By Joann Greco
Wide-eyed tourists flock to Society Hill’s historic mansions, dreaming of elegant parties and gracious living. Ten years ago, when the Philly-born owner of 309 S. Third Street began house-hunting in the neighborhood, she, too, longed for the well proportioned rooms of the Physick House and the charming gardens of the Powel. But when her real estate agent urged her to step inside a certain very old (circa 1835), very large (9,000-square-foot) home, she balked at its broken shutters and dirty windows. Still, “it only took me a few steps inside before I said, ‘This is my house,’” she recalls. “It was like opening a present. There was no electricity but I knew as soon as I saw this majestic hallway with these two grand rooms off to the side.”
The owner couldn’t immediately get a sense of the dramatic plaster ceiling medallions and crown moldings that were hidden under layers of paint, but she could readily appreciate the other assets of this residential gem, like 14-foot- high ceilings, original pine floors, and pocket doors. Built as a boarding house for sailors, the five-bedroom, seven-bath (including four full) house had received only one major renovation, a 1960s project that added welcome improvements like HVAC updates, an elevator, and a large extension. A handpainted mural by French wallpaper maker Zuber et Cie was a bonus; the design is a duplicate of Scenes of North America, which was chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House, and remains on the walls of the Diplomatic Reception Room to this day.
Still, there was much to be done. Under the guidance of Princeton-based interior designer Judie Nemeth, an 18-month renovation restored the house’s original details, while gutting outdated rooms like kitchens and baths. “This is such a big house so I really wanted to warm it up,” Nemeth says of the sunny coral and yellow palette—courtesy of luxe Scalamandre and Brunschwig & Fils fabrics and historic paints—that still freshens the formal living room and dining rooms. A mix of antiques (a stately grandfather clock here, crystal chandeliers from the 1800s there) and meticu- lous reproductions add rich Federal-era accents.
For the updated kitchen, the owner chose the creamy white of Clive Christian’s Victorian line, which features Carrara marble countertops, dainty blue and white tile backsplashes, and comfy touches like a built-in window seat now favored by the family cat, Biscuit. New windows—a total of 49 were installed throughout the home— share views of the expansive backyard.
“This is a great house for entertaining,” she says. “Parties move from the front rooms to the kitchen, then into the garden.” Once outside, not only are guests treated to verdant splendors, but a full light and sound system keeps the party going—and flowers chosen for scent (camel- lias, roses, lilacs, and gardenias) add to the heady experience.
Upstairs, hand-carved, built-in birds-eye shelves from locally based cabinetmakers Rossi Brothers highlight the library. Here, as sunlight streams through French doors, the owner likes to curl up on a chocolate- brown leather sofa, sip coffee, and read the morning papers. In the evening, a chandelier that once hung in New York’s famed Russian Tea Room offers a warm glow.
A half-landing up, the amazing master bedroom suite awaits, outfitted with his-and-her walk-ins and a huge Clive Christian bathroom clad in statutory marble and featuring a steam shower, whirlpool bath, and one of several fireplaces found through- out the house. Various guest bedrooms, children’s rooms, and a small office complete the home. From top (a solarium, curving marble-top bar, and large entertainment area tucked under the roof) to bottom (a playroom, sauna, and gym in the 2,000-square- foot basement), the amenities are endless.
This young family will miss them all when they move to a new high-rise a few blocks away, but their continued presence in Society Hill has been paramount. “For us, this is the perfect neighbor- hood: Everything we want is here,” she says. “That was something we weren’t willing to give up.” For more information contact Fred Anthony Manfred; maryonthesquare.com