On a Wednesday afternoon in November 2004, Shelly and Bob Hirsh saw a house in Society Hill that was newly on the market. Four days later, they bought it.
The Hirshes are not impulsive, nor were they desperate. They lived in a sprawling home of their own design in Moorestown, set on a large private lot.
But Bob, an anesthesiologist at Virtua Memorial Hospital in Mount Holly, was willing to trade in a shorter commute for his wife's yearning for a home in the city. And relocating was not a novelty for this energetic couple, who had moved from West Philadelphia to Connecticut to Texas to Lansdowne to Wynnewood to Moorestown since their marriage in 1966. Those moves carried them through medical training, military stints, and rearing three children.
"I was ready for urban life," explains Shelly, 65, a lawyer who found Moorestown a bit isolating, and who was ready for a change of pace. Bob, 67, was satisfied that his commute from the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia to Mount Holly would be quite manageable.
What had attracted the Hirshes was the cluster of homes designed around South Third Street between Walnut and Locust Streets by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei in 1963, and which are representative of his style. Pei, who later designed the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston and the dramatic pyramid entrance to the Louvre museum in Paris, also revolutionized what had been a decaying area of the city, starting with Society Hill Towers.
"He designed homes that are both livable and aesthetically pleasing, and most of all, he created a sense of community," says Philadelphia native Shelly Hirsh, who loves her neighborhood's abundance of brick, its "Franklin" street lamps, and its unity and integrity of style.
Step inside the Hirshes' townhouse and Pei's influence is immediately felt. It's designed so interior traffic moves freely through a floor plan involving three rectangles on top of one another, and the feeling is contemporary without hard edges. A skylight on the roof filters light down through the central core of the home, which houses a handsome spiral staircase - and a unique round elevator that makes three-floor living hassle-free.
One of Pei's unique design features is placing the kitchen and dining room on the first level, and the living spaces on the second. According to Shelly, the elevator, and the luxury of guaranteed parking in a private central courtyard, were huge selling points. "Those things were nonnegotiable."
But negotiating continues as Shelly, who loves an abundance of furniture and accessories, and Bob, who is a minimalist, manage to find creative compromises in their townhouse. "It's an ongoing challenge," Bob quips. "I'm gaining momentum."
In a sense, that "momentum" was built into the move from an expansive space into a more contained home.
"We had to pare down, and in some instances that was painful," Shelly admits. There was, for example, the breakfront top that Shelly had been given by her parents when she was 16, a beautiful but massive walnut piece that could not make it up or down the home's stairs. It was given to a son.
The Hirshes did major renovations before moving in, with assistance from the Madsen company in Broomall and its resident designer, Ed Stein.
One of their first projects was a complete redesign of the kitchen. Shelly loves to entertain, and can do it with ease with more open space, extra-long counters, deep countertops, and efficient cabinetry in rich cherry with a burnt umber finish. A glass-tile backsplash in copper tones brightens the space, which also houses some of the couple's large collection of folk art and Judaica.
Then there's the "chicken wall" in the adjoining breakfast room. Custom painter Tim Inman, who had worked with the couple in their Moorestown home, painted the room's back wall to look like chicken wire, the perfect backdrop for the Hirshes' collection of chicken-themed accessories.
The centerpiece of that wall is a charming maternal note, blown up to impressive size, from Shelly's late mother. In it, she outlines, step by step, her recipe for chicken soup. "Buy a good chicken from Jack's Food Market," advises this devoted mother, an owner of that grocery store.
A formal dining room with a table that can easily seat 12 has views of the enchanting garden where outdoor sculptures, a gurgling fountain, and a cozy table and chairs invite lingering.
Upstairs, the walls of the living room are alive with the couple's extensive art and artifacts collection, including serene paintings of Cape May, modern art, and even more folk art. Antiques comfortably nuzzle more modern pieces - a striking Tiffany-style lamp is right at home with plump contemporary sofas.
Nearby, a den with a more casual look and feel is yet another home for unusual finds like the Hirshes' enormous clock face with Roman numerals, which dominates a back wall, and a wooden figure of a man created from found objects. The whimsy is a perfect touch in this eclectic home, where one hall bathroom is hand-painted, again by the multitalented Inman, in huge black and white stripes to resemble a circus tent.
"Tim has moved to Austin, Texas, but he definitely left his imprint on this house," Shelly says.
A master suite on the third floor is a nod to Bob's minimalism, with a king-size bed and antique dresser its main decor. Two striking black-and-white photos are focal points in the room, and a quilt purchased from the Philadelphia Museum of Art's craft show softens the space.
This contemporary house remains a work in progress. The couple's next project is a mural on a storage bin in their garden. The goal: a mural of a garden in the garden.
"I think it will make us feel even more contented here, with art and flowers all around us," says Shelly Hirsh. "Sometimes all it takes is a little artistry to take you wherever you want to be."