When Sue Liedke began house hunting in South Philadelphia in 2019, she was drawn to homes that seemed frozen in time, portals to a fabulously kitschy past.

Those aging rowhouses in the neighborhood with signature South Philly designs, like distinctive mid-century doors, sweeping archways, and elegant wrought-iron stairways. Rowhouses concealing lonely, sunlit rooms perfectly preserved in the showy stylings of bygone eras, from the 1960s and 1970s, when South Philadelphians, not to be stymied by things like square footage, tackled home decor with a boldness and panache all their own. When carpets were shag, mirrors were smoked, and dirt-floor cellars were transformed into groovy basement bars.

For Liedke, 40, a kindergarten art teacher at the Settlement Music School, who also works as an educator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the vestiges of the neighborhood’s gloriously gaudy past were relics to be revered. Art to be appreciated. Especially in fast-changing South Philadelphia, where more and more aging homes are gutted and flipped, and where renovated rowhouses can sell for $500,000 or far more, according to neighborhood Realtors.

“You see these quintessential South Philly things — and you’re afraid that soon you’ll stop seeing them,” she said. “They are pictures of another time.”

So Liedke, who grew up outside of Buffalo, N.Y., and moved to South Philly in 2004, earning an art education master’s from Temple, decided to document them on an Instagram account she called South Philly Time Capsules.

At first, it was mostly Liedke’s friends and family who reveled in her finds.

Like a Wolf Street gem with leopard-patterned wallpaper and a faux leather basement bar that could double as a Scorsese set. A eerily empty South Broad Street mansion, complete with gilded chandeliers, stained-glass windows, and ornate fireplaces. On Pierce Street, a rowhouse with an outhouse that had been renovated in the 1970s.

At the open houses she visited, Liedke photographed the fading touches real estate agents often tried to brush past: a buttercup-yellow bathroom. A child’s bedroom adorned with a wall-sized mural of the planet Saturn. Shower doors etched with mermaids.

Each of her postings got a caption celebrating quirks so often downplayed.

Tulip swag lamps, she wrote, were “a moment of perfection in this imperfect world.” A peachy-pink Bella Vista home was where you could live “out your Wes Anderson dreams in peace.” The stately rooms of a Ninth Street rowhouse were wrapped in so much gold damask wallpaper “they almost glowed.”

The account quickly grew to nearly 8,000 followers, who formed a community in the comments, sharing their memories of the houses where they grew up in South Philly and beyond — and sending in listings that had caught their eye.

“It’s a mix of familiarity and nostalgia,” Liedke said. “Even if you didn’t grow up here, it feels like someone’s grandmother’s house, in a good way.”

Connections were made, the kind that can make a changing neighborhood feel smaller, just as it bustles back to life, and old and new residents get to know each other again.

Like in September, when Terri Saulin, 57, an artist and owner of the No. 5 Butchie gallery, at 13th and Federal, spotted photos Liedke had posted of her childhood home at Third and Ritner, which the family had just put up for sale.

A proud longshoreman, her father, Louis Saulin, had decorated a room with harpoons and oars, until it came to look like a “nautical dream cave,” Terri Saulin said.

After seeing the photos of her own house, Saulin scrolled through all the others.

“It made me feel really nostalgic,” she said. “I looked at all the other photos and thought, ‘Oh, God, all these people lived wonderful, kooky lives in these houses.’ It just filled me with sweetness and love for the city and South Philly.”

And the vibe stays upbeat. No one is making fun of anyone’s choices, even ones made 50 years ago.

“It’s always a million positive comments, and I think people are drawn to that,” said Liedke, who in December will host a South Philly Time Capsule pop-up station at the Art Museum’s Pay What You Wish Family Festival. She’ll have an art-making project, where guests can design their own dream house, and slideshows of some of her favorite Time Capsules.

According to Liedke’s account analytics, her followers are mostly between the ages of 24 and 35, people she believes are either house hunting in the neighborhood or seeking home decor inspiration by taking notes on the past.

And it’s not surprising that Liedke’s homage to vintage South Philly style would resonate with many new arrivals, who transform the neighborhood even as they celebrate its kitsch. The nostalgia is a big part of what drew many of them in the first place — the old touches that a gut reno simply can’t replace. It’s something more tangible than the South Philly tea towels and key chains on sale on Passyunk Avenue (still top sellers, mind you).

Even while it fades, the original character remains — and is celebrated.

Since the account has grown, both new and old South Philadelphians have invited Liedke to visit their homes.

On a recent night, she set out to tour two vintage basement bars. At her first stop, Anthony Bottos, 33, who runs a physical training business in Old City, and his wife, Meredith Bottos, 32, a chemical engineer, were eager to show off the bar that came with the Juniper Street home they bought two years ago.

The Bottoses — Anthony grew up at Eighth and Christian, and Meredith is originally from Austin, Texas — had fallen in love with the home and its vintage touches. Its sweeping arches, wrought-iron railings, and six-disc CD player and intercom system that runs through the home. Plus, the teal Jacuzzi tub and the cedar-lined, in-home sauna room the previous owners had installed when remodeling upstairs.

“Did you know you were going to keep it?” Liedke asked when she gasped at the Jacuzzi.

“Yes!” the couple answered.

Downstairs, the bar could have been a upscale 1970s lounge. Smoked mirrors complemented the brick and cedar-shaked wood bar stocked with vintage glassware. There was a gas fireplace and period furniture, and the couple had decorated the space with old family photos.

“I love how you guys leaned into it so much,” Liedke says.

Meredith Bottos, a fan of South Philly Time Capsules, had sent photos of the bar to Liedke.

It makes me really sad when people flip these houses and scrap them of all their character,” Meredith Bottos said. “We’re just trying to lean into all the character and love the house gave us and make it feel like our own. “

At the next stop, Chelsea Campbell, 32, led Liedke and the Bottoses down the basement rowhouse she rents with friends. Entering a door in the back of the cellar, the cozy, dark-wood barroom appeared like a speakeasy from another time. And, who knows, maybe it was, said Campbell. A professional bartender, she mixed drinks and described how she had cleaned up the bar, after recently moving in, but did not know much about its backstory.

But Anthony Bottos remembered attending high school parties in the basement, when a friend’s family had lived in the home for a time. Soon, he was on the phone with the friend, Alyssa Canalichio, who recalled family birthday and Halloween parties in the basement bar.

Soon, Liedke raised her glass to toast new friends, old styles — and shared pasts.


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