The first time Ashley Berke and John McGinniss saw the house in Fishtown that they now own, they bolted.
"It was horrible — depressing!" as Berke recalls the three-story house, whose original section dates to the 1840s.
Months went by as the couple searched for a home in the Philadelphia neighborhood, one they loved for its diversity, history and old dwellings, until — a year after that first visit — there was a call from a Realtor suggesting that the property might be worth a second look. It seems that after a series of renters had moved on, the owner had undertaken some rehabilitation.
"This time, we walked in and realized that once the place had been cleaned up, it actually had enormous potential," says McGinniss. "We loved the old features, the terrific light — and the fact that we could afford it."
So they took a leap of faith back in October 2010 and bought the old house on East Columbia Avenue, in a bustling district of rowhouses, stores, restaurants, and the aura of progress.
Today, they are well into the work of making it their own, but not without considerable sweat equity. And the greatest triumph, they suggest, is the transformation of a formerly barren, weed-choked concrete rectangle in the back of the house into an urban oasis with trees, flowering shrubs, and a fire pit and smoker, along with the requisite grilling accessories.
"John had never done anything like this in his life," Berke says of her fiance, a professional photographer who is far more conversant with lenses than with the fine points of breaking up cement and carting off layers of dirt and stone.
"There were definitely days when I didn't want to face this. And my method was a little strange. I'd watch how-to segments on YouTube, then rush outside and do whatever I'd seen. It was definitely not a very professional approach," admits McGinniss, the instant DIY landscape architect.
The results, however, attest to the wisdom of McGinniss' approach. E.P. Henry pavers acquired from a Craigslist find set the tone for a garden with such trees as the coral bark Japanese maple that dominates one corner (and will grow to be 15 to 20 feet tall) and the fireglow maple at another end of the outdoor space.
Berke, whose day job is director of public relations for the National Constitution Center, became the resident gardener on the project. She sought bargains in the fall and now points with pride to thriving and blooming flowers and shrubs, from the dainty lavender Jacob's ladder to a handsome lion's head maple.
A copper vessel holds logs, Adirondack chairs invite lounging, and a special score — an antique outdoor wrought-iron table with eight matching chairs — is perfect for company.
Indoors, a small garden room/dining room — the space that was the original kitchen — provides easy access and excellent views of the couple's outdoor handiwork. A dining table created out of barn siding, with matching benches, was another find — Berke and McGinniss are avid antique and Internet shoppers. A baker's rack holds books and accessories, including some reflecting the couple's obvious affection for all things "cat" — three felines reside on the premises — and owl artifacts.
The living room showstopper is just above the mantel. Hanging there are three pieces of papier-mache taxidermy, made in Haiti and printed on French newsprint, representing an antelope, a giraffe, and a rhinoceros.
"This was our big find at Anthropologie," explains Berke, who knew that whatever went above the mantel would become an automatic focal point.
The living room itself, with its soothing blue-green walls, is furnished with a nod to the mid-20th century and features art given to the couple by good friends. That includes gifts from screen-print artist Dan Knapp, Berke's pal from their undergraduate days at Cornell University, whose whimsical renderings, including an ad for a Cornell event, occupy one wall. An illustration by Fishtown artist Keith Greiman of fantastical creatures adds a touch of whimsy to another.
The stairs are not for the faint of heart. Wooden and severely angled, they provide a daily challenge but also add charm and period authenticity to the house.
The master bedroom, on the second floor, is still a work in progress, and when completed will include a tin ceiling and crown moldings. This is a pair with the gift of patience — their romance has been in bloom for 12 uninterrupted years, but they've just officially announced their engagement and plans for a 2013 wedding.
"We wanted the time to be right," says McGinniss. "And now it is."
Some fortunate wedding guest may get to occupy the second-floor guest room, a charming retreat with soothing sea-foam walls, ruffled white curtains, and a painting that sets the room's tone and theme. Its subject: a portrait in a gilt antique frame of a woman in a dress with lavish ruffles.
Up another winding staircase is a favorite space: a dormered music/kick-back room with a spectacular exposed brick wall that was a labor of love for the homeowners — but definitely a labor.
"It took months, and people kept telling us to just give up and replaster it, but we were determined," she says. "We'd hate to have to ever do this again, but we love the result."
The brick imparts warmth to the room, as do the same gleaming wood floors that stretch throughout the house, giving it grace and character. Refinishing those floors was one of the few improvements the couple did not undertake themselves.
The room also holds McGinniss' collection of midcentury long-playing records and early stereo-sound equipment.
On the "To Do" list is a renovation of the kitchen, which is actually more modern than the homeowners like. "Someday, we want a much more vintage look, with subway tile and other features that will warm the space," explains Berke, who, like her fiance, hopes to stay more faithful to the past.
With one exception.
High on the wish list — and soon — is air-conditioning. "It gets really hot in here!" he declares.
And there's only so much past Ashley Berke and John McGinniss want in their future.