Long before Northern Liberties became a hot area, Larry Freedman and Natalie Wieters were eyeing it as a place to live and work.
"Mutual builder friends of ours, Charlie Abdo and Ira Upin, were doing some rehabbing in the neighborhood and had suggested it might be a good time to look around," Freedman recalls.
It was the mid-1980s. The couple were living in the city's Fairmount section and searching for their dream careers: Freedman, once a musician, is now a writer and audio producer with clients such as KYW radio, the Philadelphia Zoo, and Dietz & Watson; Wieters, once a waitress at the North Star Bar, is now a painter/designer for Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program and a ceramic artist.
"There were certainly fairly well-established residential pockets in Northern Liberties at the time, but the more commercially zoned area around Second and Fairmount where Natalie and I were looking had boarded-up, abandoned buildings, shells in varying states of disrepair, with some even on the brink of collapse," Freedman says.
The entrepreneurial spouses overlooked the neighborhood's many blemishes and hoped for a quick upturn.
"We found this turn-of-the-[20th]-century building on North Second Street that was a borderline shell, made an offer, and before we knew it, we were proud owners of a huge money pit. . . . yes, before the movie of the same name came out," Freedman quips.
It was nowhere near move-in condition. The exterior needed a total makeover. There was no personal bathroom, let alone one for clients to use. Walls were crumbling. There were holes in the roof, little or no insulation, and rodents scampering about. And that was the good news.
The bad news was that no one wanted to give them a mortgage, and getting insurance was next to impossible because of the building's run-down condition.
Freedman and Wieters forged ahead, tackling projects on a learn-as-you-go basis, enlisting the help of friends and relatives, and hiring contractors as needed to eventually transform the nearly 2,000-square-foot, two-story structure, a 15-by-104-foot driveway area, and a 30-by-40-foot garden into their live/work space.
The original plan was to divide the first floor into two studios and make the second floor a one-bedroom apartment. But first, there was the exterior to deal with.
"The top half of the front was basically two windows set in yellow brick, and the bottom half was just cinder block with a narrow door," Wieters says. She and Freedman happened onto a builder who came up with a creative plan to renovate the entire storefront area, in keeping with a period look.
"They broke down the whole bottom half with a sledgehammer, leaving a big gaping hole - there are photos to prove it - and constructed wood frames for all the windows and widened the doorway area, where we now have two magnificent mahogany doors that were already in the building, but unused," she says.
Wieters is especially proud of their uniquely landscaped, surprisingly spacious backyard garden - the width of two lots and very deep.
"Over the years, we've planted all different kinds of vegetables, along with perennials, shrubs, and trees," she says. Two large trees and clippings transplanted from her grandmother's property in the Washington area are especially meaningful.
Within the last few years, the couple have replaced old broken concrete slabs with bricks and multipatterned pavers, creating an inviting patio area. Two intricately designed steel gates form a striking driveway entrance, along with a pedestrian gate.
On the first and second stories, pine floors were retained. Soundproof flooring was laid down in the recording-studio area, but then came another hitch.
"I was sitting at the control board in my studio one day, and I realized the floor surface wasn't level," Freedman says. Rainwater seepage had severely compromised the structure. To prop things up, huge I-beams were strategically placed in the basement as reinforcement, and a system of jacks was installed.
A good portion of the rest of the property also needed either reinforcing or new plumbing, wiring, and walls.
The couple subsequently bought an adjacent four-story building that connects through a narrow doorway. Freedman set up office space plus an extra studio, bathroom, and kitchen area on the first floor. He rents the other three stories.
With the birth of their son, Jesse, now 9, the couple converted Wieters' first-floor studio into a bedroom and moved her studio into an extensively rehabbed basement.
Today, 23 years after moving to Northern Liberties, Wieters and Freedman have seen the neighborhood transformed from a sort of "no man's land" into a vibrant district of homes, businesses, and diverse eateries.
"There's a lot of soul in this community," he says. "People here have banded together to turn what had been a not-so-great area into a pretty good place to live and work. Over time, we've definitely made a lot of progress, but we are always looking to make more things even better."