The front door and windows of their row house.

Surprises in a Pennsport Kitchen

Carolyn's Victorian row house in Pennsport.

Recently, we got an email from Carolyn, a row house owner who lives in Pennsport, a neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, just south of Queen Village (read about Queen Village). Pennsport is quintessential South Philadelphia with rows and rows of homes ranging from Victorian and Workman style to more modern. She was kind enough to share a story with us about a discovery she made during her recent kitchen renovation.

Carolyn lives in a three-storied, brick, Victorian row house. The age of the house is between 100 and 120 years old. Typically homes of this style are about 1200 square feet in size and have small back yards. She resides there with her husband Rick.

RowHouse Magazine:

How long have you been living in your row house? What made you decide to live in a row house in Philadelphia?

Carolyn:

We’ve lived here about 3 years. Before buying a home here, we rented in Center City and Graduate Hospital [two other neighborhoods in Philadelphia ]. We both grew up in the suburbs and gravitated more towards city living for its walkability, closeness to neighbors, arts & culture, and restaurants.

RowHouse Magazine:

Let’s chat a little bit about your neighborhood Pennsport. It’s fairly old, just being south of Queen Village. Most homes are over 100 years old. Is there anything really unique about the neighborhood you’d like to share?

Carolyn:

The front door and windows of their row house.We moved into our house in late November. The first Sunday there, we were surprised to see a marching band go down our street. Turns out that the marching band was one of the Mummers and that we would be in for a treat on New Year’s Day. Those Mummers are a little crazy and, truthfully, a little surreal, but a ton of fun! In the last year, two new restaurants have opened in our neighborhood, the Ugly American and Café Peppercorns. Both are a welcome addition.

[The Mummers are a long-standing Philadelphia Tradition. Part marching band, part mobile theatrical revue, part psychedelic experience, the Mummers march down Broad Street every New Year’s Day. Spectators come from all over the world. Learn more at their website – http://mummers.com/.]

RowHouse Magazine:

How old was the previous kitchen?

Carolyn:

When we renovated the kitchen, we found five different layers of wallpaper. We should have had them carbon dated to find out from which decade each came from. We’ve pieced things together from context clues. The newspapers we found, that were used for insulation, were dated from the 1950s.

RowHouse Magazine:

Was there anything that really motivated you to update the kitchen? Avocado appliances? Bad formica?

Carolyn:

One layer of wallpaper exposed.I hate to criticize anyone’s style because Lord knows we all have some quirks. But the biggest thing that bugged us was the drop ceilings! The day we closed on the house and signed the paper work we went back to our house and sat on the counter in the kitchen. I put my hand up and popped out a popcorn board drop ceiling panel just to see if there was treasure above. No treasure, but there was a good 2 feet above it! Style issues aside, who gets rid of two whole feet of space when you live in a small row house? It doesn’t make sense! Unless, of course, you are trying to hide something. In our case we found water damage to the original ceiling and upper portions of the walls. When the drop ceiling was installed, the water damage wasn’t addressed, so there was moldy wallboard and wallpaper up there. Also, the kitchen had only one outlet which powered the refrigerator. So it was in need of [electrical] upgrades.

RowHouse Magazine:

What style did you choose for your new kitchen and why?

Carolyn:

Another layer of wallpaper and the original cabinets.We started out intending to go with the Mediterranean style but along the way it morphed into something else more contemporary. We installed a copper tin ceiling, very classic dark wood cabinets, a white tumbled stone backsplash, and dark birch hardwood floors. It doesn’t sound very cohesive but it all came together pretty nicely.

RowHouse Magazine:

There is a Lowes, a Home Depot, and an IKEA all in Pennsport. Did this help or hinder your renovation?

Carolyn:

We struggled with finding unique but cost effective materials. We poured through websites like www.rejuvenation.com and www.schoolhouseelectric.com and visited antique and restoration shops in town, such as Restore. In the end, we couldn’t afford the kitchen of our dreams that way; so we stuck to one unique showy element, the copper colored tin ceiling from www.Americantinceiling.com. [ We] used the big box stores for more simple and affordable elements.

RowHouse Magazine:

The finished kitchen.Any pointers you want to pass on about things to consider when renovating a row house kitchen?

Carolyn:

It took us about two years in total to re-do the kitchen. We started without a budget or a clear plan. That was a mistake. Be prepared for surprises, both good and bad, and also budget for eating out a lot.

RowHouse Magazine:

Often renovating an old home yields surprising things like random wiring and experimental plumbing. Anything interesting?

Carolyn:

Frankly, we were aiming high and hoping to find hidden treasure so we could afford to hire contractors. Instead we found a lot of mundane stuff from the 50s and 60s behind the walls and in the ceiling. We found old bottle caps, pieces of coal, baseball cards, cotton socks, a mood ring, business cards, and a church letter. Also, they insulated the back door and around the windows with old newspapers from the 50s and 60s. The newspapers were twisted into logs and shoved into the gaps. We saved them because while they weren’t valuable, they were a part of our history. They contained some interesting articles about issues of the time such as desegregation.

RowHouse Magazine:

A close-up of the newspaper they found in their walls.What did you do with your special find?

Carolyn:

This year was our first wedding anniversary, for which the traditional gift is ‘paper’, so I dug out the box of old newspapers and carefully cut out old headlines, articles, and photos. I even found a wedding section which gave advice on whether you could wear gold shoes with a white gown and told of a story of a man leaving his bride the day before they walked down the aisle. The newspapers were dried out and disintegrating, so I glued the pieces to a canvas and made a collage, sealed it with Modge Podge, and gave it to my husband as a gift. We will hang it in our kitchen as a nod to what came before us.

Photos: Carolyn (home owner)

The finished project.

The finished project on display.

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