On tree-lined Spruce Street in the historic Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, handsome shutters and a welcoming mint-bordered door mark the entrance to a home almost as old as America itself. Built in 1804, a mere 21 years after the start of the American Revolution, the house is a testament to a smart and seamless style of historic preservation. Visitors at the door are greeted by textile designer Chanee Vijay dashing down from her fourth-floor studio; spanning 4,000 square feet, the five-bedroom home is a perfect workout. In America’s first city, where history is present on almost every street, architecturally significant properties are plentiful, but it is rare to find a home quite like this one.
“We were actually looking for something much smaller and close to a park and restaurants,” says Vijay, a Southern native who relocated to Philadelphia from North Carolina. “I wanted a large space for my studio with plenty of natural light. I normally love homes with clean lines, lots of windows, and the use of built-in cabinetry for books and clothing. We knew those were elements we could bring to this historic house.”
When Vijay and her husband, Vinoo, bought the house in 2012, it was in need of a serious update. Nearly two centuries of renovations and repairs had turned the residence into a patchwork of influences, design preferences, and various types of outdated technology. The list of prior owners was impressively small, however, which had helped keep the home in fair condition. “The curved wood staircase and six fireplaces—three with original marble surrounds—remained intact in the front portion of the structure, along with many of the original doors and some hardware and moldings,” says Vijay. “The chandeliers and fireplace embellishments, although not original, were most likely installed during the Victorian era and were in good taste.”
For the couple to bring their 21st-century vision of the home to life, the task would require a few sets of hands. Fortunately, Philadelphia interior designer Sarah Chiovarou was every bit as infatuated as her client. “I was in love with the house just walking up to it,” Chiovarou recalls. They would need all the excitement they could muster: the amount of work ahead was daunting, but Chiovarou, herself a history buff, knew what was needed to complement the historic details. “The facade was well maintained and was unmistakably Federal, with its red Philadelphia brick and Colonial shutters,” says Chiovarou. “It was picture-perfect Society Hill, right down to the white marble stoop and brass doorknocker.”
Once the basic functions of the house had been restored, Vijay and Chiovarou turned their attention to the aesthetics of the interior. Out of the multitude of influences and eras, a single unified style was chosen. “We selected the front, oldest portion of the house as our model, and were careful to match or complement those Federal architectural details,” says Vijay. To marry the historical footprint with modern materials, a minimalist white color palette was chosen and brass details—both blackened and unlacquered—were brought within, a nod to the design elements that had been in the home for centuries. Fixtures from Remains Lighting and Schoolhouse Electric line the many hallways.
Some of the most dramatic changes were in the kitchen and in the master suite, where two bedrooms were combined. For Vijay, who designs her products using natural and eco-friendly materials, it was important that similar environmental standards were used in the renovation. “We conserved, restored, reused, and repurposed as much as possible throughout the process. Aesthetically this meant that we were able to maintain a sense of old even in the new areas,” Chiovarou says. “Legs for the vanity in the master bathroom were from a local architectural salvage company. Doors and hardware removed during demolition were reused in the master suite. And wood mantels were retained in the kitchen and master bedroom.”
In every room are collected pieces that hold significant meaning for the couple. A bone-inlay cabinet from China, a gift from Vinoo’s parents, sits in the living room. A hope chest full of antique saris stands in the guest bedroom. And silver candlesticks used by the pair on their wedding day adorn the expansive dining table. “I wanted to bring in a lot of art, photography from our travels, and warmth through natural textures—linen and hemp drapery, slipcovers, and other textiles with wool and jute rugs. I love using pieces and gifts I brought from India, where we were married in 2007. They reflect our history together,” says Vijay. The effect is a gentle weaving of the couple’s own narrative into a home with more than two centuries’ worth of stories.