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South Philly rowhome of the ‘Gentle Don’ deemed not historic

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Home of the late famed criminal Angelo Bruno in South Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Home of the late famed criminal Angelo Bruno in South Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Members of Philadelphia’s Historical Commission have recommended that the residence of the former mafia godfather known as the Gentle Don not become an official part of city history.

The nominator, historian Celeste Morello, argued that the house at 934 Snyder Ave. of former mob boss Angelo Bruno be protected because of the impact federal surveillance of Bruno had on crime-fighting laws and techniques.

“Angelo Bruno’s FBI file is part of the JFK assignation record. That’s big. That is very significant,” Morello told the committee on historic designation.

In particular, Morello argued, the FBI’s spying on Bruno helped establish the now-defunct Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force formed during the Kennedy years that helped crack down on the mafia. And he also helped prosecutors develop the RICO statute, widely used to prosecute the mafia and other members of organized crime, she said.

But the committee thought that was a bit of a stretch.

Committee member John Farnham said the nomination presented “a serious of temporal coincidences involving Bruno and law enforcement developments, but doesn’t really ever provide any direct link between Bruno and those developments.”

Farnham further contended, “Bruno may be notorious and infamous, but he is not necessarily a person of significance.”

To that, Bruno’s daughter, Jeanne Bruno, sitting in the front row of public seating, objected with an interruption.

“Excuse me,” Bruno said. “I don’t like the word infamous, not with my father. They could never prove murder or anything. He was against that.”

Another committee member, David Schaaf, said he found an analog in Chicago, the home of Al Capone. He contacted the Chicago History Museum and learned that Capone’s residence had also failed to gain historic certification.

“There have been several attempts to certify the house in Chicago, Schaaf said. “It’s not certified.”

Member Jeffrey Cohen said had Morello’s attacked the nomination from another angle, it may have stood a greater chance.

“If you had argued it different and said, ‘this is a remarkable insight into him living relatively modestly in an average row house, I can see that being a kind of informational monument,” Cohen said. “But that’s not the argument you’re making.”

Morello asked, if that meant she should resubmit the nomination?

“I don’t think you’ve seen a lot of encouragement here for that,” Cohen replied.

But, Cohen said, the committee’s reluctance isn’t because the site involves a historical depiction of the underbelly of a bygone era.

“Even things that can be construed as negative places of significance are often places that society considers significant and wants to keep,” Cohen said. “It’s really the connection and the depth of the connection.”

Morello took the setback in stride. She had three other nominations on the agenda.

“I think we should move on,” Morello said. “We have plenty other remnants about organized crime here in Philadelphia.”

Meanwhile, real estate agent Mario Tropea who’s selling the Bruno home, said he’s been bombarded with offers. At last check, there are 16 bidders. The original list price was $159,000, Tropea said. But he’s now listing it for $200,000. He received one offer, from Austin, Texas, for $350,000, though it would require significant interior renovations. 

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