Stephen Rodriguez, a real estate developer, knew that the double-wide lot in Philadelphia’s Graduate Hospital neighborhood was something special from the moment he first saw it.
Morgan Rodriguez, a wife of a realty agent, showed Mr. Rodriguez the property. It had a decrepit townhouse on one end and a single-car detached garage on the other. Mr. Rodriguez saw a potential investment opportunity. His firm would demolish it all, then commission an architect to design an expansive new townhouse. Then, it would be sold for a handsome profit.
That was the plan.
The couple became more infatuated with the neighborhood and the house that Mr. Rodriguez was creating as the project progressed. At the same time, they were outgrowing their condominium, which was already feeling tight with their two children — Paul, now 12, and Corinne, 10. Just before construction began, Ms. Rodriguez gave way to Louisa, now 3.
Moto Designshop was commissioned by Stephen and Morgan Rodriguez to construct a modern Philadelphia townhouse. The kitchen was designed by Mr. Rodriguez’s stepmother, Barbara Burleigh, who works for Giorgi Kitchens & Designs.Credit…Halkin Mason New York Times
“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. The building was no longer a simple business project. It became a labor of love after they spent many years obsessing about the design details. “After everything we put into it, it would have been heartbreaking to sell it,” he said.
After Mr. Rodriguez purchased the lot in October 2018, it all began when he paid $650,000. 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 with a townhouse with an extra-deep facade made up of four layers of brick interconnected, and two that were separated by bricks that act as masonry screens. Curved steel-framed openings cut through the brick to reveal the garage, front door 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.
An open kitchen with a large soapstone-topped island is located on the first floor. It serves as the home’s hub, connecting the living and dining areas. 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 steel spiral staircase with open white oak treads leads to the second floor, where there is a planter 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 second floor contains the primary suite as well as one additional bedroom. 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.”
They are happy with the decision to keep this house in their family. Mr. Rodriguez has built many homes, he said, but “we decided to keep the best one for ourselves.”
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