Diane Menke (left) and Tamara Myers, of Myers Constructs, oversaw the job from start to finish.

Diane Menke (left) and Tamara Myers, of Myers Constructs, oversaw the job from start to finish.
The Inquirer

Monday, Mar 18, 2002

Reclamation Project

By Judy West | Photography by Michael Bryant

By the time they got their second bank loan, Maria Pistorio and Vincent Tagliente were seriously questioning their sanity. From the start, they had known it would be stressful converting two vacant houses in Bella Vista into a single-family home, but they never imagined it could get this bad.

Vince is a real-estate agent, so he at least had some conception of what he was getting into. He's also an optimist and, according to his wife, something of a visionary. Who else would have tried to persuade her to move from their South Philly rowhouse to a building across the street from a chicken-processing plant?

"The smell was just ungodly," Maria recalls.

Next, he tried to interest her in an abandoned factory. No dice.

"Being in the business, I was looking for a deal," says Vince. "I could not find one." Until one day in February last year, when he was asked to sell a property and ended up buying it.

The 150-year-old brick building on a quiet, residential side street at least looked as if it could one day be a home. "It was still a big leap for me," Maria says, "but I could see it a little more." And it had the features she considered essential - space for four bedrooms and on-site parking.

Still, the three-story shell was an alarming sight. Overrun with pigeons, it had floors riddled with holes, boarded-up windows, and walls that had been scrawled with anarchist graffiti by a succession of squatters.

Maria and Vince first hired an architect to create a comfortable home for their family of four. Unhappy with the preliminary drawings, they contacted Myers Constructs Inc., a general-contracting company, and asked president Tamara Myers to scope out the property and come up with some ideas.

"We couldn't really see," Tamara says of those first early-spring visits. "We had to use flashlights because all the windows were boarded up."

She saw enough, though, to know she wanted the job. And Maria and Vince wanted Myers Constructs, partly because of the potential cost and time savings of using a design/build company. But mostly, Maria says, because "we felt like she would be different. We met with other builders and felt we wouldn't have a lot of say in what was going on, and it wouldn't be a very creative process. We also chose her because she promised we'd all be friends at the end of the project."

That, it turns out, was an ambitious promise.

Stuck on the city

If Maria and Vince had been willing to move far from Center City, they probably could have found their four bedrooms and a garage without displacing a flock of pigeons and enduring almost a year of renovations. But that was never really in the cards. The couple made a few halfhearted trips to Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill, but deep down they knew it was near Center City or bust.

"It doesn't make any sense to live in the city," Maria concedes. "The house has turned out to be expensive. Education is going to be very expensive. But we really love the city."

They also thought, mistakenly, that they could reap substantial tax rebates for restoring an old building. That used to be the case, but not anymore.

"What a huge blunder on my part," says Vince, slapping his forehead as he swivels in his office chair. "I should've known this. I assumed all along that I'd be getting the 10-year tax abatement. But now, there are two different tiers - renovation and new construction."

The big tax savings now apply only to new construction, so the couple would have been financially better off taking down the structure and starting anew. "Still," says Vince, "I wanted to keep the old integrity of the home, so maybe I'd have done it anyway."

When is a budget not a budget?

Vince and Maria didn't know much about the building when they bought it. They knew it had 24 6-foot-high windows that, once the plywood came off, would flood the interior with light. They also knew that the view from the roof, stretching from the Peco Energy Co. building across to the Ben Franklin Bridge, was breathtaking. And, unusual for Bella Vista, the double building was detached, another plus.

The negatives didn't come to light until work was well under way. "I'd gotten an engineer to make sure the structural integrity was there, and he gave it a passing grade," Vince says. Only when the demolition crew came in and stripped out many of the interior partition walls and started pulling off the old plaster did the sad condition of the masonry begin to reveal itself.

That's why any budget for this kind of project is a slippery document.

"When you take buildings in such rough shape, you have to be prepared for the unknowns and related cost overruns. A 20 to 40 percent overrun is common," says Diane Menke, vice president of Myers Constructs and the on-site manager of the Bella Vista project.

"Rarely do clients like to believe they will need that extra amount for unglamorous things like pointing, masonry repair, shoring work, jacking, extra roof work, or a new cornice. Folks would understandably prefer to spend money on floors, kitchens, tiles and nice furniture. Unfortunately, it's the stuff at the front end of a project, the bricks and mortar and roof and mechanicals, that are fixed in their nature. They must be done, and they cost what they cost. You can always find a cheaper stove or flooring material later."

Diane is no stranger to old houses, and she has her client speech well prepared, but still the early months of this project were hard on everyone. "It has been particularly tough on the clients," she says. "They had to spend a lot of money getting the shells shored up and stable. No fun! They got pretty frustrated."

But the ups and downs of renovating a house, as with most life-changing events, have their own fairly predictable arc. After the anxiety of the demolition stage, where all is chaos and unexpected expense, comes the relative calm of framing.

"When the framing goes up," says Diane, "people are really excited because they can start to see what it will look like. Finally, it's in three dimensions." And for Vince and Maria there was considerable relief, too. What had been a warped, hole-strewn obstacle course was, by early September, safe, square and stable.

Concerned about the budget, though, the couple decided to subcontract their own painter and mason. "Hey, I'm from South Philly," says Vince. "That's where the best masons are." Al Raggazino, the painter, has known Vince since grade school.

Design in mind

With their second bank loan in place, the partition walls going up, and roughing-in for the mechanicals and plumbing proceeding smoothly, the couple could finally take a breather and start to focus on design details and finishes.

Though the double house is large - about 3,500 square feet - it has no basement, so Tamara's design had to incorporate all the mechanicals within the living spaces. She achieved that with considerable grace, tucking the water heater under the stairs and slotting in closets all over the house for electrical boxes, air conditioning, security boxes, and the like.

Dimensions everywhere are generous. The tiled entrance foyer is a room in itself.

"There's something very nice, when you live in the city, about being able to come into an area that's a decent size, when you're bringing in packages or it's cold out and you have five people with you," says Tamara. "You can come in here and regroup." A family room with built-in bookshelves - something of a Myers Constructs signature - and a brick patio complete the first floor.

Upstairs, Tamara worked with Maria and kitchen consultant Rich Mackin to design an uncluttered open-plan kitchen, with black and off-white base cabinets and seeded-glass-paned wall cabinets on either side of the window. An island topped with cream-, gray- and red-flecked granite invites the family to pull up stools and get involved with meal preparation. Clever cupboards fitted into every nook and cranny, stainless-steel appliances, and wider-than-usual countertops make this a real chef's kitchen.

The real touch of luxury in the kitchen, though, is the 12-by-6-foot pantry, where the couple can stock bulk groceries, mixing bowls, and glassware, further freeing up the kitchen. Maria grew up in a house with a pantry, so that detail holds a familiar sense of comfort for her. She insisted on having a swinging door, even though it's more expensive and troublesome to hang.

"My idea of a pantry is to have a swinging door," she says, defending her decision, "and nobody in my family, not my husband nor my kids, will ever close a door, so I really wanted a swinging door."

With the kitchen and breakfast room at the rear of the second floor, the front half is given over to a formal dining room and living room, with a powder room and laundry room nestled against the south wall.

Four bedrooms and two bathrooms fit comfortably on the third floor, where the ceilings have been opened all the way up to the pitched roof. To set the master bedroom apart, Tamara created a small vestibule area to pause in before you step into the main space. A niche high up on the wall holds a TV on a rotating pullout shelf. The spacious closet has been fitted with two paneled doors rather than the standard sliding door. Handsome paneled doors are standard throughout the house, all with chrome-finished hardware and matching hinges.

Such details - plus solid, substantial baseboards and door surrounds - give the house a well-crafted, custom feel. Before Tamara even began to design the bedrooms, she took out her tape measure and measured Vince and Maria's furniture to make sure the spaces would actually work for the family and its belongings.

"We've really worked hard to find a good compromise between keeping a nice open feel in the hallways but gaining as much space for the rooms as possible," says Tamara. "We labored over three inches here, five inches there, that type of thing."

Maria, in turn, labored over the selection of finishes, poring over catalogs to choose the right sinks, faucets, toilets and tubs, and spending hours, often with Vince, at Gravina Tiles in Manayunk, first discovering what they liked, then finding what they could afford.

The third-floor hallway is the grandest space in the house, with a double-width staircase - the stairs from both houses, with the dividing wall demolished and new treads stretching the entire breadth - leading up to the roof. One day, there will be a roof garden. For now, it's just a magnificent staircase. Tamara and Diane were initially equivocal about this decision, especially since a lot of extra jacking had to be done to get the two sides level. Still, they respected the homeowners' wishes.

"It's an interesting old element and something the customer wanted," Tamara says.

The best-laid plans

Even the best-laid plans can hit a wall, though. Securing zoning approvals can be a stress factor in any building renovation. Myers Constructs knows the process well, and guided the homeowners through correcting some safety hazards at the property and having each stage of the project inspected and approved.

What they hadn't anticipated was the fuss over the windows. The house was built with eight windows on the south wall. At that time, the property line was several feet from the wall. Now, it turns out, the property line is at the wall. Theoretically, the neighbors could build right up to it and block the windows. After a couple of months wrangling with the Department of Licenses and Inspections, the city gave its approval for the windows, though it was several more weeks before the boards could be removed from them, causing nervousness and further delay.

Getting heat into the house was another hurdle. For six weeks, the building was "held hostage by the gas company," Diane says. Fortunately, the unusually warm winter weather helped out, allowing work to continue, but more slowly than anybody wanted.

"Things slow down during the mechanicals phase because they're pretty particular and everything has to be integrated. They have to wait for each other to get finished," explains Diane. "If the plumber gets behind - which is what happened here - all the other subs, like the HVAC person and the electrician, get behind too. And then everything's behind. Nobody likes this phase."

Even with the delays, the drywall was up by Christmas. The problem was, Maria and Vince had expected to be installed by then, too, and had gone ahead and sold their South Philadelphia home. Frustrated and worried about the ballooning costs, the couple and their children, Michael and Fiona, both under 5, had no choice but to move into a furnished apartment on a month-to-month lease.

As well as hiring some of their own subcontractors, Maria and Vince had taken it upon themselves to order some of the fixtures and fittings, as a cost-saving measure. That made Diane nervous back in the fall, "trying to get them to make decisions in a timely way and make sure everything got ordered. Customers do this to save paying us to do it, but they don't know how much sitting on suppliers we have to do to get our stuff."

Sure enough, the new year arrived but orders were slow to. There was also the problem of where to put things once they did show up. With no basement and no outdoor space for storage, everything delivered to the house - tiles, flooring, kitchen cabinets, appliances - had to somehow be accommodated within the walls to await installation.

Finishing the finishes

"This is our best part - finishes," Diane says. "It's also what the customer most understands."

For Maria and Vince, after a month in their corporate apartment, the end was finally in sight, and the tension started to dissolve, replaced by growing excitement, pride even.

"I said to Tamara, 'Now, I can't believe it's going to be my house,' " Maria said after a weekly client/builder meeting in mid-February. "Before, it was just a headache. It's been a yearlong headache."

The house is still not finished. Red rosin paper still covers the mahogany floors. The tile setter is still racing to finish grouting, while the clawfoot tub for the master bathroom waits in the garage. The custom range hood and granite countertops aren't in yet, and it will be several weeks before the painter can come in and transform the spackle-patched drywall with shades of sage, earthy red and lavender.

None of that matters anymore.

"Pinch me," says Maria, radiant and breathless as a teenager. "I just can't believe this is my house." Vince is pleased, too. "This is the period we were looking forward to," he says. "I see it coming together. Now, I know why we selected these guys."

Tamara, for her part, just smiles. At times, it's been a struggle, but they are, indeed, friends.