A makeover in the extreme

Deterioration - and a tenacious cat smell - forced the couple to gut the house and start anew.

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Mammoth home renovations simply don't faze some people. One undaunted homeowner may raze to the studs and subflooring; the next may raise to the sky.

Vincenzo Votto and Ruth Wolf razed and raised their salmon-colored stucco home, situated in Bala Cynwyd at the dead end of a quiet street.

The location is fitting: The couple brought this house back from the dead.

"Nobody said we were nuts," Wolf said. "They just looked at us weird and said, 'It's got potential.' "

It did, indeed. Today, their restored home has a three-floor addition, including an art studio for Wolf, a painter.

Two of those new levels have glorious picture windows that face south, revealing a copse of trees. Looking down, a visitor could see deer drinking water from the runoff of Votto and Wolf's nearby springhouse. The deer come every day, she said.

A concrete-and-steel deck leads like a drawbridge from the car park to the house.

Two huge dormers sit atop the original portion of the dwelling, its stonework still in need of pointing. The structure has undergone renovation many times since it was built in the mid-1800s.

But when the couple bought the house, masonry issues were the least of their problems.

Votto, a native of Italy who owns an auto-repair shop, had always admired the place, with its knotty-pine paneling and pegged hardwood floors. Years earlier, he had offered to buy the deteriorating house from its owner, but she declined.

Her refusal disappointed everyone: the neighbors, the couple, and Lower Merion Township. By the time the woman died, the house was so dilapidated that trees were growing through the windows, letting in wildlife.

As if the place needed more - the prior owner had 30 cats, but apparently not enough litter boxes. The deterioration and smell were so bad, the couple said, that the township issued a non-occupancy permit. The woman's estate tried to kill the smell by putting up new Sheetrock, but it did not work.

Still, the couple wanted this house on the hill. "I liked it," said Votto, a big, amiable man with a mustache.

They bought the house in 2001, but it would be four years before they could live there. Votto did most of the deconstruction and reconstruction after work and on the weekends.

Wolf was usually there, too, but she still took time for her paintings. They are everywhere in the house. Many feet wide and often several feet longer, the canvases mostly portray people in the throes of various emotions.

Wolf, who pegs her age at "way over 40," said she and Votto worked hard to get the feline stench out of the house.

"We pressure-washed everything," she recalled. But when the interior was dry, the smell had not abated. The couple used crowbars and sledgehammers to take out the floors, the new Sheetrock, and lots of paneling.

As for the reconstruction, Votto "really thought this house out," Wolf said.

"In my kind of work, [construction] comes naturally," he said.

Votto devised a pulley system to hold up the I-beams that support the deck. With help from friends Mark and Chase Dallura of Upper Darby, the pulley was moved from beam to beam as Votto tack-welded the beams into place. Then he went back and permanently welded the I-beams.

"The house is overbuilt," Votto said.

"He spent months with a welding torch," Wolf said.

He also installed a central vacuum system and had an electrician put in a circuit-breaker box on each floor - no more guessing which breaker serves which room.

So far, the couple has added two bathrooms and renovated a third; each has its own personality.

In the basement, near the house's original footing, is the Italian bathroom. Tiled from ceiling to floor, it has no shower stall - the water flows into a floor drain. Lovely blue and green tiles line the upper portions of the walls, with gray tiles at the bottom and tiny blue tiles on the floor.

The same blue tiles appear in the second-floor bathroom. In this renovated space, they have hung one of Wolf's paintings, whose acrylics shine in the dark.

The third bathroom, a diminutive powder room, sits at the end of Wolf's "gallery" - her artwork lines the walls.

The bedrooms are still under construction; "contemporary cardboard" covers the subflooring, Wolf said.

Of course, not everything went according to plan in rebuilding this house. The kitchen, for example, required last-minute changes.

The couple had found a gray-and-white speckled Corian countertop that they liked and put it in storage. "We designed [the kitchen] around it," Wolf said of the space, which is more or less L-shaped.

But the point where the two sides of the addition's "L" would meet jutted out beyond the property line, a township no-no. So the couple designed the countertop to curve, though it did not cover the entire area. Wolf found stunning cherry-red Corian to make up the difference.

The only thing Wolf wanted from the house was her studio, and Votto designed a spacious one for her. Measuring 20 by 36 feet, the room is neat and clean. Tools of her trade are neatly assembled on one side of the room; a low bookshelf lines the other, below the picture window.

"I'm very happy," she said.

As for Votto, he stood next to her, beaming.


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