Preservation Madness: The addictive nature of home restoration

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story by Joseph G. Brin | photo by Albert YeeThis article is part of a special editorial partnership with Hidden City Daily on preservation in Philadelphia.Like what you read? Check out the full March 2013 issueand visit Hidden Cityfor more stories on the inspiring preservation work being done in Philadelphia.

It could have been a scene from the film The Money Pit. Christine and Anthony Shippam, owners of an 1894 Georgian Revival in Mount Airy’s Pelham neighborhood, were lying in bed, rain dripping down on them. “Honey, did I tell you how much I hate this house?” asked Christine.

“Did I tell you how much I hate this house?” replied her husband Anthony.

“We don’t take vacations. We don’t do anything else,” says Christine Shippam, five years into the project restoring what was one of the dozens of suburban dream houses designed by architect Mantle Fielding. “It’s become an addiction,” she says.

Like any addiction, this one forces its sufferers to make apparently irrational choices: refashioning every single detail of the house’s exterior to appear authentic, circa 1894; rehanging every door and window; and hunting out restored period-correct hardware instead of buying contemporary copies.

And yet the Shippams practice a rather sophisticated philosophy of restoration. “Leave the scars,” says Christine. “If you can’t fix it, let it be.” They figure there will be future stewards of the house compelled to pick up on things they’ve left un-restored.

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Christine and Anthony Shippam are five years into restoring their 1894 Georgian Revival home in Mt. Airy and the end isn't in sight.For a time, the preacher Sweet Daddy Grace, founder of the United House of Prayer for All People, lived here. The Shippams preserved Grace’s “On Air” sign in the red, white, and blue radio room. Neighbors say the columns out front also were once painted red, white, and blue in the style of barbershop poles.

When the Shippams bought the house, they found all the woodwork ruined by textured paint and dogs. “There have been times,” says Christine, “when we’ve totally given up hope. But you can’t stop. You can’t back out of a commitment.” All the while friends and family keep asking, “why aren’t you finished?”

Since the project began in 2008, the Shippams have weathered dust and dirt, break-ins and self-doubt, difficulties cushioned by a sense that the neighborhood itself has begun to improve. “People caring, that feels good. It helps others,” says Christine.

But when asked if she could imagine the day when the house was finished and the years fighting with contractors, tracking down replacement parts, and discovering seemingly endless problems were over, will she be happy to sit back and relax? Her answer: “It would be lonely.”