In Passyunk Square, couple turns 'as-is' purchase into home they love

John Schmiechen (left) and Ted Lewis enjoy entertaining on the rooftop deck of their South Philly home.

It is a rare sight, indeed, visible only to a few Passyunk Square residents, and then not in the coldest weather.

As two or three dozen partygoers wait in anticipation on a rooftop deck, two immaculately dressed gentlemen guide a large “rolling kitchen” storage unit filled with unmistakably high-end food and liquor three stories up by an electric winch cable.

The hosts are Ted Lewis and John Schmiechen, who have spent almost half their 15 years as a couple turning the corner rowhouse into a fascinating blend of taste and technology.

Camera icon WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN
Ted Lewis hoists a dumbwaiter on the rooftop deck with help of an electric winch he designed.

“The house was purchased ‘as-is’ and was literally in danger of collapsing,” Lewis wrote in an email to the Inquirer. “It was carved up as a rooming house with dangerously installed utilities, multiple layers of old carpet and flooring, a dirty and dank basement, and ancient windows and doors.”

The challenge was fitting the needs of Lewis, a computer engineer, and Schmiechen,  a retired charity fund-raiser for the arts and now a painter, into 1,800 square feet.

They had to find places for storage, exercise, office work, guest accommodations, a studio for Schmiechen, and a study for  Lewis, who bought the 129-year-old  house in 2003, the year after the couple met.

They spent the next six years living in Schmiechen’s 600-square foot Rittenhouse Square trinity. “We figured that if we could survive this, we can survive together,” he said.

They were married in 2014 at their home parish, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, on Locust Street.

Serving as their own general contractor, the couple gutted the Passyunk Square house down to the studs, brick and joists; added new roofs; rebuilt all the interior walls, and buttressed the house with structural steel. Schmiechen installed crown moldings.

Camera icon WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN
John Schmiechen’s paintings hang in the couple’s living room. One challenge in the renovation was creating a studio for him and an office for Lewis.

They moved in in 2009 as they made renovations including:

  • An open floor plan on the first floor with a bar and hanging glass cabinets separating the kitchen and dining room.
  • Two bedrooms on the second floor with a Euro-style ceiling.
  • A large, gold-tiled full bath with floor heating on the second floor.
  • A third-floor master suite, including a full bath with steam/massage shower for two and an automatic back-lit Corian vanity countertop.
  • Self-watering window boxes, with a timer in the basement delivering water through tubes concealed in the walls.
  • An electric vehicle charging station.
  • An exercise room in the re-poured basement with gym-quality rubber flooring and LED lighting.
  • A roof deck with pergola constructed of plastic wood and wind curtains, shade canopies and side curtains, in addition to the winch, which Lewis designed.
  • A back yard with an enclosed patio/eating area with a grill fed by a natural-gas line.
  • New electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and separate Mitsubishi split system for the master suite.
  • Stacked laundry in the second-floor hall with plumbed overflow pan and water leak shutoff system.
  • A wired alarm system with cameras, motion detectors, and window/door contacts throughout.
  • Restored original Philadelphia yellow pine floors.

They used 12 subcontractors, in all. The installer of the onyx tiles was such a perfectionist, Schmiechen recalls, that “he almost lived with us for three weeks.”

One lesson they learned from a bad experience with a kitchen designer: Check all subcontractors’ credentials, Lewis advised. Don’t be misled by a slick website.

Camera icon WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN
A griffon guards the renovated home of Ted Lewis and John Schmiechen in Passyunk Square.

Much of the work is barely visible, if at all, to the naked eye, including a picture-hanging system that allows easy rotation of Schmiechen’s paintings and telephone controls for the speaker system and the security system, which allows the house to be monitored when the occupants are away.

The kitchen speed-cook oven uses advanced algorithms to prepare a variety of dishes, and there is a wireless water leak alarm system with sensors throughout the house.

A custom-poured griffon statue stands guard on the parapet.

Future renovation plans?

“Now we can enjoy living in the house,” Lewis says.

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