There could not possibly be a more passionate cheerleader for Chestnut Hill than Hillary O'Carroll, owner of Isabella Sparrow.
There could not possibly be a more passionate cheerleader for Chestnut Hill than Hillary O'Carroll, owner of Isabella Sparrow, the whimsically named interior and exterior commercial and residential design firm at 8433 Germantown Ave., which is actually several yards off the avenue in a charming alleyway designed and landscaped by O'Carroll and Richard Snowden, managing partner/president of Bowman Properties.
O'Carroll, 50, actually lived in New York City until the age of 12, and then Florida and then North Carolina for 10 years. “There I met a man who said I would love Philly,” she explained, “so I came here in 2007 and fell in love with the city instantly. Chestnut Hill is like part of a European city where you have the local bakery, bookshop, hardware store and others, family-owned. Everything I looked for was here. I considered living in the Hudson Valley, Taos and Providence, Rhode Island, but I definitely preferred Chestnut Hill.
“I had thought Philly would be an icky industrial city, but I fell in love with Chestnut Hill's architecture and the fact that it is so walkable. Philly is the most beautiful city I have seen in the U.S. It is very green and innovative. And in Chestnut Hill there is a sense of place. You know everybody. Nobody is a stranger. In North Carolina I was too far out. It took 45 minutes to get to supplies, and all that driving left too big of a carbon footprint. Here I can walk, and we can help keep our money in our own zip code.
“I love Weavers Way, the Market at the Fareway and Fresh Market. It is a circular economy here. My needs are met in the community. We can support local businesses. There is an Old Main Street mentality. Also, a single person can come here and find an affordable apartment. It's not as pricey as some people think.”
Self-employed since the age of 23, Hillary has owned a yoga studio, bookstore, antiques store and an outdoor recreation retreat. After coming to the Philadelphia area, she had a store in Bryn Mawr before moving to Chestnut Hill in 2013, where her first store in this area was at 8511 Germantown Ave. It did lots of retail and little design, just the opposite at Hillary's current location, which she moved to in 2018 (although she does sell the best-smelling candles in town).
“I always adored this space when it was Angelo's Barber Shop,” said Hillary, who won a Best of Philly Award in 2015, “and when it became available, I was delighted to move in. So many people last year used the antique garden that we created here. They would have picnic baskets and stay five feet apart. It is the most joyful feeling to create this English garden courtyard and watch people enjoy it. There is less ego as you age. I just want to create beauty.”
Where did the name Isabella Sparrow come from? “If I had a daughter, that is what I would have named her.” (Hillary has one son, River, 12.)
O'Carroll offers complete design packages, interior and exterior, for new or existing businesses or personal residences, including concept design, choosing of fixtures, furniture, wall elements and décor, interior staging, event design, social media and website design, etc., and works with an array of local tradespeople for renovation, painting, landscape installation, masonry, flooring, signage, etc.
According to one client, Holly Wolanin, of Mt. Airy, “Her drawings came to life in the most stunning outdoor spaces that truly make my heart happy. It has inspired my girls to love gardening and has made our home feel like a dream. That was three years ago. Since then she has designed our outside terrace, and now we never want to have dinner anywhere else! Hillary ... sprinkles greenery and love wherever she goes. Her eye for placement and style is unmatched.”
O'Carroll, a passionate dog lover who has a 95-pound Bernese Mountain Dog, recently designed the new Hilltop Bookstore on Bethlehem Pike. She has been a Chestnut Hill Community Association board member for three years, but she was not re-elected last month. Among other projects, she is currently working on the design for the Elfreth's Alley (the oldest street in the country) Museum.
“We live in the most heartwarming place,” Hillary insists. “When I walk in the Wissahickon, I am so filled with joy.”