Long-awaited renovations begin as neighbors steer revitalization of historic Girard Estate park

On a Wednesday evening in May, the Friends of Stephen Girard Park gathered for their monthly meeting inside the historic farmhouse that stands improbably in the middle of the South Philadelphia park.

Elaine Fera was dismayed by recent news pertaining to the park renovations planned for this summer: there would only be 18 new benches, enough to replace the old ones but short of the 32 she thought the park was getting.

Fera, a petite and voluble woman of 59 who is the one of the two co-founders of the group, told the four other attendees that she pleaded with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation to deliver on the bigger number. The group has plans to sell memorial plaques for the new benches; fewer benches means fewer dollars toward sprucing up the green space.

“I just said, ‘we’re doing a fundraiser, we’re trying to raise money for grass seed, for hedges, for bushes,’” Fera recounted.

While the bench discrepancy ruffled the park’s most passionate stewards, the new seating is only a footnote to the $600,000 worth of infrastructure renovations on the way. Most of the park’s cracked and deteriorating interior walkways will be repaved. A new drainage system will relieve the flooding that calls for the occasional detour when navigating park paths after a heavy rain. Even the park’s three trash cans are being replaced with newer models.

For the Friends of Stephen Girard Park, the renovations herald a hoped-for transformation from a neglected neighborhood gem into one of the city’s most pristine parks. “We have the ability to have Rittenhouse Square here in South Philadelphia,” says Ann Christinzio, the group’s other co-founder, a green thumb who imagines landscaping at the corner entrances to the park to rival the well-groomed Center City square.

It’s not hard to see that potential. The leafy park is surrounded on all sides by the charming homes of the Girard Estate Historic District, which face the park in semi-detached pairs that look like small villas. Under the canopy of its tall, mature trees is “Gentilhommiere,” the stately 18th century country house where the park’s namesake, Stephen Girard, resided (Girard was a wealthy French-American businessman whose many acts of public service included financing the War of 1812).

In spite of the crumbling sidewalk and patchy hedges, it’s already a grand scene. But the friends group is working to smooth the park’s rough edges. These neighbors have planted rhododendrons donated by a neighbor who lives around the corner, and put in new bushes around the Stephen Girard statue in the center of the park with the help of student volunteers from the public high school down the street. They’ve bought new leaf blowers and gardening supplies with the money they’ve raised so far to support beautification projects like these.

They’ve also been strong advocates for the infrastructure improvements coming this summer. The projects have been in the works for years and were finally set in motion in 2014, when Councilman Kenyatta Johnson and Philadelphia Parks and Rec allocated funding for new lighting and repaved walkways. It would be another two years before the first phase, installing new lampposts, was completed. The parks department expects the paving work to finally begin in late summer after the new drainage improvements are finished, said deputy commissioner Aparna Palantino, who handles capital projects.

“One of our challenges is we rely heavily on council funding,” said Palantino, explaining the delay. “With projects of this magnitude, we often have to phase them.”

Palantino said the repaving work may not finish before winter, but should be completed by next spring. All of the park paths will be repaved except for about half of the outer ring.

Councilman Johnson is providing $600,000 for the current renovations through his capital improvements fund. He told PlanPhilly that local civic organizations in the surrounding Girard Estate neighborhood brought the lackluster condition of the park to his attention when he took office in 2011. Members of two neighborhood associations came together in February of last year to form the park friends group: Fera from Girard Estate Area Residents and Christinzio from Girard Estate Neighbors Association. Johnson credited the “very energetic” group, which has about a half-dozen core volunteers, for its role in “moving the park to the next level.”

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Water Department has plans to build new green infrastructure outside the park that will absorb stormwater runoff. The Water Department expects to begin work next spring on three stormwater bumpouts, plant-filled spaces that protrude from the curb. It will also plant a row of trees in a tree trench to be built on the 22nd Street side of the park. The perimeter sidewalks adjacent to these projects will also be repaved in the process.

Another priority for Fera and friends is to make Stephen Girard’s historic farmhouse more accessible to the public. The group wants to eventually open the historic home up for tours, but doesn’t feel it’s ready for primetime. Fera has been monitoring repairs to a broken terra cotta sewer pipe that had put a second-floor toilet off limits, and group members spent a recent “Love Your Park” day with volunteers who gave the house a thorough cleaning. Fera also hopes to be able to renovate the kitchen with new appliances to make the space viable for hosting events.

Right now, there’s a lot of empty space in the house–except for its eastern wing, where the building’s caretaker lives. Dave Nelson moved into the house as caretaker in 1999 and has remained ever since. In addition to his duties watching over the house, the 63-year-old former city arborist volunteers extra loving attention to the park, tending to trees and bushes and even taking out the trash.

“They are things I enjoy doing,” Nelson says. “I mean, I have the biggest yard in South Philadelphia.”

Nelson is filled with lore about Girard’s house and its history. One of the two sheds off the eastern end of the house used to be used for smoking meat, he says. A black crust of what appears to be petrified grease is caked onto the wooden ceiling. You have to be careful in there on a really hot day, Nelson says, because the grease will melt and drip down from above.

As for the new park benches, Fera said recently that she had reached a compromise with Parks and Rec. The department couldn’t install more than 18 of the them, but it would allow the friends group to find its own vendor for the memorial plaques they’d be selling to raise funds. Fera says this gives them the opportunity to get a better margin on the plaques than they could get using the city’s higher-priced vendor.

“At least I’ll make a little more money on my benches,” she said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal