Some history of the building behind the A.F. Bornot Lofts

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David Waxman (right) and Aaron Smith's $12M project, the A.F. Bornot Lofts at 17th Street and Fairmount Avenue.

The first real estate piece I wrote for the Inquirer, back in March 1989, was on how to determine your house's age.

That was nearly 5,000 articles ago, and it applied specifically to Philadelphia and the older suburbs, but it was inspired by what I went through to determine when and by whom my first two city houses were built.

Every old building has a story, though it often isn't until that building is repurposed that you hear it.

In April, I wrote about MM Partners' $12 million redo: the A.F. Bornot Lofts at 17th Street and Fairmount Avenue, a mixed-use project with 17 loft-style rental apartments, two for-sale townhouses, underground parking, and five businesses comprising 15,000 square feet.

The 85,000-square-foot A.F. Bornot Bros. Dye Works Co. headquarters was designed by Baker & Dallett in 1902 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In that building and at other sites in the city, "the most delicate fabrics" were cleaned or dyed "without possibility of harming them," as an early 20th-century advertisement boasted.

A few weeks later, I received an email from Sonia Driscoll, granddaughter of Jules Dehon, who with his stepbrother Andre Bornot was an owner of the dye works.

"I was delighted to see that the building is being revitalized," Driscoll said, adding that she had a number of papers related to the company and building.

She said she would be happy to share those with the new owners, if they were interested.

I immediately emailed the offer to David Waxman, one of the principals of MM Partners, who was understandably pleased that she had contacted me.

Fast-forward to June 10. Waxman emailed me to say he'd met with the family, and attached some of what they shared with him to the email.

What he found fascinating was that the third partner was named James Carville - and was related to the political consultant James Carville.

I found the information he sent me even more fascinating.

There was the deed to the property, dated 1890, for the sum of $3,800 - about $100,000 in today's dollars - from Jacob Douglas and his wife, Mary, to Bornot, a French immigrant who had in 1865 acquired a dry-cleaning establishment at 10th and Locust Streets that had been founded in 1820 by someone whose name has been lost over time.

Bornot acquired the business from Pierre LaFitte, the uncle of the woman he'd married, and, according to an article in DuPont's Modern Dry Cleaner magazine of January 1940, turned it into one of the nation's premier establishments.

The business prospered, the article said, because of Bornot's "French" dry-cleaning method "for treating valuable and delicate clothing." This nettoyage a sec secret was guarded and passed on by Bornot, who died in 1912, to those who succeeded him, including the aforementioned James Carville.

On June 30, 1925, Carville and a pipe fitter, George Spencer, were killed in an explosion caused by sparks from a shutoff switch that ignited fumes from naphtha used in the cleaning process.

The explosion, which the old Evening Bulletin reported shattered windows for three blocks, wrecked a two-story building that held the cleaning equipment and sent a steam boiler flying into the street.

The main building also was damaged heavily, and ammonia and gas fumes filled all the buildings.

Carville was so badly burned that his son had difficulty identifying his body at the hospital.

More than 100 women and girls worked at the plant, the Bulletin said.

All had been out of the plant, for lunch.

aheavens@phillynews.com
215-854-2472
@alheavens

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