Home: Diamond in the Rough
A 1926 firehouse takes on new life as a modern, airy loft
John Carr’s home on Howard Street, just north of Girard, is in not quite Northern Liberties and not quite Fishtown. Instead, he resides somewhere in between, in a neighborhood not yet gentrified enough to have its own moniker, in a city where so many sections are transforming that those moving to them are still searching
John Carr’s home on Howard Street, just north of Girard, is in not quite Northern Liberties and not quite Fishtown. Instead, he resides somewhere in between, in a neighborhood not yet gentrified enough to have its own moniker, in a city where so many sections are transforming that those moving to them are still searching for the right nicknames. Here, amid closed textile factories and occasional graffiti tags, are dots of green trees and signs of renewal — not the least of which is Carr’s renovated 1926, 1,200-square-foot abode.
firehouse in its previous two lives (the first structure that was built in 1864 ironically burned to the ground in the early 1920s), Carr’s two-story dwelling stares grandly down from its highest point — a 68-foot hose tower. That tower, plus an all-brick exterior, an authentic firehouse bell and an 18-foot, stainless-steel bay door conjures images of fire trucks of old heading out into the city to answer a call.
Carr spotted the building a decade ago, two years after moving to Philadelphia from Canada to attend graduate school at Penn. “It reminded me of Italy because of the Romanesque revival style and the crenulations on the tower,” he says.
When he bought the property three years ago, the windows were hermetically sealed. The living space was carved into small rooms with unfinished drywall. Many of the original details had been destroyed. Most people would have seen a nightmare, but for Carr, principal conservator for Milner + Carr Conservation in Chadds Ford, it was a veritable playground.
The new homeowner did nearly all the renovations himself, only occasionally enlisting help from subcontractors. Today, the second-floor living space is an expansive loft drenched in natural light. There are blond maple floors, an 18-foot ceiling and 13 windows along exposed-brick walls. The building is wide at one end and grows narrow at the other like a slice of pie. “The triangle shape makes it really interesting,” he says. “When the el goes by and the blinds are up, you can see it on both sides.”
The kitchen is at the widest point of the open space, transitioning seamlessly into the dining and living room. And though Carr is a self-proclaimed hopeless cook, he has comfortable appointments that any host would love — a six-burner, stainless-steel Kenmore stove, a large KitchenAid fridge and a Bosch dishwasher. Carr salvaged slate from the firemen’s shower walls and turned it into a countertop for the kitchen island.
My goal as a conservator was to save as much original fabric as possible. But there wasn’t a lot of original material,” says Carr. “The first floor has a lot of architectural authenticity that I was able to save.” He uses the unfinished first level (originally the fire truck bay) as a garage and home studio where he works on portable pieces of found art and gives a friend space to refurbish surfboards. The cement floor, original to the house, still has two parallel red lines running across it, inlays that helped firemen guide their trucks into the narrow bay.
Because the second floor changed through the years, Carr felt free to customize. “I really had the ability to personalize it,” he says. Here, modern furniture mixes with art he collected on jobs in Cairo, Italy and the Czech Republic. A simple light fixture from Arch Street Lighting hangs above a long dining table from IKEA. Seating includes red wooden Coco chairs by Fratelli Tominaga from Design Within Reach and two wire Bertoia side chairs found in an unlikely spot. “I was just Dumpster diving near Center City,” he says nonchalantly, as if people do this sort of thing every day. “That’s the good thing about living in an area that’s developing—there are a lot of opportunities for found objects.”
In the wrong hands, such a passion for discovering art in the everyday might result in an unseemly hodgepodge, but Carr’s attention to design throughout the home—from the modern, stainless-steel ceiling fans to a careful arrangement of old-fashioned juicers in the kitchen—is spot-on. His bathroom (with a deep and welcoming Philippe Starck bathtub) and bedroom (with a cedar walk-in closet) flow off of the kitchen, and both are roomy and filled with light.
And, the renovations go on. His current project: turning the roof into an “urban oasis” with two decks, a gazebo, a water feature and plenty of green. There’s serious incentive in the form of a sweeping city panorama. That view, which juxtaposes Kensington’s rusty Harbisons Dairies milk-bottle water tower against Center City’s skyline, with its sleek, under-construction high-rises, mirrors how Carr’s own project poignantly captures the blending of old and new in a changing city.