The tale of how Ashley and Collin Gleason came to live in a stately brick row house in Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood is nothing short of a love story. They first spotted it as an engaged couple while house hunting, and soon they were going out of their way to walk by it, even creeping up to surreptitiously peek in the windows. (It was kind of obnoxious," Ashley admits.) The house-stalking continued after they married and as their family grew (daughter Garner is now 9, son Graham is 7), and the kids took to calling it "that fancy house." The couple called it simply "our house," but they never imagined they'd actually possess it. Then, one day, they spotted a for sale sign out front.
"At the time, we were pregnant with our second child," says Ashley. "When I was looking through the front window, I could see it was beautiful. But when it went on the market and I actually went inside it, I fell even more in love with the architecture, the big windows, and the large yard. The heartbreaking thing was that it was it was just too expensive. I was devastated, but just figured it wasn't meant to be."
But, then again, neither were Wallis Simpson and King Edward the VIII or Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Love has a way of turning unlikely into likely.
Three years later, the family, now four strong, went to get ice cream, and they purposely took the long way to "visit their house." To Ashley's surprise, there was another For Sale sign up. Whipping out her phone, she discovered the house was in foreclosure and was going for half the price. Game on.
"We had to do a lot of wheeling and dealing to buy it, but it worked," says Ashley. "Once we had it, it felt like it was meant to be. Before that, it was more like a wish than a goal."
The couple had loved old houses for a long time. It started when they met during their university years in Virginia. Back then, they would search out interesting old houses and abandoned barns, and dream about how they would fix them up.
Their first house in Philadelphia (you could liken it to a starter marriage) was a 1,800-square-foot Victorian. Collin, who grew up in a California ranch house, always felt claustrophobic there. The new home, a 4,500-square-foot dwelling on a lot that spans the width of a block, was the real (and big) deal.
The house was built in the 1860s by a Quaker family. Before long, a Civil War surgeon named Edwin Hellyer returned from battle and opened a medical practice there. "Something feels Southern about it; It's almost like a house in Charleston or New Orleans," says Ashley. "Most row houses are dark, with windows at two ends. This house is unusual in that it has a courtyard and tons of windows. It feels light and airy."
She and her husband are equally enamored by details like a mansard roof, slate tiles, and (of course) the large lot, a rarity in urban areas and something they call a true gift. "This house was meant for entertaining, so to christen it, we had a huge party before we officially moved in," Ashley says. "It was just as I hoped it would be. Children were running up and down the stairs and catching fireflies in the backyard. Adults were in back drinking wine and hanging out. The last stroller left at 2:30 or 3 in the morning—and it's been that way ever since."
The structure had been well fairly well maintained, but as most who have lived in homes that are more than a century old will attest, age rarely comes without issues. The Gleason family's residence is no exception. "The thing about living in a house like this, is that every problem is an expensive one," says Ashley. Their first curveball was of of the furry mammal variety.
"We'd been in the house three months when we started hearing scurrying in the walls," says Ashley. "That progressed into crying—always in the middle of the night. It was clearly an animal in distress, and it sounded big."
The culprit turned out to be a dynasty of squirrels headquartered at the top of the house. They had chewed their way into the attic, and then through the air conditioning ducts, leaving a path of expensive destruction in their wake. (The animals now live in a wildlife sanctuary and the AC has been repaired.)
Another, but less expensive, thing to deal with: a carriage house filled with antiques and vintage items. "There was everything from a disassembled bowling alley to an Eames lounge to the original shutters from the home's facade," says Collin. The finds filled the structure to the rafters, and since the couple wanted to clear it for a garage, they took what they wanted and let their friends pick from the rest.
"Our biggest disappointment is not being able to tackle every project we want to immediately," says Collin. "With a house this size, it can get frustrating to prioritize projects each year."
But, as in any good love story, affection only grows stronger after a few trials. And once the squirrels were scattered, the couple was able to get down to some fun stuff.
"I never looked at this house and thought: I have to decorate this in a period way. My style tends to run toward the folksy or handmade craft, and I never felt the need to change my style in this house," says Ashley, a former buyer for Urban Outfitters who is about to launch Vestige, a new lifestyle store in Fishtown. "And while I'm tempted by the style of people who have white walls and just a few accent pieces, in reality I would never do that. I like patterns."
Although the new house was considerably bigger than their last home, their possessions seemed to expand to fit the space. "And if we didn't have enough furniture in the beginning, it hardly mattered," says Ashley. "The old rooms were beautiful when they were completely empty."
Much of the furniture placement has happened by happy accident. "I usually bring a piece into the house, plop it down, stand back, and realize it looks good where it landed," Ashley says.
The result is an aesthetic that's effortless, cool, and completely family friendly. Elements like mod leather chairs, Native American pottery, midcentury portraiture, touchable textile wallhangings, and kids' art all live comfortably in this 19th century home. "I've been in fashion a long time, and I'm a big proponent of the concept that if you buy what you love, you'll find a way to wear it," says Ashley. "It's the same with furniture. We buy what we love and make a place for it."
Over the years (and during the work put into the place) the family's love for the house has been tempered into an unbreakable bond. "When I left my last job, I thought about taking a new position in New York or Los Angeles. But the thought of moving out of this house played a huge factor in staying in Philadelphia. It just didn't seem like an option," Ashley says. "Living here is something I don't take for granted."
So was this a case of house destiny or fate?
"I always try to remain philosophical about whatever was meant to be will be. When we finally had this opportunity, it was as if everything had come together for us," says Collin. "I just feel lucky that, in this case, the match was made."