Greenawalt opted to expose; now, that brick is visible behind the glass of the master bathroom shower. Achieving that look was a challenge.
“I had an idea of what I wanted to do,” Greenawalt says, but “we had to get the Corian guy here, and the glass people, and the plumber...[and] all three tradesmen were saying, ‘you can’t do that’ for this reason or that reason. But we got them all here and we talked it through, and we were able to detail it out in a way that everyone was happy.”
Talk to Greenawalt for a few minutes and it’s clear he had concepts for both large and small aspects of the project from the beginning. In some cases, though, the available options didn’t match Greenawalt’s vision for the space, and creative workarounds were necessary. Take, for example, those bright-blue master bathroom faucets: Greenawalt knew he wanted to “play with color” in the space, but found few colored faucets on the market. Instead, he purchased chrome faucets and took them to Model Finishing for blue powder coating.
Other solutions arose more serendipitously. Greenawalt went into the second segment of the renovation project, the kitchen-dining area, sure that he wanted an old carpenter’s bench or workbench to use as the kitchen island. After searching Craigslist, eBay, and architectural salvage stores to no avail, Greenawalt finally found exactly what he was looking for close to home, when his neighbor, builder Kenny Grono of Buckminster Green, offered an old workbench he had in the basement.
“That’s basically become the centerpiece of the whole project,” Greenawalt says.
The bench fit neatly into Greenawalt’s general plan for the house, one that “dug into the layers” of the home and its neighborhood. The result is a house that incorporates both old details and new ideas.