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House Tour | Adam Wallacavage

By Lizzie Feidelson

Stepping inside Adam Wallacavage’s 3,500-square-foot Gothic Victorian South Philadelphia brownstone, purchased by the sculptor and lighting designer in 2000, is like being transported into a grand turn-of-the-20th-century Louis Sullivan building crossed with a pirate ship. The 12 overstuffed rooms, spread across three floors, are packed with Victorian and Art Nouveau-inspired details, such as Tiffany-style lamps and taxidermy, that feel in keeping with the buildings’ ornate crown mouldings and pocket doors. But more eye-catching still are the fantastical nautical artefacts he collects, including a six-foot-long fibreglass alligator and a delicate paper replica of a coelacanth fish purchased from an Atlanta flea market. The foam-green and aquamarine painted walls are also covered in works by Wallacavage’s artist friends — in the parlour, inches from the Victorian wainscoting, is an original spray-painted tag by the Philadelphia graffiti artist Cornbread — and his own curbside finds. In the kitchen, a mint-condition sign from the iconic local business Bambi Cleaners, fished from the trash, looks down from atop an ivory-painted 1940s-era cabinet.

Wallacavage’s own work — he is known for his whimsical octopus-shaped chandeliers — stems from his lifelong fascinations with period architecture and the sea, which he traces back to his upbringing in the beachside town of Wildwood, New Jersey. Wallacavage began his career as an artist in his home state, shooting photographs for 1990s skate magazines like Thrasher and Juxtapoz. But after he built a black-and-white octopus chandelier for his living room on a whim in 2000, using hand-sculpted clay and a brush-on latex mould, the aquatic creature “just became this unlimited source of inspiration,” he says. The chandeliers, which he now hand-sculpts in his third-floor studio, hang in many rooms of his house, including the first-floor living room, where four white versions circle his original black-and-white model. That room, which is also decorated with dried starfish and a 19th-century diving bell, is a homage to the French author Jules Verne, whose surrealist works, including the 1870 classic sci-fi novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” are considered influences of Art Nouveau style.

In the rest of the home, unconventional colours and prop-room curios are juxtaposed with carefully maintained authentic Victorian period details. Upstairs, in Wallacavage’s gothic-kitsch bedroom — one of four total, each with its own bath — he sleeps in a 1950s-era Murphy bed, a gift from a ventriloquist friend, underneath a ceiling painted pitch black. A nearby guest bedroom, meanwhile, features a wooden replica of a 19th-century Chinese bed, also a gift, with a blowfish-shaped lamp affixed to its canopy. Wallacavage reconfigured the home’s first floor, which previous owners had turned into a doctor’s office in the 1940s, to its original 1890s floor plan, with a front parlour and formal dining room, which he outfitted with a Victorian-era mantle, mirror and sliding doors, and crowned with handmade egg-and-dart mouldings. In the early 2000s, “There were no YouTube instructional videos,” he reminds; he learned to create his own plaster mouldings after befriending Kathy Vissar of the Philadelphia decorative plasterwork atelier Wells Vissar, who lent him her moulds. Upstairs, in the second-floor living room, he installed salvaged woodwork, including a set of ornate built-in bookshelves, extracted from a soon-to-be-razed mansion designed by the famed Gilded Age Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer. A friend who works in salvage had told Wallacavage about the building last summer, before the 100-year-old house was demolished to make way for a new middle school. For Wallacavage, the find was a culmination of his lifetime obsession with period architecture. “I’ve just always loved this aesthetic,” he says. “If I’d had this woodwork when I was younger I would have been dying.”

But Wallacavage’s ever-evolving home isn’t yet complete. He recently began painting over his hallways — which he’d coated with white primer years before, but never finished — in shades of bright blue, and he frequently accepts new finds from trash-picking friends, or trades items with other artists. One recent exchange with the artist Julia deVille resulted in the addition, to his sitting room, of a taxidermied raven. Wallacavage, who has always loved birds, also opens the room to a rotating collection of live, stray fowl — mostly parakeets — in the fashion of a Victorian menagerie. At one point, he had a flock of 15. In this way, his house is a little like the ocean he so admires, changing with the tides. “The ocean is connected to everything,” he says. “You never know what could wash up.”

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