Benjamin Allen, a real estate investor originally based in Bucks County, lived in West Kensington for several years before deciding to move to North Philadelphia.
“I have seen neighborhoods change and improve, and I am not afraid of the reputations of neighborhoods,” he said.
Allen bought a 1,500-square-foot rowhouse with a herringbone brick façade in an area north of Girard Avenue in fall 2017.
“I’d renovated three other North Philadelphia rowhouses since moving to Philly from Upper Bucks County in 2014," he said. "I intended to rent this one out but quickly realized the property’s potential and decided to make it my home.”
He saw potential in the large back yard and "enough original features that were salvageable that I didn’t have to reinvent the interior design direction.”
Allen, 62, had taken early retirement before deciding to move to North Philadelphia. His daughter, Julia, a line cook at a Center City vegan restaurant, moved in last year after a breakup with her boyfriend.
The house, built about 100 years ago, "had so many wonderful features, such a great façade with an almost sculptured front, that I fell in love with it, and before long I decided to move in,” he said.
Though rewiring was a must, he didn’t have to lower the ceilings, which had been necessary in rehabilitating older houses in the past.
He did remove a wall next to the stairs, which had cut off the first floor from view when the building housed apartments. He also removed the doors and walls between the first-floor rooms to create a dining-living area but kept the kitchen separate, except for a pass-through from the dining room.
Allen had the floors refinished and a fireplace cleaned up.
The two-story house has three bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor. Allen refinished the bathroom with colorful tile walls, luxurious Italian marble in the sink, and modern fixtures.
Julia, who brought dozens of plants as well as her cat, Leander, took the huge west-facing back bedroom, where her plants could thrive in the sunlight.
Her father located his office in the middle bedroom and chose the front room as his bedroom, where he installed a large carved wooden wardrobe his mother had moved from Austria when she came to the United States after World War II. The year 1799 is hammered out on the front in tiny numbers.
Two three-foot-high ornate metal chests, also brought from Austria by Allen’s mother, decorate the second-floor hall.
“They were important to her,” Allen said. “She kept many of her things in the chest, as a lot of people did in Europe at that time.”
Allen made a gardening agreement with the city and bought a small lot two blocks from his home. He spent the summer after he bought his home planting apple and fig trees there.
For his back yard, Allen chose all native plants. “I wanted to do a native critter-friendly space, which was designed to attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees,” he said.
“Living in struggling, rundown neighborhoods in Philly is an interesting subject," Allen said. "I strongly recommend spending a good deal of time on the blocks and talking to as many neighbors as necessary.”
“This block has a lot of long-time residents who are older," he said, "and we get along very well and look out for each other.”
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