Architecture & Design

How A Piece of the Mediterranean Landed in South Kensington

Artist Jeannie DeCarlo bought a house that was demolishing itself and transformed it into a place that would be right at home on the Costa del Sol. When the time came to sell it, she was determined to find the right buyer.

French doors and balconies with iron railings abound in Jeannie DeCarlo’s home on North Hancock Street in Old Kensington, which sold for just about what she asked for it last week. | Photos: Sandy Smith unless otherwise noted

Painter Jeannie DeCarlo, says broker Stephanie Somers, is “a tough lady. It’s hard to get her to laugh. But when she does, you know you’ve gained her favor.”

Somers, co-owner of RE/MAX Access with her husband Christopher, had many a laugh with DeCarlo as she set about achieving what seemed impossible: selling a one-of-a-kind house on a not-yet-gentrified South Kensington block for a price no other home in the area has fetched.

I also shared a few laughs with DeCarlo when I visited her home to tell its story. And in its story you find diCarlo’s determined personality and ultimately sunny spirit shining through.

Jeannie DeCarlo

DeCarlo may have lived in Philadelphia for the past 14 years, but her heart and personality lie in sunnier climes, specifically, the Puerto Rico of her upbringing and the South Florida where she had spent most of her life prior to moving here to have access to better health care.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that when she moved here, she opted to create a little bit of the sunny climes she knew in a most unlikely spot: a partly-industrial, partly-residential block in South Kensington.

And like all her artwork that has been on display at her home, the home itself is an original design that sprang from her own fertile mind.

That’s because when she bought 1718 N. Hancock St., there wasn’t much of a home left.

“The building was tearing itself down,” she said. “There were pigeons living in it, you could see the sky. The first time I came here, there was a clawfoot tub hanging from a pipe” on an upper story; “the next time I came, it was in the basement.

“So I knocked it down all the way to the basement. That was 10 years ago.”

What she put in its place is full of personality — her own. “I did all the design myself, so everything was built to my specifications,” she said.

1718 N. Hancock St. The home Somers is renovating is on the right, and work was taking place on the day I visited.

The home is arranged so that it has plenty of flexible space. The main floor has an open plan living room that flows into an eat-in kitchen. The second floor is the personal space, and the third floor contains her studio and a spare bedroom that she rents to guests via Airbnb.

Among its distinctive features is a kitchen with higher-than-usual countertops and no upper cabinets. The diminutive DeCarlo designed it this way to maximize convenience and minimize strain for herself. “I had some surgery, so bending over is inconvenient for me,” she said. And reaching up is out of the question.

Something else that makes this home stand out is its built-to-last construction. There’s no danger of this home suffering the fate of its predecessor, because diCarlo built it with cinderblock walls and steel floor beams. The cinderblock walls were in turn covered with tinted stucco, also saving on maintenance costs in the long run. “Mexican laborers did the stucco work, and they did great work,” she said. “It cost an arm and a leg, but it was worth every penny.”

There are elements of the old home in this newer one, though. The brick walls in the rear courtyard, for instance, were salvaged from the old house. The courtyard walls have openings in them designed to mimic windows; in those “windows” diCarlo painted scenes from Italian coastal villages. Inside the home, the stair railings are all made of reclaimed wood and crafted by one of her four sons.

Two more of those sons are also in the construction business and did much of the preliminary work on the house. They stepped in again to finish the job after the builder she hired for the main work took her money and left the house uncompleted.

DiCarlo put the house up for sale in April because she is returning to Florida. After moving here 14 years ago in order to obtain better health care after being diagnosed with cancer — “my doctor told me he couldn’t afford me,” she said — she decided that now that she is retired from the workaday world, it’s time for her to return home.

She tapped Somers, who had been renovating the house next door over the course of the last year and a half, to handle the task. “When I took the listing from Jeannie, she said, ‘I will not list it for a penny less than $450,000!'” Somers said.

That was well above what any house around it had sold for, and Somers said that she got eyerolls from some agents after agreeing to list it at that price. But, she said. “I still had faith that this unique home would sell at the right price to the right buyer.”

That “right buyer” came along this month in the form of a couple moving here from New York City. Somers said that one of the buyers told her, “I did not want to buy a home that looked like a sterile spaceship with skinny steel railings and four white walls.”

They offered $435,000 for the house, a figure that was backed up by the house’s appraisal.

“Currently, there are no sales in ZIP code 19122 for a fully renovated custom-built older home with all of the amenities her home had — size, outdoor space, uniqueness and location,” Somers said. “I had to do a ton of research to support that price. I left the appraiser a lot of data, and the value came in on the nose.”

The sale closed on June 21 to the satisfaction of all involved, including DiCarlo, who can now return to Florida with her partner David. “She is really an amazing and strong lady, and quite frankly, I will miss her,” Somers said.



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Sandy Smith Home and Real Estate Editor @MarketStEl
ssmith@phillymag.com