Presser building on Johnson Street opens its doors

A dark cloud once loomed over the neighborhood because of the building at 101 W. Johnson St. The Presser Building, built as a retirement home for musicians in 1914, degraded in the 1990s to a managed care facility known for awful neglect and abuse of its residents – today it has a new future.

After a five-year process of securing funds and pulling a renovation plan together, Presser has been restored.  Many now want to make the Presser Senior Apartments their home, including the 200 on the waiting list for the 45 apartments their, said Jim Nolen, whose company, Nolen Properties, developed the building that was previously at risk for demolition.

On Tuesday morning, Mayor Michael Nutter, Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller and others joined together in the Presser courtyard to celebrate the opening of the building with a ribbon cutting.

Nutter said that as people are living longer, it is important to cater to their needs. He praised the renovation that allowed the building to serve its original purpose.

“Given the incredible history of this city, you have to pay attention to preservation,” he said. “You have to hold on to what you have.”

In 1914, Theodore Presser commissioned the Presser Home for Retired Music Teachers. It later became a managed care facility that eventually closed in 2002 after much neighborhood uproar because of the neglect and abuse to the special needs residents that lived behind its doors. Following a state investigation and closure, the historic building sat vacant for years as neighborhood groups and potential developers fought over its future.

Nolen Properties purchased the building in 2006, and the project of renovating the building into affordable housing for seniors became possible through collaborations with the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency, PNC Bank and the city of Philadelphia. The total development cost was $14 million.

Out of the 45 apartments, 43 are one bedroom. The rent is $730 a month, Sudall said.

As of Tuesday morning, eight tenants had moved in to a building with 10-foot wide corridors, 12-foot high ceilings and original trim. The nearly century old hallway floor was fully restored.

Architect Matthew J. Koening, of JKR Partners LLC, worked to retain the character and defining elements of the building. The facade, he said, was mostly cleaned up to look like the original. A new roof and new windows were also added. The renovation took three years.

But none of it would have been possible without the various community groups that worked to keep the building from being demolished.

West Mt. Airy Neighbors, East Mt. Airy Neighbors and Pomona Cherokee Civic Council joined together to get the building added to the National Register of Historic Places. They succeeded in 2005 and stopped a previous owner’s plans to demolish the Presser Building and it neighbor, the equally historic Nugent Building.

Ethel Forrest, president of Pomona, said the long battle for the buildings’ future started with modest roots, the group began by sending letters to neighbors to let them know about the plans to demolish the buildings.

She attended the event Tuesday to see the changes that took place. She walked around inside with Gladys Dennis, who has lived on Johnson Street and can remember when Presser was a retirement home.

Just like Forrest, Larry Moyer and Kevin Peter, of West Mt. Airy Neighbors, were curious to see the changes and upgrades.

Curiosity also drew in people like Jennifer Johnson, an employee of nearby Point of Destination Cafe. As a freelance landscape designer, she had to take a break to take a look.

She walked around and appreciated things like the floor and windows.

“Oh gosh,” she said. “I’m impressed at the amount of detail as well as functionality.”

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