Beena and Murali Ramaswami moved from Chennai (formerly Madras), India, 30 years ago to attend architecture school at Kansas State University, more than 8,000 miles from home.
Though they never met growing up in the same neighborhood in India, they found each other in Kansas. There they married, started their architecture careers, and raised two children, who have now graduated from college and are starting their own careers.
That left the couple free to try someplace new.
They moved to Philadelphia a few years ago, where both are with architecture firms. He works in the city, and she telecommutes for a Missouri firm. Last year, they bought a new 1,700-square-foot house in Northern Liberties, which they have decorated in black and white, and planted a roof garden and terraces.
Both Beena and Murali said they chose a modern house because that was the style they grew accustomed to in India.
“We grew up in modern homes in Chennai,” Murali said.
Inside the house, just through the simple dark door, the great room opens up as a tidy black-and-white tableau. The walls in the living room area and kitchen are white, which makes drawings and decorations on the walls look more vivid.
“We like black and white because ... we like to keep the background neutral so the emphasis is on the things that happen in the space, not the background,” Beena said.
The couple’s three-story house and two others like it were designed by Brian Phillips, principal of ISA Architects of Philadelphia. It’s on a small site that allowed no room for parking.
“We purchased the site with the idea that the houses would be modestly priced,” Phillips said. “There is a great demand for houses that cost less than $400,000 in Northern Liberties.”
The houses are in a former alley intersection, he said. “The wide and short proportions were desirable because the site offered access to light, air and views of the city.”
Phillips and his crew had to fight to build houses on the site, which was not zoned residential. They got a variance from the city.
Approaching the site, you can see that the designers kept the spirit of the industrial Northern Liberties neighborhood. The exterior of the three houses is rough and textured with an unkempt green edge lining the sidewalk. Flat roofs on the houses were designed to make sure that each home is set under a garden.
Both Beena and Murali said they were attracted by the outdoor access to a roof garden and terraces. Beena, whose home office is on the second floor, said that in good weather, she always likes to work on the roof.
“In India we grew up with terraces, and it is a nice experience,” Beena said. “I take my laptop up there to work and enjoy a generous roof deck, as well as a great view of Center City.”
The windows on the three floors are both fixed and casement, so the homeowners can welcome fresh air.
The third-floor master bedroom is adorned with a colorful painting by Murali, who said he never names a subject in his paintings. The white of the bedding and the walls contrasts well with the maple engineered flooring, a combination of woods pressed together.
On the second floor are two bedrooms and a study. The Ramaswami children, who visit often, stay there. The closets in each room have “barn doors” that slide open on an overhead pole, rather than doors that open and close.
“This maximizes space using barn doors that slide,” Beena says.
On the first floor, billowy curtains decorate the windows of the living room area, where a large, glass-topped coffee table made by Murali and some friends stands in front of the sofa. The same team created a dining table that seats eight out of an old drafting table from a state office by adding new pine legs.
The couple are happy with their move to Philadelphia. “This is now our time to live in an urban area,” Murali said.
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