Ongoing Philadelphia Renovation Still Ongoing


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 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.

London: Summing Up


IN THE PAST WEEK, I’ve been all around London, from the mews of Mayfair to the thrift shops of Dalston, from the obsessively planted Avenue Gardens of Regents Park to the tiny back gardens of friends in Islington, from David Hockney at the Tate to Amy Winehouse at Camden’s Jewish Museum. Not to mention a few historic pubs.

The weather has been changeable. It’ll be dreary and drizzly for the better part of a day; then it suddenly stops, the sky opens up, the light is crystalline and the sun slants in at its low angle, touching everything with radiance.

Brexit has been little mentioned in conversation, U.S. politics mercifully little, too. Tonight, the horrific incident on Westminster Bridge dominated the news.

My trip ends tomorrow and I’ll soon be back in New York, drinking more coffee than tea, trying to keep up the walking and appreciate New York with the same interest and enthusiasm it’s been so easy to rouse for London.


Coming into Kings Cross last Thursday night from Edinburgh felt like coming home.


On assignment last Friday, I did an interview with an architect in Mayfair, right around the corner from Claridge’s, above.


A curious old building and a neon-lit storefront in the area around Oxford Circus.


The too-much-ness of the display in the cafe at Liberty of London. Flowers at the front entrance of the ersatz medieval building, which has an extraordinary skylit interior.


Scones just out of the oven at the home of friends in Islington.


Their sitting room and back garden viewed from a window.


Fragrant clematis going crazy, spotted on a walk around De Beauvoir Town, which also took in…


my favorite local source for take-out, cheeses and fancy groceries, The De Beauvoir Deli, above.


Vintage architecture and signs of spring in De Beauvoir Town and Dalston, above.


The Dalston Curve Garden, a community garden that also serves as a cafe and gathering spot for young families living in blocks of modern, garden-less flats nearby.


Note to self: plant more euphorbia.


Colorful houseboats in Regents Canal as it passes between De Beauvoir Town and Hoxton.


We made a field trip to Hampstead, below, whose hilly residential streets are lined with the homes of the arty and famous, from Romantic poet John Keats and painter John Constable to Sting, Judy Dench and Ridley Scott.


Etched glass, soft lighting and a fireplace make The Flask a very inviting stop-off on a wet day. There’s been a tavern on this hilltop Hampstead site since at least 1700.



Ploughman’s lunch and a couple of half-pints at The Holly Bush.


Thank you, Tate Britain, for a full-on David Hockney retrospective, from his student sketches to recent video installations. Hockney is now up there in the Pantheon for me.


Below, a Hockney experiment with Polaroids.


A Chelsea morning, below. More blue-plaqued celebrity homes, past and present.


Our outing included a visit to the Chelsea Physick Garden, a 350-year-old medicinal/botanical garden. That’s Hans Sloane, below, an early garden benefactor (who became rich after inventing hot chocolate, we learned).


These two Chelsea row houses were the homes of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger in the late 1960s through ’70s:


Above, Sloane Rangers on Kings Road.


At London’s Jewish Museum in Camden, there’s an intimate Amy Winehouse exhibition organized by her brother Alex, on through September. It includes her hand-written list of favorite songs, below, among other personal memorabilia.


Below, Regents Park after a rain, and its formal Avenue Gardens.


The top deck of London buses provides a slightly different angle on the city.


The number 30 brought me back to my friend’s mini-Eden in De Beauvoir Town, below, my home for the past three weeks.


Last dinner in London: chicken and mushroom pie with mash and cabbage at The Albion, below, an Islington standby since the pre-Victorian era.


Two Days is Not Enough for Enchanting Edinburgh


EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND, dramatic and unspoiled, is now among my favorite cities, one to which I would gladly return. Windy but not cold during my 36-hour visit, it has more greenery and longer days than I imagined possible in mid-March.

Edinburgh wears its stony grime proudly. It’s an irresistible tourist magnet, yet very real. It has an Old Town, where ancient cobbled streets are linked by often-steep alleys, and a New Town, where elegant townhouses built in the late 18th century form uniform rows along geometrically laid-out streets, crescents and squares.

The two areas are separated by a wide valley of vegetation, the Princes Street Gardens, that contain some of the city’s key museums and serve as a venue for Edinburgh’s famous summer cultural festivals, which make the city the second most visited in Europe after Paris.

I circumnavigated Edinburgh on foot to see as much as I could in my brief time there, hitting several of the literal and figurative high spots, starting with Calton Hill, right behind my very comfortable guest house. The 15-minute climb is rewarded by the view from the summit, where a replica Parthenon intended to honor Napoleonic war dead was abandoned incomplete for lack of funds in 1826 but still makes a striking landmark, and the city spreads out below to the Firth of Forth, an estuary in the distance.

Then I walked the Royal Mile in Old Town, a cobbled road that runs from Hollyroodhouse, the Queen’s Palace when she’s in Scotland, to Edinburgh Castle, a skyline-dominating fortress with parts as old as the 12th century, and through the ordered Georgian streets of New Town.

Toward evening of my only full day, my legs aching and my iPhone step counter registering the equivalent of 45 flights of stairs, I fell into a cushy seat at the American-style multiplex right around the corner from my guest house and caught a showing of T2 Trainspotting, set on some of the same atmospheric streets I had just been treading.

The centerpiece of Day 2 was a good modern Scottish lunch at The Gardener’s Cottage, a four-year-old restaurant with its own kitchen garden out front. I willed myself not to rush but to savor my meal and the serene ambience of the restaurant, before regretfully saying goodbye, too soon, to Edinburgh.


My highly recommended guest house, below, the family-run Adria House, is at the top of the street, above.


My room had ceilings at least 15 feet high and a garden view (£60 a night, including breakfast).


After breakfast, I climbed Calton Hill, below, which felt like a taste of the wild Scottish moors.


At the very top, an unfinished Greek-temple-like monument and other Neo-classical buildings have given Edinburgh the occasional title “Athens of the North.”


I descended into the heart of the city, where there’s a dearth of modern buildings…


and strolled along the Royal Mile, where there’s no dearth of shopping.


Stepping into an  archway and then a courtyard, I was intrigued by the building, below, which turned out to be Lady Stair’s late 17th century house, now a museum celebrating Scotland’s three literary luminaries: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns.


The city milks its Goth splendor and Harry Potter connection with all manner of ‘haunted’ tours and attractions.


I crossed the bowl-shaped Princes Street Gardens, below, to New Town, which has a very different feel, and walked around enjoying the row houses and old storefronts.


I walked along a stream too small to be called a river; they call it The Water of Leith.


Below, the utterly charming Gardener’s Cottage, scene of my best meal in Edinburgh.


Below, cod and mussels with barley, parsnips and broccoli.


The Doric, one of Edinburgh’s oldest pubs, where I passed a little time before heading across the road to the train station for my 4 hour 20 minute ride back to London.


Old York, Old York


LONDON HAS ENOUGH 17th, 18th and 19th century houses to keep an old-house aficionado busy for years. But because the Great Fire of 1666 swept away nearly the whole of the city, it’s lacking in domestic architecture that predates the 17th century.

The city of York, on the other hand, an easy 2-hour train ride north of London, has an entire district of medieval buildings, still leaning at least, if not quite standing tall. The most picturesque street is “the Shambles,” the medieval butchers’ quarter, where many of the buildings have been put to use as stores selling chocolates and other sweets.

There’s a stupendous cathedral, York Minster, which took 252 years to build, starting in 1220, and nearly intact city walls built in the 13th and 14th centuries, that enclose 263 acres, with original gates of varying complexity. (The earliest stones date to the Roman presence in York.)

If all that wasn’t enough reason to make a day trip, I also thought, as a resident of New York, I should see the city for which mine was named, though that turns out not to be the case (it was named after James II, the Duke of York).

York is an eminently walkable city. A friend and I spent the day mostly outdoors, making a circuit from the train station, across the River Ouse, to the first-rate gardens around the charred Gothic ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, to the cathedral area, the ancient business district and eventually back over the river to catch trains in opposite directions (she returned to London, I went on to Edinburgh).

Come see the city of York with us, in the order we saw it.


The expertly planted grounds of St. Mary’s Abbey, below. The once-magnificent building was burned in 1539 during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.


York Minster, the largest medieval building in England, has been an Anglican church since the Reformation.


The Treasurer’s House and garden, below, extensively remodeled and restored over the centuries, is now a National Trust property.


Scenes from the warren of ancient streets…


Barley Hallbelow, a restored medieval townhouse open to the public, illustrates York life in the 15th century. The building had been so altered over the centuries, even being used at one point as a plumbing shop, that no one even realized that below the brick facade was a 500+-year-old timbered house.

In the 1990s, it was restored by the York Archaeological Trust with painstaking accuracy, using original building methods and at great expense. The great dining hall is the most impressive room.


Tea time in a quaint 1960s-ish tea room


More medieval eye candy and city views…


The building below, still having a useful life as a tea shop, dates from the 14th century, with 17th century additions. 


The 1762 Fairfax House, below, a fine townhouse with an important collection of Georgian furniture, was restored in the 1980s after having been used for a time as a cinema (?). 


Over the Ouse again on a different bridge on our way back toward the station…


And what do you know — yet another timber-framed house of the 15th century, below. Known as Jacob’s Well, it has a carved portico from a different house and a different era.


Mickelgate was the principal street into York from the south, with this most elaborate of gates. You can walk along the parapet for quite a distance.


 The British Museum, Housing the World’s Treasures for Us All

  LONDONERS LOVE THEIR INFREQUENT SUNSHINE, as I learned the other day on the way to the British Museum. From my top-deck bus seat, I saw them out in force, basking in any available square of green, like Gray’s Inn Field, above.  

I had been to the British Museum only once before, decades ago, always daunted by its reputation and enormity. In practice, I found it much more manageable than New York’s Metropolitan Museum, which it even bests for a world-class collection of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman material.

But since a thoroughgoing renovation around 2000, which produced the spectacular skylit entrance court by Britain’s chief starchitect, Sir Norman Foster, and re-organized the interior spaces, it’s actually far less chaotic and more manageable than the Met.

With the aid of an audio guide, customizable and comprehensive, I was able not to aimlessly wander, but to zero in on the things that most interested me, and spend a pleasant 2–3 hours without feeling overwhelmed or harried.

My first thought on entering the museum was: Wow. My second was, look at all this plunder! Here the former might of the British Empire is on display, the spoils of centuries of imperialism arrayed in central London for the world to see and appreciate. 

The argument has always been: we saved all this for you. Otherwise it might have been destroyed by barbarians – and indeed the recent demolition by Isis of ancient sites in the Middle East gives a tad more credence to the view.

It’s still evident in the 19th c. photograph, above, of the removal of a millennia- old Assyrian stone lion, now greeting visitors in the museum’s entrance hall, by a team of British engineers, and in the defensive labels and explanation in the audio guide of how the sculptures that once graced the pediment of Athens’ Parthenon, known as the Elgin Marbles, came to repose for the past 200 years in Bloomsbury — to this day, an ongoing controversy with the Greeks.

Still, it would be churlish to complain about this glorious institution, filled with visitors from around the world and their children, taking in whatever it is possible to take in of the planet’s history and culture in a single gulp.

I am in Edinburgh, Scotland, as I write this, so it’s fitting to end this post with the above image of two whimsical 800-year-old Lewis chessmen, borrowed from the National Museum of Scotland (discovered there but carved of walrus tusk 1000 years ago by Vikings, most likely), part of a complete medieval chess set on display and another example of how the all-powerful British Museum secures “permanent loans” of that which it cannot outright own.

This is the first time I’ve ever written a casaCARA post on my iPhone, a tricky business, and I have no idea how it will look in other formats. And it’s the last time I will ever travel without my laptop. When I get back to London tonight, or soon thereafter, I’ll be posting about my one-day visit to York, which satisfied my interest in architecture much older than that we have in the United States, followed by two fascinating days in Edinburgh, dramatically sited and historically unspoiled.