It Was Supposed to Be a Spec House. Then the Builder Got Emotionally Involved.
As a real estate developer, Stephen Rodriguez knew that the double-wide lot in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood of Philadelphia was special the moment he saw it.
When his wife, Morgan Rodriguez, a real estate agent, showed him the property, which had a dilapidated townhouse on one side and an attached single-car garage on the other, Mr. Rodriguez saw an investment opportunity: His firm would demolish the whole thing, commission a progressive architect to design an expansive new townhouse, and then sell it for a handsome profit.
That was the plan, anyway.
But as the project progressed, the couple became more enamored of the neighborhood and the house that Mr. Rodriguez was building. At the same time, they were outgrowing their condominium, which was already feeling tight with their two children — Paul, now 12, and Corinne, 10. Then Ms. Rodriguez gave birth to their third child, Louisa, now 3, just before construction began.
“With three kids, we needed more space, we needed a basement,” said Ms. Rodriguez, 37, who is also a founder of Kiki & Mo Home, a candle-and-bath-products company.
Shortly before Mr. Rodriguez’s investment project was complete, the couple realized that they already knew the buyers: themselves.
“Probably two-thirds of the way through construction, we made the decision we were going to keep it,” said Mr. Rodriguez, 44.
It wasn’t just that they wanted the 4,500 square feet of living space. In the years they had spent obsessing over the design details, the building had morphed from a straightforward business project into a labor of love. “After everything we put into it, it would have been heartbreaking to sell it,” he said.
It all began after Mr. Rodriguez bought the lot for $650,000 in October 2018. Hoping to build a townhouse with a standout modern design that wouldn’t feel out of place beside its vintage red-brick neighbors, he approached the architects at Moto Designshop to collaborate on a design.
“I gave them what was probably a long-winded, pompous speech about how I wanted to build things that were going to be timeless, and that had a very heavy mass to them,” he said. “For this one, I told them that we wanted to have something in brick, because it was a brick block; we wanted it to be modern, perhaps with a bit of a midcentury-modern vibe; and we wanted to have things with curves.”
Moto delivered on all counts with a townhouse that had an extra-deep facade composed of four overlapping layers of brick, two with spaced-out arrangements of brick that function as masonry screens. Curved steel-framed openings slice through the brick to reveal the front door, garage and windows.
“We were free to propose things that are a little bit more playful and a little bit more ornate, but still rooted in the context that is the Philadelphia brick facade,” said Roman Torres, a partner at Moto. “These layers of brick create wonderful shade patterns, but also invite you in.”
For the interior of the three-story home, the couple kept the material palette to a minimum, choosing white-oak cabinetry, doors, moldings and herringbone-patterned floors, set off by white and charcoal paint.
On the first floor, an open kitchen with an oversized soapstone-topped island serves as the hub of the home, between a dining area and living room. Expanses of windows at the back of the house — including awning windows that replaced a conventional backsplash above the cooktop and sliding doors that open the living room to a backyard patio — help pull natural light into rooms that might otherwise be dark.
A curved steel staircase with open white-oak treads winds up to the second floor above a built-in planter sprouting with green. “That staircase was a project in itself,” Mr. Rodriguez said, noting that because of the complexity of the design, it took roughly six months to complete, between the metal fabricated by Holzman Iron Studio and the custom wood treads.
It was the one element in the house that actually benefited from the pandemic, which struck after construction began in June 2019, Mr. Rodriguez said, as he was previously on the metalworker’s waiting list.
“They were doing a lot of big staircases for hotels, restaurants and office buildings, and then the pandemic hit and their business went from a one-year backlog to zero overnight,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “I convinced the owner to go in on his own and start chipping away at our staircase, which was previously way down on the priority list.”
The primary suite and one other bedroom are on the second floor. Two more bedrooms and a family room with a terrace that has a view of Center City’s skyscrapers are on the top floor.
The family moved in last April, after spending roughly $1.1 million on the construction, although they’re still adding finishing touches, Mr. Rodriguez said: “There’s still a lot to do on the interior of this house. We’ve got fireplaces to put in, millwork and a million other things.”
Nevertheless, they are pleased with their decision to keep this particular house in the family. Mr. Rodriguez has built many homes, he said, but “we decided to keep the best one for ourselves.”
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