Senior housing project features heavy dose of historic restoration

In talking about historical properties and their restoration, the phrase “character defining elements” comes up often. It means attributes of a building that make it extra-special — grand balconies, architectural flourishes, distinctive windows.

From the May 21, 1889 New York Times, under the headline “Telegraphic Brevities”:

At the meeting of the American Baptist Publication Society in Boston yesterday the Hon. Horatio G. Jones, President of the Trustees of the George Nugent Home for Baptists at Germantown, Philadelphia, announced that the home had a foundation or endowment of $300,000 or $400,000, and was ready to receive all Baptist ministers and their wives over sixty years of age. The inmates are supported for life.

A pair of senior housing projects

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In talking about historical properties and their restoration, the phrase “character defining elements” comes up often. It means attributes of a building that make it extra-special — grand balconies, architectural flourishes, distinctive windows.

On West Johnson Avenue in Mount Airy, the ongoing re-do of the former Nugent Home for Baptists, along with the makeover of the former Presser Home For Retired Music Teachers just next door, are restoring two of the historic neighborhood’s own character defining elements.

Nolen Properties bought the two large sites, which had been vacant since 2002, and will eventually join them as one 5.5-acre campus with a planned third building in between in an open area that was once gardens. The 1914 Presser building, now the Presser Senior Apartments, is finished, its 45 units full and with a waiting list.

But work began only recently on what will be the $17 million, 57-unit Nugent Senior Apartments.

Despite Nolen’s decades of work building and rehabbing properties in and around the city, the outfit had never dealt with buildings quite like these, company officials said. With the Presser and Nugent buildings, President Jim Nolen, Managing Director Rick Sudall and the project team are stepping gingerly through the National Park Service rules and mandates that govern every aspect of the historic restoration process.

Attention to detail

On this frigid January day, it’s the color of the roof tiles.

The 1895 Nugent Home’s Chateauesque style involves a complicated roof with copper flashing, spires, and turrets covered with terra cotta tiles. Most of the copper is long gone, stolen by thieves who also carted off nearly every bit of metal from the building, including radiators affixed to interior walls and bathtubs to floors, Sudall said.

The tiles are in bad shape as well, though some still cling to the roof. Others sit in neat piles on the construction site, or in cracked pieces on the ground.

Nolen received approval to replace the originals with reproduction tiles made of a synthetic in the exact size, shape and color as the original terra cotta. But, Jim Nolen said, they now have a vendor willing to reproduce the tiles in terra cotta, though the exact color of the originals can’t be replicated because it involved an outdated glazing process.

So the question becomes, is it worth taking an extra step toward authenticity and getting the terra cotta if it means risking rejection by historic preservations officials because of the color?

“We broke our own rule number one, which was we fell in love with the real estate,” said Nolen.

Restoration after conflict

He’s not the only one. In a recent interview with Plan Philly’s Alan Jaffe, the Nugent and Presser projects were claimed as major triumphs of the 10-year tenure of John Gallery as head of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Gallery described the community groundswell of support for the properties as “snatching something from the jaws of death.”

For two magnificent structures built to provide a secure home for the elderly, the recent history of the Nugent and Presser buildings was rich first in degradation, as they fell into disrepair, then drama as the community rallied to save them.

In 2004, the Impacting Your World congregation bought the combined 5.6 acres with the intention of razing the buildings to make way for a new mega-church. Neighbors and local officials mounted an effort to save the buildings, which saw the buildings added to the city and state registers of historic properties.

When the Impacting Your World deal fell through, Nolen bought both properties in 2005, as the historic preservation effort was ongoing. Today, the developers freely admit they didn’t quite know what they were getting themselves into.

“We found out the hard way,” Sudall said.


Nolen originally bought the buildings with the intention of restoring them and leasing them as market-rate units, before the collapse of the housing market led them back to senior housing and the tax credits that can come with it.

The developer’s plans for the Nugent building were turned down twice for historic preservation tax credits, until the third version came up with plans that would more fully preserve and in many cases re-create from scratch those “character defining elements” — wide hallways, the front porch, a carved-wood central staircase, and front parlors created by tall bay windows, Sudall said.

On the exterior, the one-inch Roman brick facing, now graffiti-tagged, will be cleaned and restored, the 16 chimneys shored up, damaged woodwork and a stolen cornice and columns re-created. Inside, spaces are now gutted to stone and wood, but will be transformed to 21 apartment units.

At the back of the building, a fire-damaged porch was removed and will instead see a 15-foot wide glass-walled connector to a new building, built in a matching exterior and with an additional 36 apartment units.

Sudall said even with the tax credits and $2 million in city funding, the cost of the historic renovation made the new units a financial necessity. Rents on the units will be set in a range, from $195 to $794 each month, depending on income levels. Six apartments will be handicap-accessible.

A full year before residents will move in, the Nugent property has a 75-person waiting list, Sudall said.


NewsWorks has partnered with independent news gatherer PlanPhilly to provide regular, in-depth, timely coverage of planning, zoning and development news. Contact Amy Z. Quinn at

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