If you are like most Parkside’s residents, you might have wondered what a small two-and-a-half story brick house is doing on top of a hill, across Girard Avenue from the Philadelphia Zoo in Fairmount Park.
“You see it all the time, but you also don’t see it,” said Michael Burch, creator and publisher of a community newspaper called the Parkside Journal, of the Letitia House. “People might have heard of the Letitia Walk because it’s right on the trolley stop, and still never connected it with the house.”
The Letitia House was once believed to be built for, and named after, William Penn’s daughter, Letitia Penn. It was moved from its original location near 2nd and Chestnut for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. According to historians, it was built between 1713-1715 for Thomas Chalkley, and even if neither the founder nor his daughter ever stepped foot in it, it is still an historic house.
The building went through a $600,000 exterior restoration in 2013, funded by the city’s capital budget, including a geothermal heating and cooling system. After that, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation expected to find a tenant for the vacant property, but no one showed interest until this year.
“It’s a little jewel, but it’s a difficult building,” said Lucy Strackhouse, senior director of Preservation and Project Management for Fairmount Park Conservancy, which has the ability to leas property in Fairmount Park for the city. “Access is difficult, and it’s not as well connected to the street or to the park. And it’s only 1,200 square feet.”
That was not a problem for the Centennial Parkside Community Development Corporation, which was looking for an affordable location for its headquarters and submitted an expression of interest in early Spring. Their dream is to transform this little house in a hub for the community.
“This is perfect, really perfect,” said L. Jean Mitchell, financial secretary from Centennial Parkside CDC, entering the house, envisioning the organization's future there. “This is the receptionist area, here we will have a small kitchenette, and this will be the board room, and upstairs we’ll have our offices.”
To activate the one-acre property around the house, Centennial Parkside is partnering with the Philadelphia Horticultural Society and the LandHeath Institute to create a community garden. Mitchell, who is a planner by profession and works at the University of Pennsylvania's health system, wants to fight the neighborhood’s high asthma levels with exercise classes in the park and affordable farmer’s markets to promote healthy eating. The CDC is also planning movie and jazz nights.
“A hundred years from now, when people tell the story of the Letitia House, we, Centennial Parkside, will be part of that. And I’m hopeful that the story will be told that we did great things for the community,” Mitchell said.
Strackhouse anticipates Centennial Parkside CDC will sign a lease with Fairmount Park Conservancy this month, for a likely five-year term. While the house is in sound condition, it needs work. A Technical Design and Review Committee, comprised of the Conservancy, Parks and Recreation and other city staff, will help shape plans for interior restoration. A pending Creative Communities grant from the William Penn Foundation for a hoped-for $75,000 would help pay for the renovations, which are estimated to cost $60,000 and $80,000. The CDC is trying to raise an extra $10,000. Mitchell said, and the hope is to start construction in December and open in April or May next year.
“This is a complement to what we are doing, and it's a gift to us have the CDC take on this project, and have all this volunteer time and raise all this money, for this particular building,” Strackhouse said.
The Fairmount Park Conservancy has been working with the Parkside community, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, and Studio Bryan Hanes to design Centennial Commons, a project that tries to connect the Parkside neighborhood with the Park. The $7 million plan will be breaking ground in the coming months, according to Strackhouse, with the Parkside Edge project on Parkside Avenue that will provide rain gardens and benches. A second phase, envisions a youth area near to Kelly Pool with a children playground and a skating loop. The Conservancy is also planning on better signage and a cultural map that links all the historic houses.
“There are so many wonderful things going on [on the park], but you can’t always see them, and a lot of people say ‘I didn't even know that was there’,” Strackhouse said.
New signs, better access, and community programs are expected to change the Letitia House’s story starting next spring.