A roof beneath their feet

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Ron and Nicole Christy's dream home wasn't even going to be their home at all.

In 2007, Ron, who had bought and renovated properties in his spare time, purchased a onetime convent from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia with the idea of converting it into condos.

But one night, as he climbed onto the roof to do some maintenance work, he looked out on the skyline view from his South Philadelphia perch and was struck with the building's potential.

"I don't even remember why I was up there. . . . But when I saw that view, I was in shock," he says. "I called Nicole and said, 'You're not even going to believe this, but I want to build a home up on the roof.' "

With construction already under way on the condos, Ron's new plan was to move into the top-floor unit and double its size, building an upper level on what was then the structure's sloped roof.

The archdiocese had been cooperative, asking only that construction be kept quiet during Sunday services and that the neighbors' approval be secured for certain aspects of the building. But gathering permits and the neighbors' OK had already taken more than a year when Ron decided to add the upper level.

"I called up my lawyer, and he said, 'Really? After all that we've been through so far?' " Ron recalls.

Converting a convent into modern living space was far from easy: There were 20 small bedrooms, and every wall - inside and out - was made of solid concrete. After gutting the building, it took 14 dump trucks to remove the rubble.

To make matters more complicated, Ron was told he would have to build the top floor entirely out of noncombustible materials, at significantly higher cost.

And by the time he finally had the last approvals, people had started to move into the lower-floor units, so everything for the addition had to be craned up to the top floor and built on the roof.

There were other setbacks, too. A clerical error mistook the property for the adjacent Catholic church, temporarily making it a historic landmark - one that couldn't be built on. But through it all, Ron says, he stayed focused on his goal: a home overlooking the city skyline.

For all the complications, the Christys' new home offers something their former two-bedroom condo in Old City couldn't: a neighborhood feel. With the birth of Ron and Nicole's daughter, that took on special importance.

"When we decided to raise a family in the city, we knew we needed a place that had the right feel to it," Nicole says. "But this neighborhood is great for families. Outdoor living is important to us, and this neighborhood has almost a suburban feel to it."

Ron and Nicole both grew up in the suburbs, and they were able to replicate some of those comforts into their new home. They have five bedrooms and bathrooms, for instance - plenty of space for their new family.

There's plenty of parking, too, in an outdoor, gated lot. And to the top floor of the former convent, they added a 900-square-foot deck, complete with a lawn that allows them to let out their Yorkshire terrier.

The couple installed an outdoor gas line to the deck. "A grill was definitely on our list of 'musts,' " Nicole says. "We're out there grilling at least four times a week."

Building their 3,500-square-foot unit from scratch allowed the Christys to add touches that reflect their personal tastes.

"We could bounce ideas off each other, rip things out of magazines, pick things out together until we agreed with each other," Ron says.

For Nicole, that meant a kitchen with dark flooring and white cabinetry, with dark wood floors on the lower level. Upstairs, Ron chose a lighter wood with dark accents.

An iPod charging station built into the wall allows music to play throughout the condo. Rooms have been wired for high-definition television and wireless Internet access points, which means there are no dead zones.

Those modern comforts aside, Ron made a concerted effort to keep the convent's original feel, whether it was matching the brick from the building for the parking lot's wall or spending extra to match it to the stone facade on the new upper level.

During the construction, Ron made an effort to thank the church for its cooperation: He donated a stained-glass window from the building, framed with the bronze nameplates of the nuns who had lived there.

Reflecting on all the hard work the project required, Ron says, "We crossed every hurdle, and we just kept pushing forward. . . ."

"There were some doubts - many doubts - along the way, but sometimes you just have something in your mind, and you're like, 'I'm not stopping. I'm going to get this done.' "

And if it comes with a great view, so much the better.


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