Finding a buyer on America's oldest street: 'It's a love match'

Every house has a history, the old saying goes.

But the history of Beth Adelson’s Philadelphia home, it turns out, is a bit more complicated — and longer — than most.

There was the time the “financial hero of the American Revolution,” Haym Salomon, is said to have lived in the attic, renting a tiny room after going broke from bankrolling the war. And the earlier period in which a French winemaker sold wines there by day, living in the house at night.

And that was all before the 19th century.

Adelson’s Old City home, built in 1771, is older than the United States. Situated along Elfreth’s Alley, not far from the Delaware River, the house joins 31 other properties on the block constructed between 1728 and 1836 to make up what has been dubbed the nation’s oldest continuously inhabited street.

Decorated with American flags and painted doors, cobblestone pathways and well-tended flowers and trees, Elfreth’s Alley has become a fascination for tourists and Philadelphia residents alike. Each year, homeowners open their doors around the winter holidays, allowing the public to get a glimpse inside the colonial-era residences.

Yet not even that has been enough to propel Adelson’s home into a buyer’s hands. Since December 2013, the dwelling at 135 Elfreth’s Alley has been on and off the market — consistently on since November 2014. The house was initially listed at $850,000, but the price has been slashed to $789,000. The property has still not sold.

Adelson’s is the final listing remaining among Elfreth’s Alley houses that have been up for sale in recent years. In 2014, the block grabbed headlines when four of the properties were listed about the same time — unprecedented in the street’s history, observers said.

An Inquirer analysis of city records and Trend Multiple Listing Service data shows that homes along the venerable alley have changed hands at least seven times since 2012 — more than double the rate of the previous five years and exceeding any other period since such sales data became available in 1968.

There is no definitive reason for the uptick in sales along the street, real estate agents and observers from the region said.

Elfreth’s Alley is unique, an anomaly, “an oddball little location where the sample size is too small to make a sweeping interpretation,” said Stephen Mullin, president and principal of Econsult Solutions, a Philadelphia economic-consulting firm, and a former city finance director.

“The fact that there’s more turnover, to me, suggests that the overall market is better than it used to be,” Mullin said. But to sell a property there, he said, “there have to be people who think there’s a cool history factor.”

When it comes to historically preserved properties and neighborhoods in Philadelphia, few rank as more monumental than Elfreth’s Alley. According to local lore, the street’s history began as early as 1702, when two blacksmiths each gave up part of their land to create a block that could stretch to the Delaware River. Within decades, artists, silversmiths, cabinetmakers, and other craftsmen gravitated toward the street, rebuffed by merchants and land speculators who lived in the center of the city.

For decades, the dollhouse-like homes were passed down within families, changing hands on occasion. Facing pressure from Philadelphia’s expansion in the 1930s, the Elfreth’s Alley Association was formed to protect the block’s interests. By the 1950s, the houses had received historic designation from the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, meaning protections were put in place to ensure that the properties’ exteriors could not be changed, except in certain cases.

As a result, real estate agents and other observers say, the challenge is finding the right buyer for properties as historic as these.

“It’s a love match,” said Adelson, the owner of 135 Elfreth’s Alley. “Sometimes, it takes a while for that to happen. And then it’s worth it.”

Not just anyone can buy this property, said her Realtor, Tom DelColle of Coldwell Banker Preferred.

“No one should go in and tear this apart and modernize it. … It would be criminal when it’s been this way for centuries,” DelColle said. Adelson, who wants to move across town to be closer to her job, "does not want to sell to someone who has that take on it.”

Designation as historic prevents the exterior of 135 Elfreth’s Alley and other structures along the block from being renovated and bars changes to facades and roofs. Interiors can be renovated and changed however the owner likes.

Already, DelColle said, at least one property along Elfreth’s Alley has been fully modernized inside. Other buyers, such as Adelson, who bought her house in 1995, were deliberate in making sure to modernize only the necessities — for her, the bathroom and the kitchen — while maintaining the original ceilings, fireplaces, bricks, and floors. At nearly 2,300 square feet (encompassing a former stable), the house is among the largest on the block. A sprawling garden sits behind it, and an updated basement includes a hot tub and sauna.

Demand for old and historic houses still exists, some real estate agents said. After all, said Scott Laughlin, of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach, more than half the city’s housing stock is more than 60 years old.
Yet upkeep of an older property designated historic can be too expensive, many agents said.

“Twenty years ago when I was selling real estate, eight out of 10 buyers wanted something that was restored and historic,” said Mike McCann, of Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach Realtors in Center City. “Now, I’d say seven out of 10 want contemporary.”

“It’s totally changed,” said McCann, who has sold several houses along Elfreth’s Alley. “Everyone wants all the new stuff.”

Among vintage properties as a whole — and Philadelphia has 10,000 buildings on its historic register — the need for a lot of work can deter prospective buyers.
“If you have people looking who place no value in the history of a property, then having restrictions saying, ‘You can’t do this or that’ probably makes it less attractive,” Mullin said.

For decades in Philadelphia, a fierce debate has existed about the costs and benefits of historic designation, not so much regarding Elfreth’s Alley, but elsewhere across the city. Critics have said such designations might result in the displacement of low-income residents and small businesses, arguing that preservation can accelerate neighborhood change. Advocates have countered that local historic designation can provide a property with status and the security that the neighborhood’s character will remain intact, not subject to development that could drive property values down.

According to a 2010 study by Econsult, homes within a historic district trade at a significant premium to those that are not in such districts. That premium, the study found, is 14.3 percent for districts with national historic designation and 22.5 percent for local districts. Moreover, the study said, homes with historic designation appreciate in value at an annual rate 1 percentage point higher than the city’s average.

“People will pay for that premium,” Mullin said.

Adelson, a meditation teacher, says she is confident her home can sell.

“The right person will come along,” she said. “And I would be surprised if someone bought a 250-year-old home and [did] not love it the way it is.”

Real Estate Tools
Looking for a new home? Search Philadelphia real estate »
Browse Recent Home Sales »
Compare Philadelphia mortgage rates »