Their home sits on history

The Federalist-period house was ripe for rehab, and within the footprint of a famed ceramic works.

Two of the house's four fireplaces survived the rehab job, one of them in the second-floor master bedroom, which also features a beamed ceiling. The original heart-pine floors were saved on the second floor. (Michael Bryant / Staff photographer)

Martin Bernstein's entrepreneurial spirit seems to fit right in with the notion of national change.

After more than 40 years as a hairstylist at Pileggi in Center City, Bernstein decided he wanted something more. So he put down his clippers and made what some might call an abrupt, even radical career turn - into real estate.

"It started as a part-time interest and just continued to grow," says the native Philadelphian, recalling his initial foray into the buying, selling and refurbishing of properties about six years ago. "The reality is, I've always been fascinated with historic preservation and architecturally significant structures."

Hence his choice of home about two decades ago: a late Federalist-period house (circa 1810) on Ellsworth Street at the fringe of Queen Village. "I saw this property . . . and even though it had some definite challenges, it was the right price, so I bought it."

What Bernstein didn't know until just last year was that the house sits on the footprint of the Bonnin and Morris porcelain factory, founded about 1770.

"Shortly after an Art Museum exhibit about this rare porcelain, we were introduced by a neighbor to Dr. Joe Roberts, a historic archaeologist at the College of William and Mary," Bernstein says. More to their amazement, he adds, was that the same Bonnin and Morris porcelain factory was converted several years later to a manufacturing facility for small Revolutionary War-era cannons.

As it turned out, Roberts and Temple University professor Dave Orr, who share an interest in the period as well as in Bonnin and Morris, were digging for evidence of the factory site. So far, they have turned up broken pottery pieces and what are called "wasters" (failed attempts).

"What we are trying to do is reconstruct what people of that time were actually doing on the site," says Roberts, who had some Temple students digging in an alley just off Ellsworth Street as recently as a few weeks ago.

"I'm trying to convince Martin to let me dig in back of his house," he says, laughing.

The many challenges associated with getting the 1,200-square-foot rowhouse into habitable condition evolved into a nearly two-year project. And, as for most homeowners, the work for Bernstein and his wife, Anna Prosseda, is ongoing.

The house "was in terrible shape," recalls Prosseda, a case-management services manager at Travellers Aid, a West Philadelphia-based family shelter. Magazines were strewn everywhere, along with old furniture. There was dingy paneling and, in the kitchen, worn-out linoleum flooring and dirty dishes.

"We were dating at the time, and frankly, I thought he had lost his mind when he first showed me the property," she says. "But, by the same token, I knew Martin . . . and had faith his vision would prevail."

Indeed, a little vision, lots of elbow grease, a huge long-term commitment to work on the weekends, and a Philadelphia College of Art education paid big dividends.

"Once we gutted the place, I could see the space and begin to make some decisions," Bernstein says. "I drew up a plan and enlisted support from a former classmate, an interior designer, and her husband, a general contractor . . . in facilitating construction."

That was several years and a few hundred projects ago for Susan Calter and Bob McGonagle, who enjoy rehabbing historic properties. But they still remember the Bernstein/Prosseda project.

"I had a similar situation in which I had purchased the house we now live in but couldn't get a mortgage because it was considered uninhabitable," Calter says.

"One of the first things we did was to rebuild the walls, especially in the kitchen and second-floor bathroom area, which were literally crumbling," McGonagle says of the Queen Village project.

He also did extensive remodeling in the kitchen area, and repaired rotting beams and joists. Other priorities included removing a simulated-masonry exterior, repairing a cornice and the roof, and making shutters, windows and doors that replicated Federal style.

Of the property's four working fireplaces, two survived the rehab: one in the living room (with its original mantel), and one in the second-floor master bedroom.

In the kitchen, turn-of-the-20th-century glass globes are suspended from the ceiling by modern cable-like fixtures. Tile floors and a granite countertop add flair.

A clear disappointment for Bernstein is that he could not save the first floor's original heart-pine flooring because of a drainage problem and related structural issues in what is now the dining room.

The heart pine was salvaged on the second story, though, and a prefinished mahogany surface substitutes perfectly on the lower floor.

The couple recently revamped their second-story bathroom, opting to go green with a dual-action, efficient European-technology toilet. They also installed a stacked washer and dryer in the bathroom.

Now a real estate veteran with Center City's Plumer and Associates Inc., Bernstein says redoing the Ellsworth Street house was a real adventure.

As for future home-renovation pursuits - well, let's just say Bernstein is steadfastly noncommittal.


Is your house a haven?

Tell us about your haven by e-mail (and send some digital photographs) at

Real Estate Tools
Looking for a new home? Search Philadelphia real estate »
Browse Recent Home Sales »
Compare Philadelphia mortgage rates »