HAVE YOU EVER DREAMED of opening a door and finding an extra room you hadn’t known was there? I have (mainly during the years I lived in too-small New York City apartments), but last fall, I had it happen in real life. And it was not just one room, but two.
When I bought an early 19th century Philadelphia row house in 2005, it had undergone a ’70s renovation and been converted to three one-bedroom apartments, one on each of three floors. But I always knew there was an attic at the top of the house that had been sealed off for years, though I’d only glimpsed it once, through a small hatch in the ceiling above the public stairwell. And then only from below, with a flashlight. At that time, I saw baseboard molding and an old panel door, enough to realize it had once been living space.
There was no other access to that level, and so it remained — forgotten, for the most part, while I rented out that third floor 1-bedroom, most recently to a tenant who stayed six or seven years.
When he moved out last November, I decided the time was right to incorporate that attic space into the one-bedroom apartment below it, which would create a pretty special duplex. It would necessitate a new interior stair, of course, and new windows, among other things.
I knew there was originally a dormer window there, which could be seen from outside the rear of the building, as well as a half-round window, its filled-in silhouette still visible on the side of the building, below.
On November 1, the contractors I planned to hire (who had done other work for me in Philadelphia) set up an extension ladder and we entered the attic space through the small hatch.
It was quite the eureka moment. There were two very decent-sized rooms up there, with sloping ceilings — but plenty high enough to stand up in. The plaster walls were actually in semi-decent shape, as were the old cedar floor boards. There had never been any electrical wiring, and there was no heat source. But overall, I was astounded by the condition and possibilities of the space. Below, photos from that first look.
I also made plans to do a basic renovation of the apartment bathroom, cosmetically upgrade the kitchen and lay a new wood floor in what would become the lower level of the duplex (it was wall-to-wall carpet over plywood).
The job got underway around Thanksgiving. Four months later, it’s still underway. Much has been accomplished, including a new stair opening, new windows, a new staircase built by my son Max, electrical wiring upstairs, new electric baseboard heating units, a new tub and tile floor in the bathroom, new wood flooring downstairs, and a great deal of plastering and spackling.
There’s a fairly lengthy punch list still ahead, including a railing for the stair and stair opening, finishing up the bathroom, new kitchen cabinets, sanding the floors upstairs, polyurethaning the new floors downstairs, new trim and molding as needed, and painting the whole place.
Progress photos below.
First we cut a small hole for access in the general area of the stair to come and measured for stair construction. The stair comes up in a room that measures 15’x20′, some of it sacrificed for the opening, which eventually measured about 5’x12′.
The other room is clearly a bedroom, with a dormer window. Below, before and after installation of a new window in the existing opening.
Below, the view at the top of new stairs, with a new half-round window looking south over rooftops.
Below, a peek into the half-renovated bathroom and the kitchen, awaiting new cabinet fronts.
Stair under construction, below. The stringers are poplar, painted gray, the treads maple.
That’s where things stand. My hope is that it will be finished in April, rented in May, and occupied by June. I’m pleased with the quality of the work, if not the speed.