The Evolution of a West Philly Home

When you’ve lived in your home for over 30 years, you’re bound to make some improvements. Some come by choice, others by chance. For Pattie and Robert Duncan, longtime residents of West Philadelphia’s University City neighborhood, the work they’ve done to their home has been largely prompted by fate.

The couple has lived in their home on South 45th Street since 1985. Pattie grew up in the area, attending high school at 39th and Walnut and then college at the University of Pennsylvania.  Robert came to UPenn from England as a graduate student. The pair met and fell in love while in school and by 1977, the two were married and living in a rental apartment near campus.  Eight years later with twin babies their rental apartment began to feel a bit cramped. When their landlord increased the rent, they started house hunting in West Philly. 

Robert remembers how different the neighborhood and their block was when they bought their home: “There were a few abandoned houses and a crack house, but there were some long term residents, people who had an investment in the block and its history…we pulled together to work on the block’s problems.”

While raising their three children in the house, Pattie and Robert didn’t tackle many home improvement projects. “We’d only do things when they got to the point where they absolutely had to be done,” Pattie laughs. There are still signs of that relaxed attitude throughout their home, such as the curious marks and peeling paint on the front wall of their living room. These were the marks from 1986 when the kids were home with a babysitter and stuck up hundreds of stickers as high as they could reach.

Their forays into more comprehensive home improvements began in 2013 once the children were grown.  At the time, Pattie was working as a massage therapist and Robert was tutoring high school students. As his business grew their income boosted and at the same time they learned of a low-interest loan program offered by the state for weatherization improvements. “So, it all sort of came together and we decided to do it,” Robert says. One of their neighbors, Chris Peterson, had worked with Will and Joey in the past and referred them to Bellweather. Bellweather was one of a few BPI certified contractors approved by the State funded Keystone Help winterization program. Once the Duncans began working with Bellweather, they noticed that this company was different from other contractors they’d hired before.

Robert recalls his frustration with other companies: “In the past, we’d had workers in to do small things, and we definitely had some mixed reviews of those people...either the attitudes of the people that worked with them, or the quality of the work they did. The fact that Bellweather is here in the neighborhood, it kind of reinforced the recommendation we’d gotten from Chris. They’re not coming in from somewhere else…they want to do a good job because their reputation is on the line, and they care about this neighborhood.”

Pattie chimes in: “We knew what good work looked like and what people who did good work felt like to us, and Joe and Will looked like they could be good. And they were!”

One year after the weatherizing project, in 2014 Pattie and Robert began working with Bellweather again this time to fulfill their dream of removing the 1940’s aluminum siding on the face of their home and restoring the façade to its former glory.  

“Joe and Will helped us talked us through all the phases and helped us with color and design,” Robert says, ”One thing I really appreciate is that they don’t push you to spend as much as possible. They help you figure out what’s realistic, and how to get what you want without going above your means.”

After revealing the beautiful brick, repainting in classical colors and fully restoring a 2nd floor bay window, Pattie and Robert’s home was truly transformed. With the help of Robert’s gardening skills, their home won an award from the neighborhood association for improving the street!

Then came the big one: the kitchen. It was a project the couple had been mulling over for years, but they hadn’t been able to pull the trigger. Finally, one day in 2016, Robert came downstairs to find that a portion of the dropped ceiling in their old kitchen had collapsed, pulled down by a heavy fluorescent light fixture.

Robert says, “The ceiling coming down kind of forced our hand.”

Pattie laughs and gently rebuts him: “No, you decided we did have enough money, and you wanted to spend it!”

When it was time to tackle the kitchen, the Duncans had no hesitation about who to call. Pattie says, “They’re our guys! The reason we felt confident to do this is that we really trust Bellweather.”

The former kitchen had been so cramped that they’d had to keep their refrigerator in the mudroom on the back of the house. Robert’s vision for a new kitchen included lots of space and light. “I grew up in the countryside of England, and was used to little cottages with windows on all sides, so that was my dream, to get closer to that,” he says. That meant removing the wall between the dining room and the kitchen to open up the ground floor, closing off a back staircase to the second floor, and moving the basement steps. The Bellweather team also suggested removing the old mud room and installing a load bearing rear wall in order to install large glass doors to a new deck.

The product wrapped up soon after Memorial Day in 2016, and the results were astounding. What was once a closed off, dark space is now light, airy and open. “Every day, I can’t believe this is the house I live in!” Pattie enthuses. “I still do plenty of cooking, and it’s really fun to invite people into the space...I like to have my book group meet here, West Philadelphia women who like books and chocolate!” She also looks forward to her toddler-aged granddaughter visiting from Indiana, knowing that she’ll love running around and riding her little tricycle through the roomy, open space.

Pattie loves the interplay between indoors and outdoors from all the new windows. “When the weather’s a little warmer and the windows are open, the amount of birdsong that comes into the house is amazing! It’s the openness - without the extra walls, the sound flows. And even though the view out of the back door is just brick wall, in the summer you notice the interplay of light and shadow…it’s this little dance that happens.”

Robert agrees, citing the light as his favorite thing about the kitchen renovation: “It just feels like you’re so connected to the outside world,” he says.