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Garage beautiful

Adventurous home buyers bring postindustrial life to these spread-out spaces.

Residential garages in Philadelphia have long been both the envy of neighbors (a designated parking spot!) and the bane of urban-planning types (they're block-killers that disrupt the streetscape!).

Lately, though, ambitious home buyers are seeing street-front garages as something different: opportunities. Across Philadelphia's developing neighborhoods, creative individuals with reverence for the city's industrial past and willingness to embark on expansive remodeling work are transforming former garages - often priced at a fraction of finished residences - into homes with loftlike living areas, custom workspaces, and, yes, even a parking space or two.

Jennie Shanker, 47, a Fishtown-based sculptor, converted a 150-year-old carriage house-turned-machinist's garage into her workshop and home about nine years ago.

"It was a complete and total shell - and in a way, that was the beauty of it," Shanker said. "It was a place to clear out into an empty box, and then turn into what I wanted it to be. Renovating a rowhouse can actually be more difficult, because there are already so many structures in place."

She laid cherry wood flooring across her second-floor living space - an old hayloft with an open grate in the floor to prove it - and then blocked off two bedrooms, leaving the rest of the space open, with scattered groupings of eclectic furniture creating living and dining areas.

Retaining the character of the structure was important to Shanker, who left exposed the brickwork along the walls, as well as the I-beams for the joists once used to hoist equipment into the loft.

"As residential usages overtake some of the city's formerly commercial neighborhoods, it's always upsetting to me when I see people rip these buildings down," Shanker added. "This way, it's great that they have another life after industry is gone."

Similarly, Doub Hanshaw, 35, and John Mahaffey, 27, sought to preserve the rough-hewn shell of their 4,500-square-foot home, which was a working auto-repair garage when they purchased it a few years ago.

After remodeling her previous home, a Fishtown rowhouse, in a "very vertical, small space, this was definitely a bigger venture," Hanshaw said. But she fell in love with the square footage and the location, just a few blocks from Girard Avenue in Kensington.

They tore up the floors and poured fresh concrete, in keeping with the industrial aesthetic of the building, which has exposed brick walls throughout. Mahaffey and Hanshaw also shifted the back wall of the house inward from the property's edge and fitted it with tall windows, bringing in natural light and creating a high-walled courtyard out back.

Nobody would confuse the space with a working garage today, save for a new two-story glass garage door that lets in tons of natural light during the daytime but requires a metal security grate for privacy and security at night.

"Because there's the roughness of living in such an industrial place, I'm always trying to refine it a little bit more - but not too much," Hanshaw said.

Another challenge is creating intimate areas within such a vast space. So the couple clustered seating around a cast-iron stove, which becomes a cozy gathering point in winter, and hollowed out an alcove for a few vintage chairs.

They broke up the space by erecting a long, narrow wood-frame structure that houses closets, a bathroom, and utility rooms, and serves as the platform for a new bedroom loft. To set off this interior addition, salvaged wood lath and floor beams line the walls and stairs, an earthy counterpoint to the slick concrete floor. Upstairs, a deconstructed basketball court serves as flooring for the bedroom, which, along with an open-air bathroom, overlooks the rest of the house. (A mix of vintage and Ikea lace and crochet pieces curtaining the bathroom offers a modicum of privacy.)

Michael Garden, a Cityspace Realtor, said inquiries about such properties often come from artists and craftspeople seeking flexible space at an affordable price.

"A raw space such as a garage in Kensington could be bought for $100 per square foot; the same amount of building that was new construction with land would be more like $200 per square foot," he said.

Having a versatile open space makes sense for Hanshaw, who works in the fashion industry and often hosts photo shoots at her home, and Mahaffey, a craftsman.

The same went for Neil Brecher, 42. He found his Fishtown double garage in 2004 when he was looking for a residence that would also become a workshop for his hobby, restoring antique pianos. "I didn't set out looking for a place to renovate; I was hoping to find something already kind of done," he said.

Instead, turning half the property into his one-bedroom house transformed into an entirely new hobby.

Brecher designed an open, loftlike space on several levels, tiered to follow the cant of the sloping garage - a strategy that also created room for plumbing, wiring, and radiant heat underneath the bamboo flooring. Like other garage rehabbers, he left steel beams visible and looked to materials like poured concrete in the bathroom and kitchen countertops to recall the building's original use.

He even took the neo-industrial notion a step further, creating a decorative entertainment center out of a salvaged farmhouse stairwell, and added a trompe l'oeil second-story landing for a future upstairs addition.

Industrial, said Brecher, is "what it started out as, so why fight it? When you have a place that wants to be a certain way and you try to go against it, it makes it very difficult to succeed."

That's not to say it's all rough edges. To bring in light, Brecher replaced the 16-foot-wide garage door with a grid of windows. And the bathroom is elaborate, with polished concrete counters, Italian slate tile lining the oversize shower and soaking tub, and glass vessel sinks.

The raised gourmet kitchen was, Brecher said, designed for entertaining. The flooring, red tile that caught his eye at an auction, is offset with small stainless steel squares. "It gives the feel of a diagonal floor tile, which makes the room feel a lot bigger, but it's a lot easier to install," he said. It also fit the kitchen's color palette, which was dictated by the hues in a George Nelson Sunburst clock, a gift from Brecher's father.

Like Brecher, Chris Vecchio, 46, and his wife, Kaci, 36, were seeking both raw workspace and custom living when it came to buying their 6,000-square-foot South Philadelphia "warehome." They even retained garage parking while reclaiming a 15-by-15-foot back garden with two stories of windows overlooking it.

"It may be a little funny to be nostalgic for an era of small-scale neighborhood industry: People are usually trying to get rid of the commercial garage/gas station next to their house," Chris Vecchio said. "But we've even toyed with the idea of replacing the street-side gas pump that was there in the '50s."

They salvaged original tongue-and-groove pine from rooms throughout the house to lay the flooring for the main living area, and hunted indefatigably for historically accurate windows for the front facade.

But there are modern touches, like the kitchen's double ovens and ranges, a counter-island with seating for 10, and, he noted, another food prep island with an "overhang specifically for clamping the pasta maker, sausage stuffer, etc."

The challenge in finding your own garage conversion, at least these days, is supply (many of these properties have been snatched up) and tightened lending standards, said Brooke Wilmes, another Cityspace Realtor. "It used to be you could get a loan on that sort of thing without too much difficulty," she said, noting that it's not possible to get a Federal Housing Administration loan on such a property.

Still, those who have made the transition said the beauty of the rehabbed garage is that it's an empty canvas. "This space could be redesigned in all kinds of ways, or even divided into two apartments," said Shanker. "This is just a box, and I did everything I could to keep it as that."