before and after

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

by Annie Werbler

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

Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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The contemporary Pelle chandelier over the dining table doesn't occupy much visual space, allowing the open-concept living area to remain as a whole rather than chopped in half.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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Seating a family of six and guests for dinner parties proved challenging in this tight corner. Scaled-down yet comfortable furniture and a shallow buffet matching the kitchen cabinetry maximize the usable square footage.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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Two large sofas and multipurpose ottomans can seat a large group of people when entertaining.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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Dark traditional window treatments and worn parquet floors were replaced with cool and functional pieces, all purchased for the project on a budget.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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An earthy sisal rug defines the living area while a colorful, vintage-inspired rug layered on top adds color and pattern to the scene. Solid and neutral furnishings lend a feeling of calm and the hotel vibe the clients required.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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Reflective cabinetry surfaces and a marble hex backsplash provide a luxurious sheen in the small kitchen.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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Before, dark finishes and a freestanding refrigerator made the kitchen feel cramped. IKEA cabinetry, quartz countertops, and simple appliances lend an open feel to the kitchen, despite its outer limit being set by a structural column.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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A small balcony beyond the dining area allows the family to enjoy a taste of outdoor living in their city home.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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The designers were able to carve out a small mudroom next to the apartment's entry door to contain everyone's shoes, hats, and jackets.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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Removing the crown molding in the hallway, adding several lighting sources, and modern accessories makes the transitional space feel bright and welcoming. Baseboard lights illuminate a path at night.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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The uncluttered master bedroom contains simple necessities -- like a comfortable queen-sized bed and modern reclining chair -- while the unique Vibia lights add interest to an otherwise unassuming space.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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What was once the master closet became a very small nursery for a toddler. "Having a room, even a small one, where you can close the door and they can get a peaceful night's sleep or a nap is massively important," Mona explains.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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"Maximum beds was our directive in the girls’ bedroom," Monsa shares. "There’s enough room for five girls in here when you count the hidden trundle beds." A Galbraith & Paul wallcovering from Philadelphia establishes a bright color palette for the textiles.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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The hall bathroom received a bright white facelift with tons of added storage and turquoise penny tile, bringing a hint of the color through most rooms in the apartment.
Before & After: A Philadelphia Family Apartment in the Heart of the City, on Design*Sponge
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An updated floor plan for the two-bedroom home at The Dorchester overlooking Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. "How could we gracefully work out enough sleeping options for three teenage girls, their toddler sister, and their mother and father?," Mona asks. "Could we open up the kitchen and main living space more to help create a bright, modern great room? We also had some awkward and semi-functional closets to tackle. For instance, the stacked washer/dryer was in the small second bathroom and prohibited the door from opening all the way. And there was a large pantry to the immediate left of the front door. We turned that into more of a mudroom/storage space that accommodates coats, boots, a stroller, as well as kitchen overflow items."

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Comments

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

  • 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?

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

  • 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.

    • @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.

      • 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.

        • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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!

  • 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?

    Thanks!

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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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