Haven: Old City meets Latin folk art

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The first-floor family room with a dining area with English counter from a table. The home of Helen Cunningham and Ted Newbold in Old City with Latin American folk art. ( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )

Artsy. Edgy. Transitional. Distinctive tags describing Old City. But Ted Newbold, who owns a rowhouse here with wife Helen Cunningham, called the area home back when descriptions such as warehouse and fashionable weren't commingled.

Newbold, 84, an urban pioneer, is a descendant of Nathan Trotter, founder of Nathan Trotter & Co. Inc., a metal-products company established on Front Street in 1789. In the 1950s, he worked for the firm and lived in Society Hill and on Elfreth's Alley.

"By coincidence, Daniel Trotter, Nathan's father, also once lived in the same Elfreth's Alley house where I lived," says Newbold, who never tires of his neighborhood's culture and history. He's retired as director of the Independence Seaport Museum and sits on the boards of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Association for Public Art.

When he and Cunningham, who married in 1984, invited friends over back then, eyebrows raised.

"They'd say, 'This can't be where you live. The buildings around here are all warehouses,' "says Cunningham, 65, who loves the vibrancy of the reinvented area, now filled with fair-trade coffee shops, clay studios, and regional theaters.

Their rowhouse, on a brick-and-cobblestone street, has the storied past you'd imagine. Built for merchant Henry Harrison circa 1760, it was one of three structures he used as rentals. Newbold acquired the house in 1980. They added a wing 27 years ago, more than doubling the 1,200-square-foot footprint.

Inside, there's no escaping the history: period fireplaces, wooden floors, intricate cupboards, a claw-foot tub, front and rear staircases, and notable moldings and cornices.

Just as sublime are the treasures, artwork and furnishings the couple have assembled, creating a unique and hospitable setting for frequent guests.

In the living room is a bold portrait of a man by local mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, facing a retrofitted counter now used as a dining table for 10. Other walls are decorated with folk art, including works by Felipe Jesus Consalvos, known for his cigar-band collages. Cultural masks, many picked up on more than 30 trips to Guatemala, accessorize a wall leading to the upper levels.

"What attracts us to Guatemala is that it's still mostly undeveloped," says Cunningham, a high school Spanish teacher before her role as president of the Samuel S. Fels Fund for the last 23 years.

An avid cook, she loves accessorizing the kitchen and butler's pantry with eclectic pieces, some old, some new, such as scrub brushes, cheese graters, oil cans and candle holders.

Hanging from the kitchen ceiling are coffee pots from England, Poland, Mexico, Morocco, the former Czechoslovakia, and more. A floor-to-ceiling rainbow of plain and patterned pottery line shelves in the pantry, added six years ago. Tiles by Annabeth Rosen add drama around the rooms.

The first floor serves as a prelude to the diverse collectibles spread among the other levels: pipes, devils, slingshots, wooden animals, and more indigenous masks. Sculptures by local artist Ann Chahbandour decorate rooms, and street photography by Mark Cohen adorns walls.

Newbold stops to show some canes from a large assemblage standing defiantly in a hallway: a red-white-and-blue Panamanian beauty bearing a boat; another that holds perfume; one with fish hooks that turns into a rod.

Cunningham's intimate studio, where she creates jewelry and makes coverlets and curtains, is arranged with textiles and beads from world travels.

Outside, the creativity extends to their backyard oasis, where Cunningham tends a vegetable garden. On stone walls, Newbold has erected clay sculptures and menacing, yet cute, gargoyles.

Family is central to this couple, who have five children between them and are surrogates for extended members. On a recent afternoon, Ruby Payette, just returned from China and living with them while attending Drexel University, worked on her laptop in Newbold's man cave, a retreat filled with books and modern furniture. In spring 2013, their yard was the backdrop for the wedding of Alexandra Hird (another niece of Cunningham's) and Brandon Fierro.

Newbold says he's not surprised how gentrification has transformed Old City, a former factory zone, into a haven of hip:

"I've always known there's a richness to the area. Now, everyone is discovering it, too."