By Alan Jaffe
The owner of the 19th-century Garrett-Dunn House was sued this week by the City of Philadelphia for building code violations and failure to protect the historic site. The complaint filed Wednesday by the City Solicitor’s Office seeks a fine of $100,000 if the owner does not begin repairs within one week of the order, a $300 fine for each day of violation, and an additional $300 per day if he fails to make the repairs within that timeframe.
A hearing date in the Court of Common Pleas to issue an injunction against the owner was not determined.
The complaint identifies the defendants as Germantown Avenue Holding and Hedgebank Partners LP, both of Philadelphia. John Capoferri Properties has been identified as the owner/developer of the planned HedgeBank condominium project at 7048 Germantown Avenue in West Mount Airy. Capoferri has said that he lost financing for the project and ceased construction work at the site in April, after crews had stripped the stucco cladding and exposed the open lathwork. In addition, windows in the rear of the building have no glass and parts of the adjacent barn had been left to collapse.
In its list of violations, the city complaint includes “front and side walls deteriorated, rear wall of main building and north wall of barn collapsed, and failure to preserve and protect historic property.”
The Philadelphia Historical Commission had sought to have Capoferri seal and stabilize the building before it sought legal action to force the repairs. Capoferri said in September that he intended to find new financial backing and to take steps to seal the property before the harsh weather set in. He also said “the structure is not in any way compromised.” Apparently, no work was done since that time, and banners identifying the project and owner have been taken down.
Capoferri did not return calls for comment on the city lawsuit on Thursday.
The complaint says the building code violations were found during an inspection on Sept. 26, and a notice was served on the owner on Oct. 2.
The condition of the property “presents a serious and immediate hazard to the safety, health and welfare of the public” and “threatens the historic fabric” of the site, the complaint states. Once repairs are made, the complaint orders the owner to maintain the site in compliance with the city’s building codes, pending inspections by the city and the Historical Commission.
The Garrett-Dunn House was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, who is recognized as the most important American architect of the mid-1800s. He designed the dome of the U.S. Capitol and reconstructed parts of the Library of Congress. In Philadelphia, where he was born, Walter built Founders Hall at Girard College and the renowned Biddle estate, Andalusia.
The West Mount Airy property was the summer estate of gentleman farmer George Howell Garrett, who made his fortune in the tobacco and snuff trade. The structure is “the only Greek Revival summer cottage we have in the city,” said Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. “This is a unique property that survived intact into the 21st century.”
The site is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historical Places.
John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, said the Garrett-Dunn House is “a very important house and it’s very important to take whatever action is possible to protect it.”
The city and the Historical Commission have been doing “an excellent job and have taken this site very seriously,” he said. “We certainly hope the court will give them the authority to intervene and protect the building.”
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