Francisville in battle to preserve West Girard buildings

Francisville, a North Philadelphia community that has undergone a remarkable redevelopment in recent years, is now trying to protect a part of its history from the tide of change. At a meeting on June 13, community members voted 53-1 against a developer’s plan to demolish a trio of buildings on West Girard Avenue and replace them with two new buildings with 42 residential units and parking.

Joseph Beller, the attorney for the developer, 2012 West Girard Associates, said the company will “go back to the drawing board and look at other alternatives within the same framework. … We’re talking about reconfigurations and reducing the number of units,” Beller said.

But he did not expect the three buildings 2012-30 West Girard to be preserved in the process.

The site is at the corner of West Girard Avenue and Corinthian Street. Diagonally across from the buildings are the imposing, marble Corinthian columns of Girard College’s Founders Hall, the Greek temple designed in 1833 by Thomas Ustick Walter before he turned his attention to the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

The buildings at the heart of the current battle began as two brownstone mansions built in the 1890s. One became the Monastery of St. Clare for a contemplative order of nuns, the Poor Clares, in 1918. A Romanesque stone chapel was erected in 1919, and the additional house and adjacent green space was purchased as the religious community expanded. The sisters moved out of the urban enclave and onto 17 acres in suburban Langhorne, Bucks County, in 1977.

The monastery buildings are part of the Girard Avenue National Register Historic District, but are not on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

West Girard Avenue, with its row of majestic brownstones, is the historic gateway into the neighborhood, said Penelope Giles, founder and executive director of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corporation. The house at 2004 West Girard belonged to brewery mogul Christian Schmidt.

“That is probably the most historic section of our neighborhood, and it has remained intact, with very few missing teeth” said Giles, a lifelong resident of Francisville. “It’s important that we retain that, because this is a huge part of the historic feel of the neighborhood.”

Kurt Schoenkopf, who has lived across from the former monastery for the past five years, said the West Girard properties are “probably the most significant stretch” of historic buildings in Francisville.

He said the owner of the properties at 2012-30 came to FNDC five years ago with a proposal for 17 residential units with parking on the side of the buildings, which the community approved.

But the plan was never implemented. Instead, the properties were allowed to deteriorate, he said.

“Five months ago, they came back with the new plan. It was appalling. They want to eviscerate the entire structure, just demolish it, and replace it with what looks like dormitory housing,” Schoenkopf said. “At the meeting [on June 13], they couldn’t site any reports that say the buildings are not salvageable. … This is another example of losing an architectural treasure to developers.”

Schoenkopf said the owners are seeking 15 zoning variances for their proposed building. The civic group will notify the Zoning Board of Adjustment about its vote and will urge the board to prevent the demolition of the buildings, or at least preserve their facades. 

Beller, the owner’s attorney, said he has been told that preserving the buildings is “not a viable alternative.”

He said the owners do not plan to build a student dormitory. But they will not return to the previous plan for 17 units. “Today’s market is different from what it was 10 or even five years ago,” he said.

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