Historic face-lift in Blue Bell Hill

As you’re waxing up the snowboard or dusting off the floppy flyer, you may notice construction at the top of Tommy’s Hill. Don’t worry, the work won’t hinder neighborhood sledding once the snow hits: Rather it’s all about the house.

After bringing in more than $7 million to upgrade and adapt 30 Fairmount Park properties since 1992, the Fairmount Park Historic Foundation Trust’s last significant challenge is securing a long-term, private tenant for the Thomas Mansion.

And a challenge it’s been: The Trust has been working to find the right occupant since 1993, a year after it formed in order to lease historic park buildings. This is in contrast to its many triumphs, like finding a tenant for its Glen Fern property just last week.

It’s not the only organization that’s had a hard time leasing the property. Before the Trust became the mansion’s steward, the Junior League of Philadelphia, beginning in 1988, attempted to revitalize it and build community interest, but failed to ever find a long-term tenant.

Located on 6245 Wissahickon Avenue, the Thomas Mansion is a massive Victorian home that went up in 1869. The mansion provides a rare peek into what suburban Germantown may have looked like back in the day. A significant portion of the surrounding acres have never been touched, and according to architecture writers Edward Teitelman and Richard Longstreth, it is the last remaining Romantic country home of its size in the neighborhood.

(And of course that curvy hill on the northern side of the mansion – Tommy’s Hill – is one of the most popular sledding destinations in Northwest Philly.)

This summer, the Trust moved in, in order to restore it further, and improve the chances of finding a tenant.

Since then, the nonprofit has uncovered a few gems. While working on the southern half of the mansion’s exterior, an employee was removing detritus, and came upon a small pool — where water was  kept for the greenhouse created by the original owner, George Clifford Thomas. Thomas was an ardent agriculturist, cultivating rare trees, gardens and pools containing floating water lilies at his estate. His hobby apparently cost him a social life — in a Germantown Crier article, a former neighbor said, “None of the Blue Hillers knew Mr. Thomas, except when called upon to repair the big stables or a greenhouse.”

Similarly, while whacking away at weeds, a Trust employee discovered a hidden, mini-Kelpius-like cave at the front of the mansion. So far, the organization hasn’t been able to figure out what on Earth (or elsewhere) its purpose was.

It also, unfortunately, has not been able to find a worthy, long-term tenant for the mansion. Ideally, the Trust says, an occupant would use it as an office, bed and breakfast, or for institutional purposes.

Part of the problem is that so many people have a say in its use.

“We’ve got two active neighborhood associations: the Blue Bell Hill Civic Association and the West Mt. Airy Neighbors,” says Lucy Strackhouse, the Trust’s executive director. “And we’re actually in two Council districts,” referring to Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.’s fourth district and Councilwoman Donna Miller’s eighth.

Not to mention, there’s so much work to be done on it.

“The roof needs to be repaired, the finishes all need to be done, the windows and doors need to be restored, the bathrooms need to be redone or updated, there’s really no working kitchen,” explains Strackhouse. “It’s almost a blank slate, really, except we require that the historic fabric be retained.”

The Trust’s goal is to find a tenant that will take on the lion’s share of these repairs, which could cost up to $2 million. Recently, though, the Trust itself has renovated quite a bit. It’s fixed several windows, painted parts of the mansion according to a historic paint analysis, and, just this week, will complete the replacement of water and sewer lines.

Now that those lines are in, Strackhouse is hopeful that this could be the year she finally finds a tenant for Thomas Mansion.

“We’ve had lots of near misses, or near hits, depending how you look at it. Leasing it is our last big challenge,” she says. “But it’s a good thing we’re here now. Our chances of success are much better.”

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