Preservation Row: A new chapter opens for West Johnson Street landmarks

West Johnson Street is a straight line through the historic communities of Mount Airy and Germantown, best known for what occurred in October 1777 at Cliveden. That’s where British soldiers successfully defended their position in the Chew family mansion against the assault by Gen. Washington’s troops.

Just a few blocks south of the Battle of Germantown is the scene of a 21st-century fight over the preservation of two other community landmarks. As in the fight at Cliveden, the two beautiful structures survived the conflict, with a few scars, and are on their way toward restoration and reuse.

With its Gilded Age bright orange brick, red slate hipped roof, elegant dormers and chimneys, the building at 221 West Johnson Street stands out even among all the other stately buildings and homes in the neighborhood. The Nugent Home for Baptists was built in 1896 by J. Franklin Stuckert in what has been described as one of the most accomplished examples of the Chateauesque style in the Philadelphia area. Stuckert’s design recalls the Biltmore Estate in Ashville, N.C., the grand dame of a style favored, for a short time, by the late 19th century wealthy elite.

Stuckert’s name is more often associated with religious buildings, including the Adath Jeshurun Synagogue erected in 1886 on North Seventh Street; St. Paul German Reformed Church, 1890, on Wharton Street; Hebron Memorial Church, 1892, North 25th St.; and many Baptist churches. But he worked on office buildings, theaters, and hotels as well, including the Hotel Vendig, which stood at 12th and Market Sts. Stuckert and his son also built several Horn & Hardart restaurants.

Stuckert designed the Nugent Home, according to Philadelphia Historical Commission records, to be a “noble monument every way worthy of the City of Brotherly Love.”

In 2004, the building was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. It was listed on the national register in 2006.  “At the Nugent Home, Stuckert and his clients employed the high style not to aggrandize its materially rich inhabitants, but to acclaim its spiritually rich residents, the distinguished group of retired ministers and missionaries and their wives. The Chateauesque building announced not the nobility of a French aristocrat or the wealth of an American tycoon, but the nobility of the ministers’ higher calling,” the local nomination proclaimed.

The historic designation of the Nugent Home and the neighboring Presser Home for Retired Music Teachers came in response to plans to redevelop the properties by a nondenominational Germantown church, Impacting Your World Ministries. The congregation wanted to demolish the two buildings on West Johnson Street and build a new church and related structures. A coalition of community groups and the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia opposed the Ministries’ plans and obtained the historic protection for the landmark buildings. The church group backed out of the project and sold the properties.

The two sites are now owned by Nolen Properties of Philadelphia. Rick Sudall, operations director at Nolen, said the company received tax credits in 2009 to convert the former Presser Home, which was built in 1914 and designated historic in 2004, into 45 affordable senior apartments. Renovations began last March and completion is expected by January 2011.

A beautiful, adjacent carriage house, built in 1895 and also listed on the historic register, is a “challenge,” Sudall said. The building has suffered deterioration from weather and vandalism – a cupola on the roof was stolen several years ago – and the original slate roof was replaced with asphalt shingles. Nolen is looking for “compatible supportive services” for the carriage house, and Temple Hospital is considering leasing it as a medical office building, Sudall said.

The Nugent Home’s last tenant was the Edgewood Retirement Community, an assisted living facility that was shut down in 2002 for health and safety concerns. Since then, the building has been the target of vandals and thieves. Columns supporting the front porch roof were stolen, and a fire seriously damaged the rear porch.

But, Sudall said, the front porch will be replaced in its original design, and the building itself is very strong. “The walls are 30 inches thick, and it has a substantial imported Italian roof, with 16 chimneys,” he said. Still, “our significant challenges are to maintain the historic fabric of the building.”

Nolen Properties has a good track record in historic preservation, according to news reports when the project began. The company received national recognition for converting the former AB Wiper Building in Manayunk into a $7 million state-of-the-art storage facility.

Rudall said the Nugent Home will be transformed into 31 affordable apartments. The company has received a $2.3 million construction grant from the city and has applied to the state Housing Finance Agency for tax credits. If all goes well, restoration of the Nugent Home will begin in September 2011.

Previous Preservation Row stories:
Girard Warehouses

PLICO Building

Garrett-Dunn House

Elstowe Manor

Germantown Town Hall

The Lazaretto

The Bouvier Building

Church of the Assumption

Emanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church

Bouvier Building reborn

St. Peter’s in Germantown

Keystone Bank Building

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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