West Mount Airy homeowner creates a gallery of her life

Sara Maxwell likes “to see my own things,” but she also likes order, so she’s careful to avoid clutter in her West Mount Airy home.

Starting in a small town in Kansas, winding through Washington, D.C., New York City, Costa Rica and a half-dozen other places, Sara Maxwell’s path has now led her to the compact rowhouse in West Mount Airy.

“This home is full of my 77 years,” says the retired social worker.

The word eclectic clearly applies to the interior of the three-bedroom, one-bath house, part of a loop of rowhouses dating to about 1925.  But “eclectic” can easily morph into clutter, and through constant pruning, Maxwell has stopped well short of that.

Camera icon Avi Steinhardt
Sara Maxwell is a collector. She keeps adding things, she says.

The time span represented exceeds her own lifetime, starting with her grandmother’s clock on the living room mantel and ending — for now, at least — with the Eagles cap perched on a hook.

A football fanatic since childhood, Maxwell bought the cap before the team’s NFC championship game against the Minnesota Vikings but was too nervous to watch the Super Bowl. Instead, she went to sleep until awakened by the general cacophony that enveloped Mount Airy and rest of the city when the game ended.

“I like order, but I like to see my own things,” Maxwell says. “I fell in love with this house. I like old, and I like detail. I do sometimes go through the house and remove things. I think I had a gifted mother who created a wonderful place.”

She recalls her mother hanging striped wallpaper horizontally rather than vertically in the family den. “I was startled with that and loved it,” Maxwell says.

Camera icon Avi Steinhardt
Sara Maxwell brings color and texture to her rooms with houseplants.

Maxwell herself has eschewed decorators, rehabbers, and expensive stores to put her own stamp on the house. This includes much of her needlework, ranging from local trees to a shimmering African sunset inspired by the ending of a PBS program behind rolling final credits. Many of the paintings in her collection were gifts from her college roommate, Nancy Bickford, an artist in Victoria, Texas.

“I remember seeing in a magazine a photo of the home of a family of artists in France, famous artists all,” she says. “Wall-to-wall works of art, from floor to ceiling. It took my breath away. It inspired me to create walls of art in my home.”

She says jokingly that she’d sell some of her collection “only if I get hungry enough.”

The living room table is her father’s World War II Navy sea trunk: “It’s ugly, but it’s full of memories.”

Camera icon Avi Steinhardt
Sara Maxwell has transformed her father’s World War II Navy sea truck into a coffee table.

There’s  also a table from Craigslist and a crate she acquired after a neighbor put it outside for the trash. “I ran out and got it,” Maxwell says. The crate originally held explosives, but Maxwell hasn’t gotten around to asking about its exact ancestry.

With the back yard deck in hibernation for the winter, plant decoration is supplied by preserved weeds. “They’re interesting. … I love the shapes and textures,” she says.

The second-floor hallway has Native American rugs, one old and another purchased just a few years ago in Santa Fe, N.M. A wall mirror is a bow to practicality: Maxwell wanted to be able to stand far away from it to get a profile view when she is dressed to go out.

She has lived in the house for three years, but this is actually Maxwell’s second stay in Philadelphia. She lived in West Philadelphia about 50 years ago but spent much of her life in New York raising her four children.

She says she knew nothing about Mount Airy until a Realtor tipped her off. Of all the places she has lived, it’s her favorite.

“Of all the places I’ve lived,” she says, “it’s the friendliest. I have wonderful, caring people. Everybody helps everybody, young, old, sick, well.”

Camera icon Avi Steinhardt
The dining room of Sara Maxwell’s West Mount Airy house.

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