Photos courtesy of Henry Steinberg, Larry McEwen and Sam Blackman, see his photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/samblackman/
By Henry Steinberg and Alan Jaffe
A 19th-century historic estate in West Mt. Airy, which had survived decades of neglect and a half-hearted renovation, could not withstand one more assault – a lightning storm that apparently struck and set the fragile structure ablaze on Sunday, Aug. 2.
Its one-time developer, meanwhile, is facing other heat -- two trials this fall on theft, forgery, intimidation and other charges.
The fire at the Garrett-Dunn House, 7048 Germantown Ave., was so intense it rained debris down on the neighborhood, which had fought hard to preserve the site. The Fire Department’s Ladder 18 received the report of the blaze at 11:44 p.m. and asked for the support of a second company shortly after arriving at the scene. The fire was under control at 12:24 p.m., Executive Chief Daniel Williams said. But not before the house was destroyed, according to witnesses.
The cause of the fire was not determined, Williams said, and is under investigation.
The property was known to preservationists as the Garrett-Dunn House. It was designed in the 1850s by renowned architect Thomas Ustick Walter, who also designed the dome of the U.S. Capitol. In Philadelphia, where he was born, Walter had built Founders Hall at Girard College, and the Biddle estate, Andalusia.
Garrett-Dunn, the former estate of gentleman farmer George Howell Garrett, was on the National and Philadelphia Registers of Historic Places.
“I'm flabbergasted. It's just impossible to believe this,” John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said after hearing of the fire. “After all we did to preserve this house, it's gone.”
Harris Steinberg, executive director of Penn Praxis, the clinical arm of the University of Pennsylvania design school, lives near the Garrett-Dunn site and watched as the property was engulfed in flames on Sunday night. The loss of the West Mt. Airy property sends the message that “it's critical to continue to preserve historic landmarks of the past, and that this process continues across the city unimpeded,” he said. “The house was a significant architectural and cultural landmark that was a physical manifestation of Philadelphia's primacy in the world of architecture and design in the 19th century. Its loss is a terrible blow to the cultural inheritance of our city.”
After weathering the elements in a state of disrepair for more than nine months, the historic building had been buttoned up and readied for rehab earlier this year.
Persistent efforts of the Preservation Alliance and the Philadelphia Historical Commission seemed to have saved the site. The firm JRB Historic Restoration, LLC sealed the windows and doors in January. Masons were working on restoring the barn in the back of the property, and the side porch has been shored up.
In 2008, the owner of the structure, Germantown Avenue Holding et al was sued by the City of Philadelphia for building code violations and failure to protect the historic site. The complaint filed by the City Solicitor’s Office sought a fine of $100,000 if the owner did not begin repairs within one week of the order.
The complaint identified the defendants as Germantown Avenue Holding and Hedgebank Partners LP, both of Philadelphia. John Capoferri Properties had been identified as the owner/developer of the planned HedgeBank condominium project. Capoferri told PlanPhilly that he lost financing for the project and ceased construction work at the site in April 2008, after crews had stripped the stucco cladding and exposed the open lathwork. In addition, windows in the rear of the building had no glass and parts of the adjacent barn had been left to collapse.
In its list of violations, the city complaint included “front and side walls deteriorated, rear wall of main building and north wall of barn collapsed, and failure to preserve and protect historic property.”
The Historical Commission had sought to have Capoferri seal and stabilize the building before it sought legal action to force the repairs. Capoferri said in September 2008 that he intended to find new financial backing and to take steps to seal the property before the harsh weather set in. He also said “the structure is not in any way compromised.”
But Capoferri ceased work and abandoned the property; banners identifying the project and owner were taken down.
Capoferri’s troubles did not end with the Garrett-Dunn property.
In apparently unrelated dealings, he was arrested Jan. 9 and is awaiting trial in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas on Oct. 30 on charges of theft of services and passing bad checks. He was arrested again on July 2, and is scheduled to go to trial in Municipal Court on Nov. 3 on charges of intimidating a witness, theft, receiving stolen property, forgery, terroristic threats, and obstruction.
The Chestnut Hill Local reported last month that the complainant in that case is Chestnut Hill property owner Richard Maloumian.
Capoferri had also run into financial problems in March 2008 after purchasing the popular Chestnut Hill grocery store Caruso’s for $2.7 million. But he failed to make loan payments for several months in summer 2008. CMS Cos., a Wynnewood investment company, issued a statement in fall 2008 that Capoferri had terminated the lease for Caruso’s, allowing CMS to take control of the property. The 100-year-old market had been owned for decades by the Marano family. In a new chapter for the market, the Weavers Way Co-op purchased the market early this year and it is expected to re-open this fall.
The Garrett-Dunn story ends tragically, though.
"It’s hard to accept that this lovely building – the focus of hopes for so many of us over the last several years – is gone," said Laura Siena, Executive Director of the West Mt. Airy Civic Association, in an email.
"I am flooded with memories – John Capoferri coming to meet with Lois Frischling, Farah Jimenez and me with a plan for razing the house and barn and replacing it with a suburban-style cul-de-sac of twin houses. Lois moving at breakneck speed to write a history of the house. Teamed with David Schaaf’s excellent architecture description, Lois’ history got us to the Historical Commission. Bruce Laverty’s surprise announcement and documentation of the Thomas U. Walter connection was icing on the proverbial cake. Unanimous addition to the Historic Register followed. We organized a charette with a couple of architects to convince Capoferri to take the architecture of any new development seriously. Larry McEwen participated, and his design brought a lovely modern counterpart to the historic fabric. Then, community meeting after community meeting, and finally, approval of the plan by the ZBA.
"After that, as we know, things fell apart – for the real estate market, for John Capoferri, for the Garrett Dunn. John Gallery and John Farnham spearheaded a heroic effort which got the house wrapped, as demolition by neglect had set in. Then, this.
"From my perspective at the community organization – one lesson is that folks working together can accomplish a lot. Another lesson, sadly, is that things that are out of our control – the real estate market, developers’ personal situations, the weather – can be dispositive."