The Rev. John Siebel, the retired pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Church in Fishtown, is happy the stately Italian Renaissance convent associated with his church wasn't torn down "like so many of our beautiful church buildings when they no longer are needed," he says.
Siebel called developer Robert Huttenlock "a hero" because two years ago, Huttenlock purchased and saved the 94-year-old convent, designed in 1924 by architect Peter F. Getz. The building had been empty for many years after the school closed and nuns were no longer needed to teach there.
Huttenlock, who converted the 11,300-square-foot Gothic-style convent into an apartment building, says he doesn't think of himself as a hero.
"I always admired the building and finally decided to try to save it," said Huttenlock, who lives in one of the apartments with Kierstein Leo.
Both Huttenlock and Leo grew up in Fishtown and went to school in the neighborhood. They met soon after they graduated.
Before renovating the building, Huttenlock had to appear at three zoning hearings to get the property's use changed to multi-family from single-family. If he had lost his zoning petitions, he said, he would have lost his investment.
"The community was behind me," he said. "No one thought the building could ever be used as a single-family home."
After winning the zoning variance, Huttenlock turned to architect Richard Miller, who also lives in Fishtown, to redesign and modernize the former convent.
After two years of work, the former convent's adaptation was completed last spring. It now has eight apartments, including the former chapel, which has been turned into a home for Huttenlock and Leo. Features include an 18-foot peaked ceiling and diffused light coming from stained-glass windows across the front wall. The glass was in good condition and needed very little work.
Standing in the two-floor living room on an unusually warm early November day, Leo turned on the air-conditioning, which she said she likes as much as "the built-in gas fireplace."
"Just being in the former convent has been very exciting for me," Leo said, because it was the home of many of the elementary school teachers who taught her siblings.
"Whenever they could after we bought the building, my sisters wanted to see the inside … where the nuns lived," she said.
The convent originally included 16 tiny rooms with sinks and twin beds for the nuns. Miller said his first design challenge was figuring out how to tear out the walls of the sisters' units and create the eight modern apartments, three with two bedrooms and the rest with one.
"The basic subfloor structure was in good shape after the walls were torn down," he said. There had been roof leaks and a lack of heat, but only the surface floors needed to be replaced with new oak ones.
In the largest unit, created out of the main chapel, Miller designed a mezzanine that opens up from a small sitting room over the former low altar. A door from the mezzanine leads to a second bedroom.
Under the mezzanine, a kitchen spreads out behind a quartz island leading to the living room/dining area. All this would seem like a normal interior except that everything is bathed in the pastel glow of the high-arched stained-glass windows.
"It was important to preserve the building's original character such as the detailing of the lobby, the stairway, and the original wood trusses," Huttenlock said. "Miller also said he wanted to make sure the original mosaic of beige and white tiles in the lobby of the building along with the marble steps were preserved."
The couple wanted to retain as much as they could of the original Holy Name Convent, but one feature stands out that's clearly not part of the Catholic history: a large painted statue of Buddha, which was left by a guest on the mezzanine.
"We think it is cool," Leo said. "I don't know how long the Buddha will stay, but it is definitely a new touch, not part of the former convent."