To Roma Sawchyn, the corner in front of her house represents not only the place where two streets meet, but also something much larger. It’s an integral part of 100 years of her neighborhood’s and her family’s history.
When she moved into the corner house in 2002, Sawchyn set upon a 20-year-long project to restore and preserve the front of the building, which was probably constructed a century ago. During its history, the 1,800-square-foot house has been covered with brick of various types and colors and decked in stucco by former owners involved in a variety of businesses.
Sawchyn, 43, a manager for a financial services firm in Center City, grew up in the neighborhood, and her mother and other family members still live there. She shares the house with two nieces, a dog, and two cats.
What her neighborhood is called is a mystery, even to her.
“Well, most people called it Kensington because we’re north of York Street, but we also hear Fishtown, Port Richmond, and even Flat Iron,” she said. "No one calls it Olde Richmond except the Civic Association.”
The corner store was a seafood store when Sawchyn was a child.
“Every Friday during Lent, my sister and I used to go to the market and buy seafood platters,” she said, pointing out that the store was popular because many neighborhood residents at the time were Roman Catholic and observed the Lenten custom of eating fish on Fridays.
Before it was a seafood store, the building was a bar called Walt’s, owned by Sawchyn’s uncle in the 1930s, she said. There is “ghost writing” on the wall designating the building as a chicken restaurant in a barely readable sign from another long-ago business.
After the seafood restaurant closed, a friend bought the building and tried to renovate the interior. He converted it to a home with three bedrooms before Sawchyn bought it from him.
“I wanted to convert it to something that belonged in the neighborhood," Sawchyn said. "I like modern, but I respect the community and didn’t want to install something that would conflict with the existing neighborhood and overpower it.”
Sawchyn searched for an architect who would understand her goals and found Micah Hanson, the principal of Hexagon Studio Architects, who lives nearby and has restored other buildings in the area. The project was finished late last year.
Hanson said the first step was uncovering parts of Sawchyn’s house that had been hidden by the many owners.
“The cornice overhanging the corner of the building is original, but the building walls have been covered by a series of materials by succeeding owners," he said. "The original steel pillar and marble step remained in front, but they were buried because over the years, the facade had been modified and patched over.”
When the project began in 2017, the building was covered in a poor-quality stucco and offered few windows at street level to let in natural light. The entry corner had been enclosed.
Hanson added that he did find the existing cornice in excellent condition. Buried in the enclosure at the corner was a cast iron post that was “more than salvageable.”
His design added a steel awning to emphasize the corner and provide additional cover to the entry.
“The molding near the roof was part of the attempt by builders in the early 1900s to copy classical architecture,” Hanson said, referring to the repeated grooves resembling teeth (called dentil molding) applied in strips to the wall beneath the roof line.
Now, the shiny fir door with its horizontal slats and the pole holding up the new awning give a clean, bright view to passersby. New black-bordered casement windows on each side add to the exterior image and interior light.
Since the project was finished late last year, Sawchyn said, she has received endless compliments from neighbors and friends.
“This corner means a lot to the neighborhood, and I am glad that people like what we did,” she said.
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