For awhile in the early 90s I lived on my own in an apartment just off Rittenhouse Square. Situated on the second floor front of a Victorian brownstone on 21st Street, it had once been the parlor of the grand mansion. By the time I moved in it had long since been chopped into a series of small, oddly configured living spaces. For every plus--the spacious living room, with its tiled fireplace, ten-foot ceilings, original built-in bookshelves and tall, sunny windows framed by window seats and fold-away shutters--there was a minus: a kitchen so tiny the refrigerator door didn't open all the way and the sink drainboard doubled as a countertop. And for every minus--no central air--there was a plus: when I tugged open my five-by-six-foot bedroom window on Saturday mornings, in soared arias from my opera-student neighbor.
Instead of a backyard I had views of lush gardens lining the alley behind the brownstone. Against a backdrop of brick facades, pitched roofs and chimneys waved tumbling vines and magnolia blossoms the shade of strawberries dipped in cream. Instead of a front yard I had the city: within yards of my front door stood a pub where friends gathered on weekends, a library, bookstores large and small, boutiques, a produce stand, a mom-and-pop cleaners where mom-and-pop signed for my packages and fretted over me, and a pricey restaurant where five cooks--known as Chuck One, Two, Three, Four and Five--jump-started my car on a regular basis.
For the first few months my living room furniture consisted of a flamed mahogany stereo cabinet and petite coffee table inherited from my Aunt Alice, and some big floor pillows. Finally friends who own a furniture store insisted I order a sofa and pay them when I had the money. My Grandma Lydia sewed an Alençon lace curtain for my bath window, I hung an enormous pastel bus-stop poster from the Pissaro exhibit on the wall and mastered one-pot meals because I had no dishwasher.
My 15-minute work "commute" meandered straight through Rittenhouse Square. Sometimes, at dusk, soft halos of light glowed from the streetlamps, enveloping the wide avenues, stately trees and elegant apartment buildings surrounding the park and creating a hazy mist that seemed to suspend time and space. On those evenings I felt not like a girl returning from a communications job at a Broad Street bank but more like a girl in a movie, an American girl in
fin de siècle
Paris, heading home to her very own
by Claudia Strasser in the late 90s. Although more ornate than my own style, it shares so many of the things that made that Rittenhouse Square apartment of my own so wonderful: romanticism, femininity, a focus on refurbished vintage treasures and a refusal to let a shoestring budget get in the way of creating a refuge with personality, unexpected luxury and a little bit of fantasy.
"Use the good china for breakfast."