Don't tell Peter Kourahanis you can't go home again.
He left his South Philadelphia neighborhood at 18 and never looked back - until 1998, that is, when he and his two brothers had to sell the family home. He decided to move back until a buyer came along - a temporary thing.
Kourahanis was reluctant to return. He was living off Rittenhouse Square and didn't feel an emotional pull to the house he had left 15 years earlier, the one he had shared with his Greek immigrant parents and his brothers. Plus, the area had changed drastically.
"The bakery across the street, where we used to buy bread, was abandoned. Drug dealers were living next to me, homeless people were living in their car nearby, and the park looked like a wreck. Glass was everywhere," he says.
Still on the block, though, were some old-timers whose homes had passed through several generations. Still intact, too, was Kourahanis' teenage vision of how the house on South 13th Street would look as one vast expanse.
So he decided to buy his brothers out and stay. Thus began the 10-year renovation odyssey of what Kourahanis now calls his "East Village loft in South Philly."
He moved up to the third floor (formerly a rental apartment) and started demolition below, taking down walls, pulling up shag carpeting. Kourahanis did most of the work himself, without financing.
"I am a closet designer," he says. "I like big open spaces, too."
Once the walls were down, he gave the newly oversized living room even more space - he made the 9-foot ceilings three feet higher by punching through and exposing the beams.
"I had to stain all of the rafters," he says. "I was hanging upside down with stain dripping all over me." He also replaced parts of the hardwood flooring on both levels.
Off the living room today is a bathroom and a small, sunny working kitchen with sage-colored cabinets from Home Depot and plywood countertops painted black that cost him $600 total.
Upstairs are two bedrooms, a bath, and a second, smaller living room. Kourahanis shares the place with his rescue dog, Lolla, and three cats.
"I didn't have a plan when I was doing this, only in my head, really," he says. "I had my hands and my tools. I executed it stage by stage, when I had money."
One Sunday, he awoke, picked up a sledgehammer, and smashed out the plaster covering some of the walls. Certain select spots reveal what's underneath, lending the feeling and patina of an ancient building.
He called in contractors to work on the air conditioning, the electrical systems and the roof. The last "was a huge expense," Kourahanis says - the original roof had no insulation, and he had to add six inches of it. "It cost $9,000."
His remodeling story was no tidy tale out of HGTV, Kourahanis acknowledges.
"I loved it and thrived on it, but there were periods of time when I had no money and I had holes in the floor and wires hanging from the ceiling," he says.
To date, the work has cost him $50,000 and much "blood, sweat, and tears."
There was the time when his sledgehammer flew out of his hands and bounced back off the wall, chopping him in the knee.
And the night the basement flooded. "When six inches of water got in, I broke down again because I thought all the mechanicals were going to break and I had no money.
"I had something to prove to myself, moving back here. It was very difficult emotionally coming back here, but fixing up the house has helped heal all of those issues," he says.
Kourahanis takes pride in the decor he achieved with inexpensive finds: "Most of the furniture is from flea markets, garage sales, and even the Salvation Army," he says.
The result is a very bohemian space that looks fit for an artist.
His desk doubles as a dining table. A disco ball hanging from the living-room ceiling delights party guests.
Out front is a Buddhist lion he lifted out of a Dumpster when a temple down the street was being renovated.
"The next project is a steel floating staircase to a pilot house on the roof and a massive roof deck with all the fixings. After that, gutting and expanding the bathrooms."
For now, Kourahanis is enjoying his resurgent neighborhood. That once-abandoned bakery is now Christopher Columbus Middle School, the street is tidy again, and just half a block away new townhouses are selling for $600,000.
He loves taking Lolla to the safer, cleaner park across the street and the South Philly rituals of "stoop sitting" and walking the block to talk to neighbors.
House-proud, that's Kourahanis.
"I enjoyed the whole process of renovating this house," he says. "Sometimes, I stand in the corner of the kitchen, where you can see the whole floor, and say to myself, 'You did it!' "
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