See How Real Estate Pros Flipped a “Blank Box” House Back into a 1920s Charmer

published Mar 16, 2023
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Philadelphia row house kitchen before staging: ambered wood cabinets, outdated furnishings/appliances
Credit: Shawn Mays

When Matt Markovich, owner of City House Properties, bought a 940-square-foot home just south of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, he acquired a blank box of a house. Another real estate investor had previously come in and stripped the two-bedroom, one-bathroom home of all of its original character in an attempt to make it universally appealing. In doing so, this investor removed its historic charm.

So Markovich, along with his wife, Shawn, decided to renovate the place. They wanted to make it stand out on the Philadelphia market, which according to Markovich, is filled with the same gray walls, gray floors, and horizontal wrought-iron railings (you know the look). 

They chose to recreate the home’s 1920s character while taking care not to go over the top. That meant touching on period-appropriate details without turning it into a movie set. “That’s how we arrived at exposing the original ceiling beams and brick walls,” Markovich explains. “We put a transom back in above the front door with the traditional painted house numbers on the glass.”

Credit: Shawn Mays

Before the anti-paint crowd chimes in, Matt defends the decision to paint the exposed brick: “The original brick was a very orange color and was never meant to be exposed,” he explains. “Painting the brick a flat white brings great texture to the space, while not letting the brick drive the color decisions for the rest of the interior.”

Because the home is less than 1,000 square feet, they removed one wall on the first floor to help natural light flow through the space, which adds a modern feel but avoids veering into open bowling alley territory. “Despite the open floor plan, we didn’t want to be able to see the entire first floor the moment you open the front door,” Markovich points out.

Credit: Shawn Mays

And while the couple did open up the doorway of the narrow, enclosed vestibule, they kept that space as its own entity. They maintained the wall separating it from the living room and used a vintage-inspired tile on the floor to set it apart from the rest of the space, which, on a practical level, also serves as a barrier to the wet and wintry Philadelphia weather. 

Credit: Shawn Mays

“We love that when you enter the home, the vestibule initially frames a view of the newel post and then allows the first floor space to unfold a bit as you walk through the vestibule and into the main living area,” Markovich says.

They also invested in details — the thoughtful little touches that may not be noticed by every potential buyer that walks through, but adds to the overall feeling and historic vibe of the space. One of those details was a newel post on the stair railing that greets you immediately upon walking in.

Credit: Shawn Mays

“The newel post is from an architectural salvage store in the Kensington section of Philadelphia called Beaty American,” Markovich says. “It was a real diamond in the rough, covered in a few layers of paint, but after stripping the paint, we found that it was solid mahogany. A carpenter helped us source a top rail that complimented the newel post and modified them to work together.”

Another historic detail they invested in was the original chimney, which ran all the way from the basement to the roof, but didn’t include a working fireplace. Initially, they planned to remove it entirely, but that was cost prohibitive. Instead, they made it a focal point. “Shawn found inspiration in the ornate iron wall registers used when forced-air heating was originally introduced into these homes, and incorporated a salvaged register, also from Beaty American, into the center of a new wood fireplace mantle with irregular handmade looking tile surrounding it,” Markovich says.

Credit: Shawn Mays

The home, located on the block where singer and civil rights activist Marian Anderson was born, was staged by Voila and listed in January 2023 with Realtor Larry Levin. Unsurprisingly, it received multiple offers.

Markovich, who invests in rescuing distressed single family and multi-family properties that would often be demolished by other developers, believes buyers are leaning toward homes that are renovated to accentuate their architectural features and history rather than erasing them — and the above-list offers they received seem to prove that point.