Its insides are all but gutted and its exterior still looks forlorn. But there is an energy buzzing around the long-embattled Bouvier Building these days.
The restoration of the historic brick structure at 149 S. Hancock St. in Old City has begun, and its new owners have big plans for the Bouvier, which has survived decades of neighborhood redevelopment, legal fights, and many years as an abandoned, vacant property.
The proud new parents of two-month-old baby Ava and the 176-year-old building are Igor and Julia Frayman. The young family came to the Philadelphia area in 2008 when Igor, an options trader, followed his employer’s move from New York City to Bala Cynwyd. They lived for a while in the Symphony House, then moved to a home in the suburbs. But they continued searching for a special property that could meet their needs.
The Bouvier Building is a lone remnant of the city’s 19th-century riverfront commercial district. The property was purchased in 1834 by Michael Bouvier, great-great-grandfather of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Bouvier used the building to create what would become a world-renowned cabinet-making workshop.
Most of the neighboring buildings were demolished in the 1950s and '60s because of blight and fire damage, but the Bouvier was named to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1976. The owners of the Old Original Bookbinders restaurant next door bought the property in 1985 with plans to raze it for a parking lot, setting off years of court battles. The preservation community won the war, and in 1988 the building became the property of the Redevelopment Authority.
Last week, the Fraymans received final approvals, including building permits and zoning variances, to turn the Bouvier Building into a single-family home.
Why a 19th-century, battle-scarred building in the middle of a parking lot and surrounded by condo towers and a movie complex?
“I guess were very adventurous,” laughed Julia Frayman. “We really liked the fact that it had a lot of potential, that we could basically gut it and make it look however we wanted in the interior. Then we found out the interesting history of the building, which we had no idea about.”
The Fraymans paid $300,000 for the structure and expect to invest twice that much, at least, in its renovation. Their plans for the 5,000 square feet inside include a guest suite and library on the first floor; kitchen, living room and dining room on the second; two children’s bedrooms on the third; the master bedroom on the fourth; a gym and entertainment space in the basement; and a patio and barbecue on the roof. In addition to the stairs, the home will have an elevator with six stops.
To meet requirements established by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, the Fraymans will recreate the original, first-floor storefront façade on the west side of the building. Zvi Mazor, the general contractor working on the restoration, explained that cast-iron emblems on the columns are being remade in fiberglass by a Russian sculptor. The cornice will be disassembled, the original brick will be salvaged, and all will then be reinstalled. Cast-iron stars and other trim around the façade also will be reproduced in the French Colonial style, Mazor said.
The rows of windows on the west and south sides of the building – the two historically accurate sides – will be installed according to Historical Commission standards. The commission has approved plans for new windows on the second and fourth floors on the east side facing the riverfront. But those plans are still up in the air. The owner of the adjacent parking lot intends to build a hotel or condo tower on those sides of the Fraymans’ home. “So we have to figure out what he’s going to build, how soon, and how long we can enjoy those windows versus their cost,” Igor Frayman said.
New development will obscure the view the Fraymans have on the east side, but they will still have plenty of light on their southern exposure.
Their property is also limited to the footprint of the building. “The property line is the building,” Igor explained. The Fraymans are currently exploring the rights of what was once a carriage path along the south side. The oversized door on that side is where deliveries were made to the Bouvier Building, and they plan to make it their main entrance to the house.
Target date for completion of the restoration is February or March, according to Mazur. Julia’s father has conservatively estimated that completion will more likely be in June.
Mazor notes that there have been unexpected challenges in the reconstruction of the building. Asbestos insulation was discovered around some of the pipes, and the abatement process delayed the start of his work.
“And the floors were in horrible condition. Some of the joists were inappropriately joined together, so over the years they were coming apart,” Mazur said. The giant pulley probably used by Bouvier to lift pieces in his workshop was in danger of collapse as well.
“We’re moving slowly with the demolition. We have to reinforce everything. We’re actually building a floor underneath in order to remove the next floor,” Mazur said. The roof had partially caved in, he added, and the interior is being held together with nuts and bolts and epoxy. “If we didn’t do that, this building will just open up like a house of cards.”