Haven: Thriving with their orchids

Taylor and Frank Slaughter moved to Philadelphia when he retired from a faculty position in mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh.

One of their goals in a new city was to find a home for their orchids.

Growing orchids is no idle hobby for the couple, who became enamored with them during a trip to South Florida about 30 years ago.

They can tell you the difference between warm-weather orchids and those that can thrive in the North, always at temperatures no lower than 75 degrees. In fact, Taylor works for the American Orchid Society's National Capital Judging Center, serving as chair.

The move after Frank's retirement was motivated by the couple's desire to be near their daughter and grandchildren - and, of course, a community of orchid lovers.

"Philadelphia has a wonderful community of orchid collectors, and Longwood Gardens has one of the best orchid gardens in the country," Frank says.

The house they ultimately settled on was a Realtor's suggestion: a dilapidated 3,400-square-foot 1960s rancher in Chestnut Hill that had been divided into a series of awkward, tiny rooms.

Both Frank and Taylor acknowledge they were initially skeptical about the house. For one thing, it was dark. Also the five bedrooms were small, and the place lacked warmth.

"We turned it down several times, but finally agreed to buy it," Taylor says.

The impetus for that decision? The property had room for a greenhouse and a garden. The Slaughters' limited budget had to accommodate constructing the greenhouse and making sure it was equipped to be warmed or cooled to the right temperature.

"We were told the house actually had good bones, and we proceeded to hire an architect that my daughter knew and hoped for the best," Taylor says.

Architect Elie-Antoine Atallah, of Studio of Metropolitan Design, took the assignment, using the rancher as the basis for his design.

"It made me feel it was a creative challenge, to have to work within the frame of the existing house," Atallah says. "It is a different challenge than starting from scratch with a site and no existing building.

"The first thing we did," he says, "was gut the inside of the house."

New heating and air conditioning had to be installed, along with gas lines to the building. To improve insulation, Atallah designed additional padding on the outside of the house and covered the frame with stucco.

"We had the exterior painted light gray so it would be similar to the color of the Wissahickon schist buildings in the neighborhood," he says.

Inside, he designed a great room from what had been the living and dining rooms. An 8-foot ceiling in the living room was removed, and a 12-foot vaulted ceiling created by "popping" up the space with support.

A fireplace anchors one end of the room, offering a modern slant - literally - to a space adorned with traditional furnishings.

A more contemporary dining set perches on an oriental rug, one of several the Slaughters own.

In the kitchen, warm wood embraces the refrigerator and the island as well as the cabinetry. Polished metal accents on the counter stools and lighting offer cooling balance.

Sustainable features were installed, such as bamboo flooring and double- and triple-glass windows.

The bedrooms were reorganized into a master suite, a guest suite, and an office each for Taylor and Frank.

The new heat and water connections helped assure that the greenhouse Atallah designed for the space outside the kitchen would function at the right temperature for the orchids.

He also designed a 9-foot-high black wooden box that functions as a closet. Now, when you enter the house, your eyes meet a colorful oriental tapestry suspended on the closet wall, which also serves to block a view of the great room from anyone outside the front door,

Looking on at the changes - approvingly, it appears - from the foyer wall is Eliza Rebecca Northrop, Taylor's great-great-great-grandmother, whose portrait was painted in the 1860s.

Are the Slaughters happy, too?

"Yes," Taylor says. "We have gained sunlight . . . and our house is suddenly full of color."

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