In 1998, Jinous Kazemi and Howard Verlin bought a 5,550-square-foot rowhouse in Philadelphia’s Washington Square West neighborhood that had been vacant for 10 years.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is one of 16 rowhouses designed between 1831 and 1832 by architect Thomas Ustick Walter with elegant matching porticos supported by ionic columns. Walter was also known for designing the dome over the Capitol in Washington.
When the Kazemi and Verlin family moved in, the interior of the four-story house was contemporary, designed by architects from Miami hired by the previous owners to gut the place.
The yard, however, “was a total mess; it was disgusting and terrible,” Kazemi said.
But because the house had been vacant for 10 years, Kazemi and Verlin, also busy raising their five children, focused on making the interior of the home reflect their own taste.
Kazemi is the owner and manager of Millésimé, a design showroom in Old City, which features European contemporary designs and homages to ancient Persia. Originally from Tehran, Iran, Kazemi came to Philadelphia in 1979, where she met Verlin, now executive vice president of a satellite television corporation.
The yard almost got its chance in 2003, when the couple met David Amburn, a local architect known for urban designs, who sketched a plan. Amburn died before putting any plans into action.
Nothing was done until 10 years later, when the couple hired architect Mario Gentile, principal architect of Shiftspace Design of Philadelphia, to finally develop the 2,500-square-foot yard. He started from scratch with the goal of establishing “a clean look with no nails and all cedar horizontal panels,” he said.
On the walkways leading from the house, a corten steel plate holds a place for a fire pit. Gentile used corten, a special kind of steel used in outdoor sculptures that does not rust as it ages, in multiple places in the garden.
Gentile’s design added many features to the rectangular yard without making it look packed and unnatural.
“We made sure that all wood panels were horizontal,” said Gentile, who won the recognition “emerging architect of 2018” from the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
In several long, blue and green planters along the outer wall of the house, Gentile placed native plants and flowers. In some places, the planters include wooden flaps that open into seats. The planters are situated so they will be watered by storm drains and do not have to be maintained.
A narrow “plunge" pool was added at one end of the yard. It’s about 4 feet deep.
“It is only to cool off,” Gentile said. “The pool is filled with salt so it does not have to be chlorinated.”
Nearby, under a long existing carriage house, Shiftspace designed an outdoor shower and changing area for pool users.
Separating one area in contrast with another are steel rails that bend with the wind.
On a patio in front of the door leading from the house is a large European oak table from Millésimé that can seat eight.
“It is now livable," Kazemi said. “When the weather gets nice, we live out here.”
She added, “The best thing is that this is an oasis that is not visible to anyone passing by.”
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