Preservation Row: A second life for Girard Warehouses

Once-at-risk historic, five-story buildings at 20-30 North Front St. in Old City went on the market in October and four are currently occupied. Project now seen as asset to community.


Ongoing series casts light on historic and unique sites that may be at risk of deterioration or demolition.
Previous stories: Hillman Medical Center; Carnegie Libraries, Church of the Assumption, Lazaretto, Germantown Town Hall, Bouvier Building, Elstowe Manor, Garrett-Dunn House, Girard Warehouses, Boyd Theatre.

Dec. 10, 2009
By Alan Jaffe

For PlanPhilly

The historic Girard Estate Warehouses in Old City, which looked to be on the brink of collapse two years ago, have been reconstructed and reborn as luxury apartments.

Geoff Flournoy, of BRP Development Corp., a co-owner of the five-story buildings at 20-30 North Front St., said the apartments went on the market in October and four are currently occupied. The Old City Mercantile (www.oldcitymercantile.com), the owner’s new name for the apartment buildings, houses 35 one-, two- and three-bedroom units ranging in price from $1,300 to $3,900 per month.

In 2007, the owners were the target of a civil suit filed by the city and a court order to seal up and stabilize collapsing portions of the buildings or pay a $750,000 fine. The suit cited a variety of building code violations and said the owners’ actions left substantial brickwork unsupported and “directly contributed to a collapse of rear walls” of the property.

Neighbors and preservationists feared that the owners were allowing the buildings to deteriorate in order to obtain a demolition permit and construct entirely new buildings at lower cost. But the owners satisfied the court’s deadlines and by January 2008 had secured all of the buildings and rebuilt the failing rear walls.

In the 1830s, the Girard Estate, or possibly shipping magnate Stephen Girard himself, built the warehouses to store imported goods arriving at Delaware River docks. The buildings are “among the most important historic structures in the United States” and “among the last remaining examples of commercial architecture from the Early Republic era,” the city’s civil suit stated. They were classified as significant structures and listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2003, and are also on the National Register of Historic Places.

The warehouses now have light-drenched, airy interiors, dark hardwood floors, large baths, walk-in closets, and modern kitchens. The front apartments continue to look out on the river, where the ships landed 180 years ago carrying imports from around the world. The view now is of the Camden skyline, the Central Delaware waterfront, and the steady current of traffic on Interstate 95.

The Brooklyn-based BRP Development began as a company that concentrated on historic renovation in the New York area. “There are similar challenges in any gut and rehab and historic restoration project,” Flournoy said.

The renovation of the Front Street buildings was a “quite difficult, delicate task. We had to replace floor joists, quite a few tiebacks, and stabilize the exterior to the flooring system. Quite a bit of steel had to be put in. It was no easy engineering task,” he said. “Clemens Construction Company did the project, and they got it done – under the watch of the city.”

Rich Thom, chairman of the developments committee of the Old City Civic Association, said the apartment buildings look “wonderful. They’re exemplary.”

“We’re hoping it will be a successful project,” Thom said.

Two years ago, the Civic Association feared the Girard properties would go the way of neighboring 19th century buildings, which were razed for new parking lots. Those worries have been dispelled.

“This was a key project along Front Street,” Thom said. “Now that it’s completed, it’s a fine asset to the community. We can point to it and say to other developers, ‘This is what you can do.’ “

There are threatened properties nearby that are falling into deteriorating condition because of real estate market conditions, he said. “The developers have literally walked away from them – they literally disappeared.”

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View from Front Street.

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Rear entrance of the apartment buildings.

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Rear view of the buildings, where collapsing floors could be seen through walls two years ago.

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The Early Republic architecture of the Girard Warehouses has been preserved in the street-level entrances on Front Street.

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Airy, modern apartments fill the former warehouses.

 

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A third-floor view of the Ben Franklin Bridge from the Old City Mercantile.

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The windows of the former Girard Estate Warehouses still gaze out on the Delaware waterfront.

Contact the reporter at alanjaffe@mac.com


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