Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City

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The “envelope” of a renovation project is critical to its success. Mona of Mona Ross Berman Interiors in Philadelphia first sorts out the floor, walls, lighting, windows, hardware, doors, and other finishes in a home before focusing on bolder decorative touches. “Many people assume that furniture and accessories are what designers focus on to make a space work,” she explains, “But really, I always start with the envelope because if that’s not working, nothing will look right.” Her firm helped their clients — a family of six, including four daughters — transform their two-bedroom pied-a-terre at The Dorchester overlooking Rittenhouse Square. Built in 1980, the apartment needed a complete overhaul to give it the modern look the couple desired. Along with the help of contractor Kenny Grono of Buckminster Green, they gutted the kitchen, removed crown molding, repainted traditional oak parquet floors in sleek black, re-tiled bathrooms, and lightened up what was overall a dark, dreary space.

Though the project had a relatively short eight-month timeline, several months were spent upfront planning what was to come. “Taking time at the start of the process is critical,” Mona advises, “Because without good planning and a strong team in place, the project is likely to run over budget and over schedule — and drive everyone a bit mad.” Rethinking the floor plan proved necessary. The design team had to create sleeping quarters for three teens, a toddler, and their parents. They wanted to open up the kitchen and main living space to create a large great room. They also hoped to reallocate closet space for laundry and even a nursery, and to carve out a mudroom to help keep things tidy.

“We had to figure out how to bring more light into the apartment,” Mona adds. Heavy traditional draperies were covering up large mid-century modern-style windows. The team then added track lighting, flushmounts, and baseboard fixtures wherever possible, as electrical wiring for recessed lights was not an option in each location. The parquet floors also appeared dingy, but it was too expensive to replace them and not worthwhile to refinish them. Instead, they were painted black to provide a simple, neutral backdrop for contemporary furniture. Crown molding was also removed for a more modern and simplified feel. In terms of layout, the master suite was reconfigured to create more closet space and additional privacy. What was once a closet became a very small but working nursery for a toddler.

The team’s guiding aesthetic principle was to create a modern, almost hotel-like vibe so the family would feel like they were “getting away” when they stayed in their city apartment. Functionally, it needed to accommodate a large family that entertains often. “When we realized we could make that work,” Mona shares, “We were all thrilled.” —Annie

Photography by Courtney Apple

  1. Holland says:

    Stunning transformation. Modern yet cozy. The designer’s words about the importance of the planning stage are borne out by the marvelous results.

  2. Giulia says:

    I love this transformation. Some of the lighting and wall finishes are brilliant. I wonder how ‘code’ is handled with the closet turned nursery? Here a room without a window or secondary escape route can’t be used as a sleeping quarter – is this an issue in this case?

    1. JMP says:

      I would think it would be an issue, I’m interested in know the answer to this as well… Love the kitchen!

  3. Keshia White says:

    This is beautiful! I love how bright, modern, and cozy it looks now. It looks like a different apartment. Great job!


  4. Mello says:

    For the amount of money this renovation cost this family SURELY could have purchased a home in Philly (granted not in center city, but who cares) where three teenagers wouldn’t have to share a bedroom the size of a shoebox.

    1. Meredith says:

      @Mello It was only mentioned in passing, and probably hard to see in the article text, but this is a pied-a-terre (aka a smaller, secondary residence in the city), not the family’s primary residence.

      1. Tri says:

        Thank you for that definition! I’ve seen the term pied-a-terre thrown around, and based on the literal ‘foot on the ground’ translation, figured it referred to the type of building (I was picturing a three-story walk-up instead of an elevator-assisted high rise).

        Also, to Mello, “but who cares”, well, some people do. As a teen, if I was used to living in the city centre, I would probably have taken umbrage at being asked to move to the suburbs, even if it meant my own room. Heck, I take umbrage as an adult when coworkers assume that’s what I’ll do. I’d way rather have less space in a central location! Granted, three teens full-time in one bedroom would be squishy, but some families have different priorities.

        1. Sam says:

          Rowhomes are so widespread in Philadelphia, I understand Mello’s point – the family could have found a small rowhome in or close to the city center instead of making extensive renovations to a small apartment without sacrificing the urban environment. It’s not a city where you have to choose between high rise or suburbs.

  5. Ginger says:

    Mello-unless you know this family and their financial and personal priorities, your comment makes little sense. Could it not be possible that living in a smaller space works well for them?

  6. Dan says:

    LOVE the bare white walls that have not been skimmed / re-plastered and painted; they have simply been left alone. We have the rustic theme throughout our small home too. Our friends often comment on how ‘homely’ the place looks. :) We agree!

  7. Martha says:

    Beautiful renovation and great use of the space. The light’s in the hallway are gorgeous. Can you provide the source or information on where to purchase?


  8. MulchMaid says:

    Lovely and bright. I am not seeing how the beds’ trundles can be employed to sleep six girls as stated: there’s just not enough floor space to pull out more than one, if that. Otherwise, it’s a super job. I love the look of the aqua penny tile in the bathroom.

  9. Elizabeth says:

    Where did they get the ottomans and chairs?

  10. Amanda says:

    Absolutely gorgeous! I am always inspired when big families maximize coolness and minimize space.

    Too bad the flooring was worn out. I love that 80s parque. I keep a look out for it at ReStore to replace the floors in the rooms in our home that lost it over the years.

  11. Deborah says:

    So grand to to see what people can look past when they have VISION!

  12. Jill Malek says:

    Looks gorgeous! Baby Elephant Walk wallpaper came out great!

  13. Nicole says:

    I’ve always loved lighter hardwood flooring the really open a space up

  14. Giulia Jacobs says:

    Why didn’t the parents offer the master bedroom to the three teenage girls to share, and then fit their own double bed into the much smaller, yet big enough for the double bed, bedroom?


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