by Kevin Dicciani
Alarms sounded in the area’s historic preservation community after a developer removed the front porch of a historically significant house at 17 Summit Street in Chestnut Hill.
The house, known today as the “Hart House,” was built in the Italianate-style, circa 1861, for American hardware manufacturer Normal L. Hart. It was built on Summit Street, the first residential street development in Chestnut Hill, which at the time was primarily a destination for summer vacationers. In 1973 the house was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, one of 90 homes included on the list from Chestnut Hill.
The developer, Blake Development Corp., purchased the house in February 2016. It filed in May for an alteration permit, in which it stated its plans to “Remove and replace fire damaged four roof joists, install roof sheathing and repair a portion of roof only.”
Community members who noticed the porch had been removed from the house contacted the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, which then alerted the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
“The Historical Commission is aware of the work at the property – I visited the property myself and photographed the building with the porch removed,” said Jonathan E. Farnham, executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. “The Historical Commission is also aware of the concerns of the community and has received several calls about the removal of the porch.”
Sam Blake, owner of Blake Development, said his original intentions weren’t to remove the porch. But due to its decayed and unsound condition, Blake said it needed to be removed.
“We had originally hoped to be able to work with some of the front porch,” Blake said. “The condition of the structure was so rotted and ‘patched’ together that I made the decision to remove.”
Lori Salganicoff, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society, said it was unfortunate that the Historical Commission didn’t have a chance to review the porch before it was removed so it could determine if it was unsalvageable. She said a permit should have been sought by the developer. However, she said, “our site visit did reveal fire damage and other deterioration at this area.”
The current plan for the porch, Blake said, is to rebuild it in its original style using details salvaged from the original porch and historic photographs.
“We saved pieces of the architectural detail so we are able to have them recreated as we rebuild the front porch,” Blake said.
Farnham said the Philadelphia Historical Commission has been in contact with Blake and is presently sorting through the plans to ensure the porch is properly reconstructed.
“The Historical Commission has addressed the unpermitted work with the owner of the property and is currently reviewing architectural plans for the accurate reconstruction of the porch,” Farnham said.
Referencing the porch’s reconstruction, Salganicoff said, “It is always preferable to preserve and restore original fabric than construct a new copy, however close it gets to the original, but reconstruction is a valid approach where that isn’t possible.”
She said the CHHS agreed with the Historical Commission’s requirement that the porch be reconstructed, “so long as this reconstruction stays true to the original in every way possible.” Although she said she hasn’t seen the drawings for the replacement porch yet, Salganicoff said that Blake has sufficient information to do a proper reconstruction, adding that “Mr. Blake has done quality renovation of historic properties in the past.”
“Thankfully, several elements were retained by Mr. Blake’s contractor for the purpose of reproduction, and historic photos of the building are on file here and at the Historical Commission, available to guide the reconstruction,” Salganicoff said.
If the porch isn’t reconstructed accurately and in a timely manner, Farnham said “the Historical Commission will take appropriate enforcement.”
As to what will happen to the house in the future, Blake said his firm will work meticulously to restore the property to its former state.
“We will be painstakingly restoring the property to its grandeur, as it had been devastated by fire and exposed to the elements over the last couple of years,” Blake said.
Once completed, Blake said, the house will be put up for sale.