Breaking news: preservation update

Girard Warehouses’ present condition. Garrett-Dunn House shown in slideshow at right.

Oct. 2

By Alan Jaffe
For PlanPhilly

The historic Garrett-Dunn House in West Mount Airy is unsafe and its owner will receive notice this week of building violations.

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An inspection of the site conducted last week by the Philadelphia Historical Commission and the city Department of Licenses and Inspections found “unsafe conditions” on the property, Jonathan Farnham, PHC executive director, said Monday. Farnham would not go into detail about what violations were found at the site. He said a notice would be sent to the owner, John Capoferri, explaining the building code and property maintenance code violations.

The historic preservation ordinance requires that the exterior and interior of a historic building be kept in “good repair” and that it cannot suffer “neglect which may cause decay or lead to a state of disrepair,” Farnham said.

Capoferri halted a construction project at the site because of financial problems, “but it is his obligation to keep it safe and secure,” Farnham said

A banner that had hung on the hurricane fence in the front of the property, identifying plans for a transformation of the 19th-century house into a complex of luxury condos called HedgeBank, was removed in recent weeks. Capoferri’s website, www.johncapoferriproperties.com, which was temporarily down but is now back online, describes the project as “five new luxury residences” in the former manor house and barn, plus “14 spectacular ‘urban manse’ town homes.”

Last April, Capoferri lost bank financing for the project and stopped work at the site. But contractors had already stripped most of the stucco cladding from the house, leaving open lathwork exposed to the elements. There is no glass in the windows in the rear of the house, and neighbors have said the reconstruction of the roof was not finished. The former stone barn has been mostly demolished, except for two walls.

The property is known to preservationists as the Garrett-Dunn House, designed in the 1850s by renowned architect Thomas Ustick Walter, who also designed the dome of the U.S. Capitol. The Garrett-Dunn House, the former estate of gentleman farmer George Howell Garrett, is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

West Mount Airy Neighbors, a community development organization, has asked that Capoferri at least seal and stabilize the property before the winter weather arrives.

Capoferri has said he intends to seal the building, secure financing and “complete the project in full.”
Another of Capoferri’s investments is also apparently in trouble. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Wednesday that Caruso’s Market in Chestnut Hill, which Capoferri had purchased for $27 million last spring, has closed, at least temporarily. A series of signs have been posted in the grocery store’s windows; the most recent one read, “Sorry for the inconvenience. Closed until further notice.”

Capoferri did not return calls for comment this week.

Progress on Girard Warehouses

Work is moving ahead on the historic Girard Estate Warehouses at 20-30 North Front Street in Old City Philadelphia, which had been in a similar situation as the Garrett-Dunn site a year ago.

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The buildings were erected in the 1830s to store goods imported by Stephen Girard that arrived at the Delaware River docks. The structures were described in a lawsuit filed by the city as “among the last remaining examples of commercial architecture from the Early Republic era.”

The partnership that owns the property, including the Brooklyn-based BRP Development Corp., was sued by the city last year for building code violations and for “directly contributing” to the collapse of rear walls at the site during the reconstruction. A Common Pleas Court judge ordered the owners to meet a set of deadlines to rebuild the walls and several floors and stabilize and seal all the openings or pay a $750,000 fine.

Those deadlines were met to the city’s satisfaction.

A few weeks ago, the Historical Commission revisited the site and found work was moving ahead. “Like the situation at the Garrett-Dunn House, there were some financing problems, some delays, and a hiatus or two in the work. But after our recent visits, the Commission believes they are full steam ahead now, which is good news for that building,” Farnham said.

“It was a very similar situation with that building. We had to go to court to force action to be taken.”

Geoff Flournoy, a co-founder of BRP, said Tuesday that work had resumed on the Girard buildings about two months ago. The gap between last winter’s work and the recent resumption was spent on “finalizing the construction plan,” he said.

There is an “approximately one-year construction schedule” for the project, which will now be rental units. The decline in the condominium market and a strengthening in the rental market altered the original plan for luxury condos, Flournoy said.

Contact the writer at alanjaffe@mac.com.

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