For a long-ago architecture class at the Rhode Island School of Design, Jeff Carpenter designed a plan to convert an abandoned boathouse into a home. Though he decided to pursue painting, not architecture, the project always stuck with him. Carpenter drew on this experience two years ago when he and his then-partner, artist Sallie Ketcham, renovated an oversized carriage house in the Art Museum area into a nautically inspired home.
Carpenter, a representational abstract painter whose work has appeared in museums like the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Art/Denver, was living in Massachusetts in 2009. He and Ketcham, who then lived and worked in the British West Indies, wanted to find a place where they could live together and have studio space. "I heard from New York friends who moved here that Philadelphia was affordable and had a collegial art atmosphere," Carpenter says. On their way to meet a Philadelphia real estate agent, he and Ketcham saw a "For Sale by Owner" sign on a decrepit carriage house. They called immediately.
Ketcham, a photographer, painter, and sculptor, recognized that the space had potential. According to the previous owner, the circa-1895 building had held the Wanamaker family's horses and carriages. It was in poor condition, however, and would require an almost total rehab.
Ketcham envisioned a residence with a bottom floor they hoped would hold two separate artist studios and a garage, plus an open-plan top floor for living space and bedrooms.
They signed the papers in June 2009 and moved in two months later.
The overall aesthetic and design elements came from their sketchpads. "We free-associated on the car ride back to Massachusetts," Carpenter says. "Those ideas would not have come out of meetings with architects." One such idea was making the space look like a boathouse.
Carpenter drew the long, curved kitchen counter, which resembles the hull of a wooden boat. Jeff Goldstein of Digsau Architects in Philadelphia was brought in to turn Carpenter's drawings into architectural plans, lay out two bedrooms, and factor in an elevator.
Bob Taylor of Taylors Mills in Centerville, Del., did the meticulous work on the curved maple counter and dropleaf kitchen island. Vincent Chicone of Montour Falls, N.Y., made glass cabinets to separate the kitchen from the living and dining area. The cabinets double as a bar and feature a bluestone counter.
Ketcham had the idea to break up all of the wood with paint, for the open kitchen shelves and the backs of the bookcases in the living and dining area. Chicone concocted two hues of conversion varnish that the couple approved. "It is a subtle gray range of blue or green. I'd call it almost a lyrical palette," says Carpenter.
The bookshelves that decorate the perimeter of the living room are like a beautiful frame. Wanting that frame to be nonlinear, Ketcham sketched a vertical niche to break up the horizontal shelves. Interior architect Jackie Gusic of inHabit Architecture in Media took the sketch and created a delightful design. Between the shelves is a window seat of sorts with small doors or hatches that open and can store paintings. Art is rotated through the house: a combination of the couple's own work, pieces from shows, and works by former teachers.
Architectural elements all around the house are equally artistic. In the entrance, Gusic designed the staircase and balusters with authentic railing details and wood chevron patterns from the arts-and-crafts movement. "We always wanted an inglenook," Carpenter said. "Jackie created the abstract idea of it with a bench." Matt and Ian Pappajohn, woodworkers based in Port Richmond, fashioned the whole area.
When builder Miles Olsen was working on the all-wood ceiling, he unearthed a surprise: the hoist and pulley originally used to pull carriages up to the top floor. A blacksmith cleaned it up and got it back into working order. The hoist now hangs over the kitchen island and is a reminder of the home's past. So is the rustic horse Sallie bought at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show during the renovation. Made of found pieces that a New Orleans artist collected before Hurricane Katrina, she says, "it became a symbol for this project."
Some materials were repurposed or held special meaning. Joists that were torn out during demo became treads on the stairs; stones from a trip to Maine the couple took were fashioned into doorknobs.
This custom-designed studio space hasn't worked out quite as the two planned. Carpenter has been working on very large commissions lately, and has had to search out additional space in West Kensington to accommodate his work. Ketcham has moved out and lives in Manayunk.
Nevertheless, Carpenter says everyday life in the renovated carriage house is like a dream. "Looking up at the beadboard ceiling rising up through the heavy trusses to the light in the cupolas feels like a Zen monastery I visited in Kyoto," he says. "It's a timeless sort of place for contemplation."