Coming home to Pennsport, after nearly 30 years

Nancy Hayes, along with partner John Zuchero, has moved back into the first home she ever owned — in the Pennsport section of Philadelphia.

We’ve all heard stories of people who split up only to reunite with their love years later.

Nancy Hayes is one of those people. But the “love” in this case is a Pennsport rowhouse she recently moved back into after almost 30 years of separation.

The story starts in 1980 when Hayes, who had been living at her parents’ home in Springfield, Delaware County, while she saved money, bought the three-story corner home.

She had always wanted to live in the city. “I didn’t think single people belonged in suburbia,” she joked.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX
Nancy Hayes at the enclosed, slide-away counter, designed to prevent kitchen counter clutter in her recently renovated home in Pennsport.

“The Realtor told me that ‘Society Hill is hot, Queen Village is hot, Pennsport is the next area to go,’ ” Hayes recalled, sitting in her airy, midcentury-styled living room. “It took another 30 years before it took off.”

“It was a tough neighborhood,” she said. “People would hang out on my front step, drinking, doing drugs. I got broken into several times. But the neighbors were all nice.”

Hayes, who ran a medical supplies company, then married a man who did not share her love of the city, in general, and Pennsport, in particular. They moved to Turnersville in Gloucester County in 1989.

But Hayes held on to the house as a rental property, heeding a small voice that told her she just might go back.

And about 28 years later, she did.

When her husband died in 2013, she sold the New Jersey house and prepared to return to Pennsport. It wouldn’t be that easy, however. The house was seriously damaged by water after firefighters fought a fire that started in an upstairs bedroom.

She took a look at the financials and gulped hard. The house had been built in three stages, starting in the late 1800s, and  “the foundation was not in good shape,” she said. She faced  thousands of dollars in renovations. But she decided to go ahead.

She spent the next three years living with friends, in rented houses, and then in Montgomery County with her new partner, John Zuchero, a communications consultant and widower who had previously lived in the city and was open to returning.

The architectural process was slow, getting permits from the city was even slower, but last summer, she and Zuchero finally were able to move in.

Pennsport was new in some ways, familiar in others.

“You could tell the neighborhood was starting to change, but most of the houses are still occupied by the same people,” she said. “Some of them remembered me.”

The house has three bedrooms, 2½ baths, and just 1,600 square feet, including the unfinished basement.

“We wanted to go with lighter furniture because the house is small,” Hayes said. “Everything had to have a clean look.”

Camera icon CHARLES FOX
A vertical sculpture adorns the industrial-style stairwell.

Hanging pieces by Michael Biello, a Philadelphia-based artist whose work has been displayed internationally, are scattered throughout, saving space with their verticality. The largest one hangs like a pendulum through the three-story stairwell with industrial-style railings.

Hayes and Zuchero wanted to be able to watch TV in the living room but didn’t like the idea of the set dominating the room. So they hide it behind sliding abstract art panels when it’s not in use.

For energy efficiency, they installed Mitsubishi heating ducts and a tankless instant hot water heater.

The main bathroom has a large Corian tub, and the kitchen has granite countertops.

“John is the chef,” Hayes said. “So he got to pick the appliances.”

The one drawback to the house, they said, was a blank wall on the house across the street, a huge expanse of beige visible from the side balcony.

They were thinking of offering to have a mural put on it at their own expense when the couple found out that legendary mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar and his apprentices were about to decorate it.

But there is still work to be done.

Zuchero plans to redo the master bedroom with bureaus sunk into the wall and with lighting similar to what he saw in a South Philadelphia bar.

And “the deck will be addressed next year,” Hayes said.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX
John Zuchero shows how decorative panels slide to reveal their living room television.

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