by Kevin Dicciani
The Chestnut Hill Community Association board voted unanimously to affirm the National Historic District in its efforts to oppose the demolition of the 104-year-old home at 415 W. Moreland Ave. The vote places the CHCA on the side of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, which now faces an uphill battle to prevent the demolition and subdivision of a property that are well within the legal rights of its current owner.
The home, a Colonial Revival, was built in 1910 by noted Philadelphia architect Charles Barton Keen for Charles Bromley, then president of the Quaker Hosiery Company, and was later deemed a significant historical structure by the National Historic District in their selection of homes in Chestnut Hill.
Today the property is in disrepair. The front yard is cluttered with fallen branches and overgrown with weeds and tall grass. According to developer Sam Blake, the current owner, the damage is not only to the outside of the property. He said the roof is decrepit, the stuccoed exterior detached from the stone walls. Inside, he said, there is extensive water damage, mold and structural issues, and the original knob and tube electrical wiring has never been replaced.
Some near neighbors, including Stan and Jeanne Baum, call the property an “eyesore.” It is also why the Baum’s welcome Blake’s plan to demolish the house and subdivide the property to build two new homes.
“For 25 years that house has been a disaster,” Jeanne said. “What are you to do when the house next door is a disaster? So we welcome in Blake because he can only make it better.”
“We’re delighted that it’s been sold,” Stan said. “We’re delighted to finally have a nice home next to us. We have grandchildren and the place is a disaster. It’s an attractive nuisance.”
Mike Macleer, another neighbor, said he was concerned that property values might go down because of the unsightliness of the house. He said he wants the property to be maintained, and if he had his choice, he would prefer the house was “restored rather than subdivided.”
Blake, a local developer and recipient of numerous architectural awards, has been restoring historical homes as well as building new ones for more than 25 years. When he purchased the property from an elderly couple in April for $800,000, his original intentions were to restore the house. But, after seeing the aforementioned issues outside and within the home, he found it to be “unsalvageable.”
The Chestnut Hill Historical Society strongly opposes the demolition of the house and urged Blake to find other means to preserve and restore the house for its historical relevance to the area. Randy Williams, president of the CHHS, said the precedent the demolition sets should shock the community.
“This is a real threat to the way we know Chestnut Hill,” Williams said. “We need to hang together and preserve the community as we know it. When you can take a property, divide it in two, and make more money on it, it’s tough. We’re up against a real tough situation.”
The society’s executive director, Jennifer Hawk, called the house “a part of the fabric of the collection of houses in Chestnut Hill.”
“It’s not just about one building,” Hawk said.“It’s really the entire collection of your architecture in Chestnut Hill that makes it a historic district.”
Hawk said Blake invited her and members from the CHHS to tour the house. She said she walked 360 degrees around the property, up and down the grand staircase and surveyed each corner in every room. An architectural analyst who accompanied the members on the tour, Hawk said, found in his report that the building is in “sound condition.”
“It needs a lot of love,” Hawk said. “It’s a building that needs a lot of love, it’s a building that needs repair. But there are no issues there that are insurmountable.”
Blake said that although he respects what the CHHS is attempting to do, calling their requests to spare the home a “very noble cause,” the rehabbing of the house is a more serious endeavor than others think.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and I know what I see,” Blake said. “And what I see is a house beyond repair.”
Board member Richard Snowden echoed the sentiment of CHHS’s president Randy Williams when he mentioned that people should consider the consequences of allowing a historic home to get demolished.
“I’m very worried about the precedent this sets,” Snowden said. “This is a case of a historic house becoming less valuable than the ground it sits on. And with 1,400 loose lots sitting out there, and a lot of profit to be had, it changes the way we look at this community. We’ve done a great job of preserving this community, but now the rubber’s really going to hit the road, and we have got to galvanize on this.”
Board member Elizabeth Bales said she was disappointed that the house was never put on the market, and suggested to Blake to do so instead of following up with demolition.
“There are probably dozens of people, if not more, who want this opportunity to rehab this house,” Bales said. “People would be arm-wrestling over it.”
Blake said that he has talked to someone who has offered to purchase the property, and met with others who’ve made suggestions, but in the end, he said, all of the offers were “unrealistic.”
“As much as we all like to save houses,” Blake said, “in reality it becomes almost impossible. Sometimes they’re just old houses. Not every old building is a masterpiece.”
Blake said that he has listened to many suggestions and tried to hear the opinions from many different people and groups, but there is nothing that will change his mind. He said he is moving forward with his decision, and he is sorry common ground couldn’t be found with the CHCA and the CHHS.
“We can usually find common ground,” he said, “but, unfortunately that’s not the case in this instance.”
Blake said that although he does not have an exact time line for the project, “at the end of the day, I think many people will be pleased with the finished product.”