Historic recognition won’t save Roxborough house from demolition

 The twin homes at 145-147 Sumac St. are described as rare examples of Eastlake Victorian architecture. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

The twin homes at 145-147 Sumac St. are described as rare examples of Eastlake Victorian architecture. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

A Roxborough house that has had a demolition notice on the front door for more than a month was recommended for historic designation earlier this month.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission‘s committee on historic designation voted unanimously that the late-19th century home at 145 Sumac Street, and its twin at 147, should be designated when the full commission meets on July 10.

The vote may or may not save 145 Sumac from being razed, but the community group fighting to preserve the house is hoping the owner and the developer will reconsider their plans to replace it with 10 new residential units.

Dramatic hearing

Jeffrey Allegretti, the author of the nominations for the Sumac Street homes and a member of Wissahickon Interested Citizen’s Association, did not expect the PHC hearing to end the way it did.

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The nominated properties have been described by historic preservation experts as outstanding and as rare examples of Eastlake Victorian architecture in the Wissahickon area, which was dominated by the Queen Anne style in the 1880s.

The houses may have been built by mason John Gilton, who is known for the recently restored Nugent Home for Baptists in Germantown. The land on which the Sumac Street homes were built was likely owned by the prominent Camac family, and 145 Sumac belonged to the Holt family, whose mill helped develop the Wissahickon neighborhood.

Allegretti said lawyers for owner John Messing and developers Boris Kaplun and Eugene Ziverman argued against the nominations, and called on the expertise of Bonnie Wilkinson Mark, formerly of the state’s Bureau for Historic Preservation.

“She made an effort to show that historic elements of [145 Sumac] are missing, and that a portion of the original brick wall is stuccoed, which could make it impossible to restore,” Allegretti said. But Allegretti’s firm, Innova Redevelopment, “often does just that — remove cladding and restore back to brick,” he said.

“It really felt like we were going to lose” the committee’s support, he said. But committee member Jeffrey Cohen “boldly announced that he did not find her testimony credible and proceeded to make the case why these properties have significant historic character,” Allegretti said.

PHC executive director Jonathan Farnham also “made an eloquent capstone statement why they should be designated,” Allegretti said, and the committee then voted unanimously to recommend historic designation for the twin houses.

Permit battle

Securing historic designation for the properties does not ensure their preservation, however.

The owner of 145 Sumac applied for the demolition permit in mid-February before he received a letter informing him of the PHC’s intent to consider historic designation. The demo permit is “beyond the Historical Commission’s reach,” Farnham has said, and it does not have “the authority to review the demolition permit application.”

So the members of WICA also are waging a court battle to rescind the demo permit. A hearing in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas that had been scheduled for June 11 was cancelled because WICA’s lawyer had a personal emergency.

WICA is challenging the permit issued by the Department of Licenses & Inspections on the grounds that it was issued in the name of the demolition contractor, who has been replaced twice, but L&I considers the owner as the holder of the permit.

“We’re doing all this in the hope we will get [the owner and developer] back to the table, and prevent the demolition of properties that are so much a part of the neighborhood,” Allegretti said.

Lawyers for WICA and the owner are trying to arrange a meeting, he said, but no date has been set yet.

PlanPhilly is now a project of WHYY/NewsWorks. It began in 2006 as an initiative of Penn Praxis inside the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Though now part of WHYY, PlanPhilly still works closely with Penn Praxis in covering planning, zoning and development news. Contact Alan Jaffe at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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