Enter the dining room of Palmer and Judy Hartl's regal rowhouse in Society Hill, and your eye is drawn to an imposing Empire buffet made of crotch mahogany. So powerful is its scale that the piece would be out of place in a less splendid setting. But here, it's right at home, sharing space with a Knabe grand piano, a glass-topped dining table, and a gilded mirror.
"The dining room is my favorite place in the home, especially at night, when the lighting looks great," says Palmer Hartl, 72, who sees the same majesty in the 9,000-square-foot, four-story house that he first saw 15 years ago.
Back then, the couple owned a three-acre property in Gladwyne with expansive gardens and a pool. After their son and daughter left, it was time to relocate to the city.
"Most of the people we were seeing socially had already moved into the city," says Judy Hartl, 71, who at first was not as impressed with this house's interior.
"Most of the rooms were painted gray and white," she says. "It was really dreary."
But Palmer Hartl embraced its lovely bones: 14-foot ceilings, seven marble fireplaces, classical moldings, and red pine flooring. He also saw its financial potential: In addition to the couple's 4,500-square-foot residence, the building incorporates three rear apartments.
Like so many others in this district of red-brick sidewalks and Franklin lanterns, the historic property has its own memoir. Completed in 1830, the structure was built by William White, first presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States - a fact not lost on Palmer Hartl, who has been an Episcopal priest since 1968. He also is a pastoral psychotherapist, an organizational consultant, and author of The Ten Commandments of Management.
Known as the Boker-Binney House, the dwelling was once the residence of Charles Boker, a prominent merchant who became president of Girard Bank. Later, Horace Binney, an ancestor of Crayola's co-founder, occupied the premises.
The Hartls bought the building from an engineer who updated the six heaters, the air conditioning units, and the roof. Other transformations, sensitively done, brought the house into modernity.
In turn, the couple have respected the structure's early grandeur.
Today, the house reflects the Hartls' developed taste, with each room a study in eclecticism. Gone is the drab gray and white - rooms are boldly colored in blues, oranges and reds.
To enliven a long corridor shared by the Hartls and their tenants, their friend and embellisher, C. Barry Marron, created magnificent murals akin to English gardens that seem to beckon you to rest with a spot of tea.
It was Marron who painted the master bedroom's walls light blue with a distinctive drape-like effect resembling wallpaper.
The kitchen is a blend of old and new. Contemporary features such as granite countertops, sleek cabinetry and a birch computer station coexist with vintage ceiling moldings, the original double-hung windows, a winemaker's table, and a distressed hutch. A painting of the Italian Market by Bryn Mawr artist Elaine Lisle adds a spice of Philly.
The Hartls are frequent travelers and have acquired pieces from around the world. Displayed in the kitchen are bright red and blue platters from Italy and France. In the front hall is a rug from Turkey. Masks from Guatemala and a lantern from India decorate the library walls.
Adding drama to the third-floor media room are an eye-catching Buddhist monk's cape and a portrait from India of Ganesh, the elephant-headed, multi-armed god.
The house also showcases the couple's Biedermeier furniture, exquisite chests, tables, and chairs.
"I like it because of the style's clean shape," says Judy Hartl, who is fluent in French and for many years was managing director for Philomel, a period-music ensemble. These days, she volunteers on garden committees and is a reader at Edwin M. Stanton Elementary School in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood.
Former servants' quarters on the third and fourth levels have been turned into three guest bedrooms. Fabric picked up in Provence dresses one of the beds. Windows have the original shutters with cutouts, which informed sources suggest might have acted as a means of ensuring that the servants rose with the sun.