Roxboro House renovation project awaits key state funding

A multi-million dollar effort to preserve and transform an historic East Falls building into a home for former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter’s vast archives remains in limbo.

Funding for the $4 million renovation of the Roxboro House, led by Philadelphia University, was envisioned to be an even split of private and public dollars. Under the plan, the University would raise its half of the bottom line and the state, through its Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP), would match those funds.

To date, the University has raised the $2 million needed to make that match. The RACP money, however, requested during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration, has yet to be approved. And it’s unclear whether Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration will sign off on funding for the project. Corbett has reportedly approved some RACP funds, but it’s uncertain exactly how much and for which projects.

Many, including University President Stephen Spinelli Jr., would hate to see the protect stall. “This is a perfect example of what the state ought to be doing,” said Spinelli in a recent interview with NewsWorks. “If you’re going to have RACP and give it to anyone, this is the right project to do.”

In particular, Spinelli said historic restoration projects – such as the Roxboro House – with education and economic development components truly embody RACP’s mission.

Plans for a Specter library began in earnest in July 2010 with three distinct phases. The University purchased the building in 1998 after it sat vacant for several years.

The plan is to accurately restore the house to its original form when famed Philadelphia physician Caspar Wistar owned the early 19th century Georgian-era property.

The University has already completed an internal review of the house, including its history and architectural significance. Schematic designs for the renovation and all zoning issues have also been settled. The remaining steps involve drafting a full design for the project, followed by construction.

At the moment, Spinelli said representatives from Preservation Design Partnership, LLC are in the middle of a more detailed review of the Roxboro House, but added that finishing that work will likely have to hold off until RCAP money is secured.

In the meantime, the University has importantly secured the full support and approval of the library’s namesake. Spinelli said he first met Specter a little more than four years ago while introducing himself to folks in the neighborhood.

Over the years, the two got together occasionally, but it wasn’t until Specter lost last May’s Democratic Primary that discussion of the Roxboro House project began.

“After he lost the primary, I called him and said ‘I feel bad about that, I wish you had won and good luck to you. What’s next?'” said Spinelli. “[He said] you know I got to figure out what I’m going to do with my collection.”

“It wasn’t a purposeful, ‘Oh God. Let’s do this.’ It was a part of the discussion,” said Spinelli.

Specific talks of a permanent home to house and feature Specter’s papers, potentially 10,000 boxes worth, didn’t develop until after Spinelli bounced the idea around at the University and in the East Falls community and received overwhelming support.

“I went back to the Senator and said ‘I think we can do it justice. And here’s what we’re thinking.’ And he said ‘Wow. Cool idea. Let’s go forward, ” said Spinelli.

Specter, who’s lived in East Falls for more than 50 years, said he’s honored that the University is undertaking the restoration project in his name.

“It will be ideal to have seminars, some classes on some of the subjects they want me to talk about such as my work on the Warren Commission with the single-bullet theory, the participation I had in 14 Supreme Court nominations, the work I did as District Attorney and its right in my neighborhood. So I think it’ll work out fine,” he said.

Specter’s collection will notably include notes from an interview with Jack Ruby, who the Warren Commission determined was the shooter behind President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. It will also feature records of his conversations with famous foreign leaders such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

The 80-year old, who’s returned to practicing law in Philadelphia after 30 years in the U.S. Senate, said every document, typed and hand-written, will be eligible for the library.

“I’ve been a pretty public person. I don’t really have secrets that I can think of off-hand,” he said.

Spinelli does not yet have a timeline for the project’s completion. Campus facility experts at the University said bidding and construction of the project are projected to take a year.

When asked how hopeful he was about securing RACP funds for Roxboro House, Spinelli appeared cautiously optimistic.

“This isn’t about politics,” he said. “This is about great education.”

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