Concern over Garrett-Dunn House demolition

Aug. 30

By Alan Jaffe
For PlanPhilly

Modern market conditions are threatening a historic, architecturally prized estate in West Mount Airy.

The mid-19th-century Garrett-Dunn House, at 7048 Germantown Ave., its adjacent stone barn and former farmland have been slated for conversion into a luxury condominium complex called the HedgeBank.

But the banks have hedged, and no work on the project owned by John Capoferri Properties has occurred since mid-April. Capoferri’s contractors had stripped off much of the stucco cladding, leaving the open lathwork exposed to the elements on several sections around the house. Some of the windows have broken glass, as well.

Neighbors also are concerned that roofers left their work unfinished back in the spring, leaving only tar paper on the structure.

And one of the few remaining walls of the barn is on the verge of collapse, according to reports heard by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, which is considering taking action to ensure the estate is stabilized and sealed before seasonal bad weather sets in.

Capoferri said Friday that he intends to take steps to seal the property. “But the structure is not in any way compromised, and it is no more susceptible to weather than it has been for the last 35 years,” he said. “From a structural standpoint, it is as stable as it has ever been.”

He said he was forced to stop working on the project in mid-April because he had lost bank financing for it. “Without pre-sales” of the planned condos, “I can’t move the project forward. Like everyone else, I am affected by the current market conditions.”

Capoferri said he is “working with the bank to keep the project moving forward. I personally funded a quarter-millon dollars to keep it moving, but I can’t continue to do that. But my goal now, as it has always been, is to complete the project in full.”

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The next steps would be to finish stripping the rest of the exterior masonry, put in new windows, then wire mesh and new stucco. “Hopefully, that will take place in the early part of the fall,” he said.

The Garrett-Dunn House was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, who is recognized as the most important American architect of the mid-19th century. Walter is best known for designing the U.S. Capitol’s cast-iron dome and the expanded wings of the building. As Capitol architect, he also reconstructed parts of the Library of Congress. In his native Philadelphia, he created the Greek Revival-style Founders Hall at Girard College and Andalusia, the renowned Biddle estate on the Delaware River. He also designed the Chester County courthouse in West Chester.

Walter’s drawings for “Mr. Garrett’s Cottage” on Germantown Avenue were discovered in the Girard College archives 2006, when the West Mount Airy community asked the Philadelphia Historical Commission to add the site to the city’s Register of Historic Places. The property was already listed on the National Register of Historical Places.

Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, said the most significant aspect of the Garrett-Dunn House is the Greek Revival section on the front of the house.

The Garrett family made its fortune with a tobacco and snuff business, and the family was related by marriage to Charles B. Dunn, a well-known Pennsylvania banker. George Howell Garrett commissioned the construction of the West Mount Airy home in the 1850s as his summer residence while he worked in downtown Philadelphia, Farnham said. “When he retired, he added an Italianate addition and he became a gentleman farmer.”

The structure is the “only Greek Revival summer cottage we have in the city,” Farnham said. “It is one of the few buildings that captures that phenomenon in the mid-19th century of wealthy people who had both a residence downtown and on the edges of the city. The barn probably dates to the 18th century and goes back to a farm that predates the Walter reconstruction, but it relates to Garrett’s life as a gentleman farmer. This is a unique property that survived intact into the 21st century.”

The commission is “concerned that the work and rehabilitation” of the site has stopped, Farnham said. “While it is not entirely open to the elements, there is the potential for damage as we head into winter. We want to ensure that the owner has at least stabilized and sealed the building.

“We are worried about the barn as well. [Capoferri] was approved to do considerable demolition. He did the demolition, so the barn is completely open to the elements. We’ve heard that the north wall has practically collapsed, and we’re concerned about that. We will seek to have him stabilize that as well.”

The commission will discuss the issues with Capoferri before the city’s law department takes any action, Farnham said. “There are lots of rumors floating around, and we want to hear from him directly about his intentions.”

West Mount Airy Neighbors, a community development organization, began discussing the Garrett-Dunn site with Capoferri three years ago, said Laura Siena, the group’s executive director.

WMAN didn’t like Capoferri’s initial proposal for the property. The organization then sought the historical designation from the city, which it received, and Capoferri agreed to conduct a “mini-charette” with the neighbors.

“We ended up with a wonderful plan for modern townhouses in the back, but keeping the historical structures, too. Everyone was happy and pleased,” Siena said.

“Then the bottom fell out of the housing market.”

WMAN is now “very concerned” about the current condition of the house, which is “very much at risk,” she said.

Siena also said the organization can understand Capoferri’s financial pressures. “The other thing is whether an attractive plan for homes with historic parts is economically feasible in today’s market. I don’t know the answer to that. It’s tough. New construction tends to be more expensive than restoring older homes in West Mount Airy,” she said. “Maybe it’s because that’s what people come here for.”

Capoferri’s website for the project,, describes it as “the restoration and adaptive reuse, in cooperation with the Philadelphia Historic Commission, of the original Manor House and Barn into five new luxury residences as well as the creation of 14 spectacular ‘urban manse’ town homes.”

Just west of the property on Germantown Avenue is Mount Airy Custom Furniture, where owner Charles Todd is concerned about the effect of the stalled project on his property values “if it becomes a vacant, unsellable site.”

Todd watched as the roofers on the project pulled out midway through their work back in April. “The house has no roof on it. It has tar paper, but it shouldn’t go through the winter like that,” he said.

“Even if he would just seal it up and close the openings, I’d feel better.”

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