When Betty Gainsborough bought her circa-1875 Italianate house in Philadelphia's Fishtown section in 1995, it was love at first sight.
The tall doorways and cornice brackets, arching marble trim around the doorway with a keystone at the top, and three bay windows proved irresistible.
"As soon as I opened the door, I knew it was the house for me," Gainsborough recalls. Cherry-stained pine flooring, chandeliers, a marble fireplace, intricately crafted ornamental plaster skirting the ceiling, and beautiful plaster ceiling medallions were just icing on the cake.
The four-bedroom, 11/2-bath house is believed to have belonged to a factory owner, a shipbuilder, or a ship's captain, said builder/historian Torben Jenk.
"The 19th century was a boom period in the Fishtown/Kensington area, with a diversity of businesses, including barbers, oyster houses, canary dealers, furniture-makers, and others setting up shop near the Delaware River," Jenk said. "Business owners and others in higher-level managerial or administrative positions were typically the ones that could afford such quarters."
Previous owners had done most of the heavy-duty rehab needed by Gainsborough's house. But she was compelled to create a distinctive environment for herself and her feline companions, Midnight, Poe (after Edgar Allen), Lafitte, and Tootsie.
"Believe it or not," she said, "what inspired me to redecorate was a really unique wooden table with a painted glass top, done in a faux silver motif, I found while shopping one day."
Gainsborough wanted the walls of her living room, then wallpapered in a simple cream color, to replicate the faux-silver finish on her table, which sits in the adjacent library.
"I just thought the house looked too Victorian, and it was time to totally change the living room and library into a small Parisian apartment," she said.
Enter Dutch artisan Frans Bulder, whose credits include work for the Union League and actor Johnny Depp.
Bulder worked for more than two weeks, she said, painstakingly removing the cream-colored wallpaper, mixing his own oils and glazes, and brushing remarkably symmetrical swirled patterns by hand to give added texture to the faux-silver look.
He used the same custom-mixed silver hue to accent the plaster molding around the ceiling, as well as the original plaster medallion that is part of the light fixture.
The nonworking marble fireplace adds to the living room's elegant flair. Consideration was given to restoring it to a working state, but reconfiguring the chimney and structural concerns were overriding factors.
Mementos from Gainsborough's many trips around the world - she worked at TWA and as a travel agent - accent her rooms. Given pride of place, for example, are a spinet piano on which sits a rack of 78-r.p.m. phonograph records.
Framed paintings of all types adorn walls in the living room, library, and elsewhere.
"I pick my paintings not so much because they might have been done by someone famous or because they are expensive, but rather because they need to fit into my decor and how I feel about them," Gainsborough said.
A painting near a window in the living room depicts a tranquil lakeside scene. That helps her relax and unwind after a stressful day, she said.
A smaller landscape painting accompanied Gainsborough to a taping of Antiques Roadshow when it was passing through Philadelphia.
"This was a wedding gift from John Wanamaker's department store that someone had given to my grandfather," she said. "I stood in line for hours waiting for an appraisal, only to discover that it had minimal value." You never know unless you ask, she adds philosophically.
On display in the library are a Picasso reproduction and a painting of Ludwig von Beethoven, as well as vintage cameras and assorted items arrayed on wall shelves.
In the dining room, Gainsborough and a friend applied lincrusta, an embossed wall covering. Upstairs, one of the rooms has authentic 19th-century lincrusta, she said.
The kitchen boasts a large cast-iron stove that could be both wood-burning and gas-powered - if it were working. "I suppose it could work, since I have all the parts," she said, laughing, "but for now it's just a fixture to hold my spices and canisters."
Gainsborough grew up in the city's Hunting Park section but left Philadelphia for several years. When she first moved to Fishtown, she said, "I never dreamed the area would become the hot spot it has turned out to be."
The neighborhood, with its distinctive rowhouses, attracts urban professionals, artists, and other creative types. Nightspots such as Johnny Brenda's and restaurants and art galleries bolster the area's growing popularity.
And Gainsborough is enjoying the ride, constantly on the lookout for innovative decorating ideas, listening to music, trying new recipes, making new friends.
On her "quests" to flea markets and estate sales, on Craigslist and eBay, she said, she finds great and often elegant things. "All to create a unique environment all my own."
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