A rare Queen Village mansion eludes redevelopment, will remain a home

Nestled among a string of rowhouses in Philadelphia’s Queen Village neighborhood, the property at 113-21 Bainbridge St. is nothing like its neighbors.

Although the brick houses that sandwich it measure just a few thousand square feet, the property at 113-21 Bainbridge St. far outdoes that in magnitude. And although many of the homes nearby exude simplicity and charm — with a few million-dollar houses, to boot — the 113-21 Bainbridge St. property is the only one on the block to boast white columns, wrought iron, and a tall brick wall that keeps the public out.

That’s because, somehow, in one of Philadelphia’s most historic neighborhoods, a sprawling, 7,000-square-foot mansion rose in the heart of the city. Although its origins remain unclear, the intrigue surrounding the unusual home continues today.

The 113-21 Bainbridge St. property recaptured the public’s attention earlier this year, when it headed to the auction block. For the five-bedroom, five-bathroom manor, the minimum asking bid was $850,000.

The starting price was quite a drop from just a few years ago, when the property was listed for sale in 2014 with an asking price of $2.6 million — a figure that attracted no serious buyers. The home was pulled from the market within a few months.

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The estate on Bainbridge Street was listed for sale for $2.6 million a few years ago, but it did not sell. In October, the family opted to auction off the property, with a starting bid of $850,000.

But the October auction was guaranteed to be different: So long as an offer was made at or above the minimum bid, it was guaranteed to sell, according to materials distributed by organizers. And with the minimum bid slashed to just one-third of its original price from years ago, buyers, this time, finally stepped forward — in droves.

From early September through the Oct. 10 auction, 98 parties emerged as interested in the estate, which sits on five city lots.

“We had a good mix of people wanting to develop the property and keep its existing building,” said Bob Dann, chief operations officer of Max Spann Real Estate and Auction Co., which facilitated the auction. “Several builders wanted to knock it down and build between five and eight townhomes or condos. And we had quite a few families who wanted to look for a big place to live in Philadelphia.”

“It’s a great location and a unique home, so many people liked it,” Dann continued.

Located just steps from the Delaware River and in the heart of a desirable area, the Bainbridge Street property is attractive to developers. Queen Village — and the 19147 zip code that surrounds it — has emerged in the last decade as one of the city’s most sought-after neighborhoods amid a city development boom. In the third quarter of 2017, the median home price was $385,000, a nearly 38 percent spike from $279,750 a decade ago, according to data provided by Drexel economist Kevin Gillen. In the last year, prices have jumped almost 7 percent.

Yet that trend apparently was not enough of an incentive to sway builders and developers to bid high enough to get the property. With seven bids ultimately submitted in a sealed-bid auction — meaning that all participants could offer only one price, privately — the property went to a local family, who bid slightly more than $1.9 million, Dann said.

The developers and builders “got beat out by people who wanted to live in it,” he said.

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A living room at 113-121 Bainbridge St.

What the buyers plan to do with the property remains unclear. Through Dann, they declined comment for this story. They are expected to settle the sale before the end of the year.

With no historical designation on the site, according to city records, the buyers could modify the property as they please, so long as plans comply with other building and zoning regulations.

“The house did need some work,” Dann said.

But the property does include many stunning features. Despite being situated on a well-trafficked city block, the home remains largely private, thanks to the high brick wall that surrounds it — outdone in size only by the large trees and shrubs planted on the grounds. Inside, the home features a gym, a billiards room, marble floors, chandeliers, and multiple terraces. It also boasts a roof deck equipped with a hot tub, which is accessible by elevator.

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The master bedroom at 113-121 Bainbridge St.

The property’s contrasts — the dated interiors, paired with new and attractive features — make its history all the more curious.

A dive into city records, supplemented with interviews with neighborhood groups, city officials, and others, revealed little about the home’s beginnings.

Land-use maps from the 1940s show that 113-21 Bainbridge St. was not always the five-lot estate that it is today. According to a photo in the city’s archives, the 100 block of Bainbridge Street consisted of simple and modest rowhouses in December 1957.

Then, in June of 1958, scores of properties across Queen Village were added to the city’s historic register, city records show — including nearly a dozen homes on the 100 block of Bainbridge Street. Two of the rowhouses on the mansion’s lot, 119 and 121 Bainbridge St., were designated as historic at the time, according to Paul Chrystie, a spokesman for the city’s Historical Commission. Months later, however, demolition was approved for both properties to create a parking lot.

The Historical Commission, which had no authority to deny demolition requests until decades later, wrote in its decision at the time that the buildings were not up to standard.

By 1984, most of the sprawling manor had been constructed, according to Chrystie. Still, details about who built it — or why — are elusive.

“It is not a historic building, but it was built in a historical style,” Chrystie said in an email. “The buildings around it are truly historic buildings, late 1700s and early 1800s.”

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The office of Terry Steen inside the Bainbridge Street property.

A final addition to the estate — the 113 Bainbridge St. lot — was made in the late 1990s, commissioned by the property’s owner, Terry Steen, president of Steen Outdoor Advertising, one of the largest owners of billboards in the Philadelphia area.

Steen and his wife, Anita, owned the home from the early 1990s through most of this year, property records show. When Terry Steen died in May, his family decided to sell the estate to downsize his assets, Dann said.

“Deal of the century!” local Realtor Jenna Beritsky Leggette posted on Facebook the week the auction was announced.

“Most folks,” she followed up in a comment, “probably think it’s a small condo building.”