No work being done at Garrett-Dunn House

Sept. 22

By Alan Jaffe
For PlanPhilly

The huge banner that announced the imminent rise of “luxury residences” has been taken down. The website that described plans for the 19 condos at the West Mount Airy location is also down. And there are signs of mounting financial difficulties for the owner of the historic site at 7048 Germantown Ave.

John Capoferri, the current owner/developer of the former Garrett-Dunn House, a 19th-century structure designed by the era’s most important architect, said in late August that he intends to seal the property to prevent what neighbors and preservationists see as an increasingly threatened site. But the only work that appears to have been done in recent weeks is the removal of any identification of who owns the property.

Capoferri has previously acknowledged that there has been no construction at the site since mid-April, when he lost bank financing amid the housing market crash. Before leaving the property, contractors had stripped much of the stucco cladding from the house, leaving the open lathwork exposed to the elements. In the rear of the structure, there is no glass in the windows and no door. Only two walls remain of the estate’s stone barn.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission will conduct an inspection of the site with the Department of Licenses and Inspections later this week, PHC executive director Jon Farnham said Monday.

“Right now Mr. Capoferri has valid building permits,” Farnham said.  “To keep the permits valid, he has to have no lapse [in construction] longer than six months. There has been no lapse longer than that, but it is getting close to that time.”

Inspectors will determine whether the owner is in compliance with all building codes. “If he is in compliance, we have no recourse. If he is not in compliance, we will take enforcement measures,” Farnham said.

Those measures can “vary depending on the severity of the violations.” They can range from a “friendly call” to the owner, to citations issued by L&I, to working with the city’s legal department “to force him to seal and stabilize the buildings.”

Capoferri did not return calls from PlanPhilly for comment.

His project, called The HedgeBank on the banner that previously hung on the hurricane fence erected in the front of the property, has been intended as a restoration of the 1850s summer home and farm of George Howell Garrett. The house was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, the architect best known for the U.S. Capitol dome and wings. Walter also designed Andalusia, the Biddle estate on the Delaware, and the county courthouse in West Chester.

The Garrett-Dunn House is on the National Register of Historic Places and was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2006. It is “the only Greek Revival summer cottage we have in the city,” Farnham has said. “This is a unique property that survived intact into the 21st Century.”

John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said the organization is “very concerned about the property at this point. The building is very exposed and construction has halted. We are very concerned about it just sitting there and the potential for serious damage.”

He said the Preservation Alliance is working with the Historical Commission “to see if the city can do something to cite the owner or exercise the authority the city has to actually and go and do work directly by Licenses and Inspections.

“Legally, this is something of a complicated situation in that it is a construction project that is halted. It’s hard to figure out how to intervene.”

Gallery said the Preservation Alliance has been trying to contact Capoferri to discuss the situation. “We know that he had made a commitment about three weeks ago that he would take action. That obviously hasn’t happened. We know he has financial difficulty.”

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Besides losing backing for the Garrett-Dunn site, Capoferri has run into financial problems with another recent acquisition. The Chestnut Hill Local reported that he purchased Caruso’s Market, a well-known, 100-year-old grocery store at 8418 Germantown Ave. in Chestnut Hill for $2.7 million in March – a month before he ceased work on the Garrett-Dunn House.  The newspaper reported he failed to make loan payments over the summer, and last week the debt was taken over by a private equity firm, CMSVRE2 Partners.  A bank spokesman was not able to determine whether Capoferri is part of that partnership, the newspaper reported.

West Mount Airy Neighbors, a community development organization, is hoping the Historical Commission can reach a resolution with Capoferri on the Garrett-Dunn site soon.

The group’s executive director, Laura Siena, said she had heard the owner is working with a new set of investors to complete The HedgeBank project. “There’s always hope. The building permits don’t expire until about November,” she said.

“But today is the first day of fall, and there is more concern among all of us who care about this property that we have some resolution” before winter arrives. “If work doesn’t start, let’s at least have the building sealed. I’m told by the Historical Commission that they’re making it a priority.”

Contact the reporter at alanjaffe@mac.com

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