Philly’s Mid-Century Modern Mecca


IT’S LIKE eBAY NEVER HAPPENED at the vast Mid-Century Furniture Warehouse in Philadelphia, where larger-than-life opera props jostle with well-made 1960s American case goods by such companies as Lane and Drexel, and new, retro-style upholstered furniture and dining sets made in China and Vietnam.


Twelve thousand square feet and the place is still layered to the rafters. In a back room, countless chrome lamps and wood pieces await rewiring and refinishing.


Owner Brian Lawlor, who has been in the vintage furniture business for a long time and in the moving and storage business before that, is not fazed by the possibility of having to move further north as runaway development approaches his present location on N. 2nd St. and Cecil B. Moore in Olde Kensington. (That’s Brian, below, displaying his “Best Scavenger” trophy from Philadelphia magazine.)


He has been in this enormous garage for seven years, and has done the auction route as well, but now prefers to sell from his website, by appointment and to the public — for a mere three hours every other Sunday (the next sale is November 18 from 12-3).


Customers line up before noon on alternate Sundays to get a sheet of “Sold” stickers. When the doors open, they dash around and place them on the pieces they want to purchase.

To this jaded New Yorker, Philadelphia’s vintage-modern scene feels practically undiscovered, refreshingly un-picked-through.

Have a look at the Mid-Century Furniture Warehouse website, the FAQs and the handy “Insiders Guide” to nearby restaurants and points of interest, for those who want to make a day of it. ##


Quickie Renovation in Philadelphia


ONE OF THE BEST PIECES of self-help advice I ever read in a magazine was: “Savor your accomplishments.” Ridiculous that I had to read it in a magazine, but I did, and I took it to heart.

Here we are in deepest winter, and I’m savoring. There aren’t any laurels handy, so I’m resting on my couch in Brooklyn, pleased that I managed to sneak in a second Philadelphia apartment renovation in 2017. It’s in the same three-unit Queen Village building where I created a duplex at the top of the house, combining unused attic space with the one-bedroom apartment beneath it, early last year.

That first reno, which began in late ’16 and took six months, was long-planned. In fact, I’d wanted to do it since I bought the building in 2005.

This second reno, begun in September, finished in November and rented in December, was completely unplanned. But it became necessary after the hot water heater in the second-floor unit burst one midsummer’s night. It completely ruined the floors of that apartment — no great loss, as they were cheap carpet over plywood, but it also pointed up the need to re-do the whole place, which was super-shabby and not at all chic, and hadn’t been touched since the 1980s.

The flood also messed up the ceiling of the unit below, on the ground floor. The repair of that was covered by insurance, but the stress of the whole thing, for both tenants affected and also for me, was one of those times when being a landlord seems pretty dreadful.

However, it ended well. The downstairs tenant was a trooper and put up with the weeks-long repair work and painting in her bedroom and bath. The tenant on the second floor, who had been there for about ten years, found a new place quickly. And the results were worth it.

I used the same contractor and many of the same sources and materials as for the previous reno. There was one big design move: removing the wall between the former kitchen and the living room, which had made the living room feel very narrow.

The apartment has a new kitchen, new bath, new pine floors, new baseboards, new window sills, a thorough paint job, and a happy occupant.


The floors are Lumber Liquidators’ cheapest. Yellow pine, $2 and change per square foot. Almost all their flooring is manufactured and pre-finished. This is what I wanted: actual wood.


The kitchen is just appliances, really, with a Home Depot sink base unit painted black . A stainless steel work table from a restaurant supply store (seen in photo at top) provides extra counter space. 

For upper storage, I used a vintage wood/glass-door cabinet from Beaty American, a terrific architectural salvage store in Kensington. 


The bedroom has a closet with a washer dryer and a walk-in closet on the opposite wall.


The new pedestal sink is from Lowe’s and the floor is black commercial-grade vinyl. 

Below, a couple of ‘Befores’ for context:


Done! Philadelphia Attic Duplex Reno


IN CASE ANYONE HAS BEEN WONDERING, the Philadelphia renovation in a c.1810 row house that commanded much of my attention and most of my resources last winter was finally finished in May. I’m very pleased with how it turned out. In fact, the result was so satisfying I’m starting a new renovation in the same three-unit building next month, in the second-floor apartment below.

Joke! I am starting a new reno in the same building next month, but not because the first one was satisfying. It’s because there was a watery disaster in that second-floor apartment about a month ago: a burst hot water heater that let loose all 40 gallons of its contents, ruining the carpeted floor and finding its way through to the ceiling of the apartment on the ground floor below, causing extensive damage there as well.

The ceiling damage downstairs has been repaired, but I’ve asked the tenant in the second-floor apartment to vacate in late August. It’s the last un-renovated apartment of the three, and was sorely in need of upgrading anyway. I’m excited about the opportunity to fix a major design flaw in that space (there’s no proper living room to speak of).

But before we get to that in months to come, I want to share, for the record, photos of the completed duplex, which combined an existing one-bedroom apartment on the building’s third floor with previously unused attic space, to create a bi-level apartment with two bedrooms and an additional open loft.

At the center of it all is a new handcrafted staircase, which I consider very successful in both design and execution.

The pine floors are new; the bathroom is brand new; the kitchen cabinets received a cosmetic upgrade. There was no electricity on the upper level; now there is. The original wood floors upstairs were painted white.

Downstairs, the door to the bedroom was moved to allow a longer sight line through the apartment. Add to that new windows, new moldings, bumped-up electrical service, new HVAC units and a paint job. All in all, a major accomplishment <blowing on fingernails and buffing them against shoulder>.

Most telling of all: the apartment rented very quickly, to the first people who looked at it.



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.

George Washington Partied Here: A Visit to Philadelphia’s Powel House

img_0051IN MY LONG JOURNALISM CAREER (such as it is), I’ve tried not to write ‘on spec’ too often. But travel articles have been the exception. Occasionally, I’ve visited a place, crafted an article about it, and tried to sell it after the fact. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

As part of my current clear-out of paper files, I’ll be posting some of my unpublished travel pieces here on casaCARA.

It seemed timely this Inauguration week to start with this one about Philadelphia’s Revolutionary-era Powel House. For me, a visit there made the Colonial power elite, and George Washington especially, feel less like cardboard figures and more like real people.

The man of whom it was said “[He] has so much martial dignity…there is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side” presents a stark, even chilling, contrast with what we’re about to endure.

This piece was written several years ago. The Powel House has a different site manager, and the house has seen a bit of re-decoration. I haven’t updated the story itself, but the visitor info at the bottom is current.

As always, I’d love to hear from you, so feel free to speak out in the comments below. – CG

Tour of Philadelphia’s Powel House Brings Our First President to Vivid Life

The bearded young man in stylish glasses who opened the fanlight-topped door seemed happy for company. While throngs waited, three brick-paved blocks away, to pass through security checks at Independence Hall, Robert Wuilfe and his wife, Michelle Wilson, co-site managers at the immaculately restored 1760s townhouse that belonged to Philadelphia’s mayor, Samuel Powel, at the time of the Revolution, see about a dozen visitors on an average day.

The Powel House draws the cognoscenti – American history buffs, of course (“I’ve gotten into intense discussions about the glass tax,” Wilson said), as well as architecture and design enthusiasts like myself, who want a peek at the colorful, elegantly appointed rooms of the finest surviving Georgian townhouse in the country, and perhaps a more intimate connection with those who lived there.

Samuel Powel (1738-1793) and his wife, Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743-1830), were indefatigable hosts — a politically influential power couple in the last years of America’s stint as a British colony and the first years of its independence, hosting frequent parties and meetings attended by all the founding fathers in their brick mansion on 4th Street.

George Washington was a close friend and spent time in the Powel House on a regular basis, as did Benjamin Franklin and John Adams. The Marquis de Lafayette and Benedict Arnold dined there, in Philadelphia’s first formal dining room. In that aqua-painted room (a color then thought to aid digestion), President Washington and his cabinet twice had Christmas dinner.

I thought I was going to be a tour party of one on this September afternoon, but as Wuilfe began to expound on how the house survived decades of dereliction as a horsehair brush factory and escaped planned demolition in 1931, the brass knocker rapped, and three smiling Midwesterners came in.

Wuilfe led us from the electric-blue foyer with its black-and-white diamond-patterned floor cloth, elaborate plaster arch and curved staircase of now-extinct Santo Domingo mahogany, to the reception room at the front of the house, where Powel, who inherited ninety Philadelphia properties from his father and grandfather, collected rent at a small desk, using a wax seal that still sits upon it.

The front parlor’s classic proportions are faked. There’s a false door for symmetry, a fireplace made of King of Prussia marble (the veins ran out 100 years ago), and an apothecary scale that was a gift from Franklin.


Next door, in the heavenly blue-green dining room, gilded mirrors reflect views of the garden’s boxwood topiary. The room’s tangerine silk drapes, a well-researched approximation, look startlingly modern against the blue. We admire the 18th century silver and the glossy pretzel-back dining chairs, a Philadelphia hallmark. Washington liked the Powels’ decorating, too, so much that he appropriated the paint color for the dining room at Mt. Vernon and ordered two dozen of the same dining chairs.

Two large tea caddies made of lacquered wood and imported from China were kept locked so the ten or fifteen servants, and possibly a couple of slaves, couldn’t steal from them. “A handful of tea leaves was worth more than gold at the time,” Wuilfe said. The servants were allowed to dry and re-sell used tea leaves, however.


It was in the cozy upstairs withdrawing room, so called because it was where the men withdrew from female company after dinner, that our first president became less a cardboard figure to me and more a real person. The man whom Philadelphia physician and patriot Benjamin Rush said “has so much martial dignity…there is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side,” was quite vain, as it turns out.

It was a fashionable pastime to cut black paper silhouettes of other guests’ profiles at dinner parties. A framed one of Washington, believed to have been done by Powel himself, has the words “Not a good likeness” scribbled on the back. Washington didn’t like it, apparently, because it showed his double chin.

Our first president had a significant friendship with the charming Mrs. Powel, a strange ‘mourning painting’ of whom, draped in purple, hangs over the fireplace in the withdrawing room. She lost two, possibly three, children in infancy. The painting shows cleavage, but whether this was a nursing gown or Paris fashion, Wuilfe couldn’t say.

Called a “quiet abolitionist,” Mrs. Powel had Washington’s ear. It was she who persuaded him to run for a second term. “Your country needs you,” she told him, warning he’d be bored if he didn’t. He later sent her a pair of silver spurs for “spurring him on,” legend has it.

Every historic house has a ghost story. This one comes in the Rococo ballroom, whose plaster bas relief decoration is a restoration; the original is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In the 1950s, the tale goes, the wife of noted historian Edwin Moore reported seeing the spectral figure of an unidentified woman in a beige and lavender gown. Some time later, Mrs. Moore was searching for an authentic 18th century dress to wear to a costume gala. Shown one worn by Peggy Shippen, a Philadelphia socialite and wife of Benedict Arnold, at the last party she attended — which happened to be at the Powel House — Mrs. Moore was shocked to see the same beige and lavender frock. Wuilfe’s take? “I’m not generally one to believe in ghosts, but I don’t discount it.”

I am more impressed with the historical connections that are there in black and white, like the letter Benjamin Franklin’s daughter wrote him, describing a ball at the Powel House where she danced with General Washington. The letter is displayed in the very ballroom where they danced, as is a harp from the year 1700 — the oldest piece in the house, except for a goat cart made by Powel’s grandfather, who was 14 when he came to this country from England in the 17th century.


More than half the furnishings in the house are original. Standouts include a rare Chippendale settee and a chest-on-chest purchaed on Powel’s seven-year grand tour of Europe as a young man. There are also two oil portraits by Gilbert Stuart, one of Anne Pennington, a young beauty, and the other of Abigail Willing Peters, both relatives of Elizabeth Powel.

It’s said that Mrs. Powel, who came from a wealthy, politically connected family, had two unrequited romances before she married Samuel Powel. “She was a little older. It was sort of assumed it wasn’t a love match,” Wilson said. Both wanted children; after their offspring died, they adopted a nephew of Mrs. Powel’s, who inherited and eventually squandered their fortune.

Samuel Powel died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, along with 5,000 or more others in Philadelphia. His widow sold the house in 1798.

There’s nothing like a historic house tour and a bit of lurid historical gossip to bring the nation’s founding days to life in a very immediate way. “History is not just words,” as Wilson put it. “It really happened.”


 244 South Third Street

Philadelphia, PA 19106


 Public tours are available on the hour 11:00 AM through 3:00 PM Thursday-Saturday, and noon to 3:00 PM  on Sundays, April-November, with additional Wednesdays Memorial Day through end of October. Weekends only in March and December. All other times by appointment.

$8 General admission
$6 Students and Seniors
$20 per Family