Updated: Thursday, April 3, 2014, 12:40 PM
This is a column for those who believe Philadelphia's historic, but decrepit, white elephants aren't worth keeping around. It concerns two large boardinghouses on the Mount Airy-Germantown border built more than a century ago, in an era when seniors lived out their days taking in the air on Victorian porches and staging music recitals in the parlor.
A decade ago, this architectural odd couple on West Johnson Street resembled the ruins of the European countryside after World War II. At the Nugent Home for Baptist Ministers, modeled on a French château, the gracious front porch had collapsed in a heap. Plaster rained from the ceilings. Every bit of copper trim and pipe had been stripped by thieves. Next door, its younger, Italianate companion, the Presser Home for Retired Music Teachers, was in the same sad state. The once-genteel gardens that united the duo were so overgrown you could hardly make out the hand-chiseled stone frames of the ground-floor windows.
Though no one denied the pair had once been beautiful, city officials seemed intent on demolition in 2004. A deep-pocketed buyer offering to replace them with something new had retained two powerful law firms to make the case for demolition. Once the local Council representative joined the hanging party, the buildings looked like goners.
But neighbors, preservationists, and the Historical Commission fought back, and today the two former white elephants on West Johnson are gleaming palaces, playing a useful role again as housing for low-income seniors.
There will be a ribbon-cutting April 30 to celebrate Nugent's transformation. (Presser was finished in 2010.) No doubt, city officials will be there to applaud its preservation. They will surely praise the developer, Nolen Properties, for sticking with the project in difficult times. Justly so, too.
But though Nolen deserves enormous credit for bringing these two historically certified buildings back from the grave, its work is only partly why the distinctive Mount Airy landmarks still stand.
Philadelphia hasn't had much patience lately with its big, challenging historic buildings, as last month's decision on Chestnut Street's Boyd Theater attests. Although Nugent and Presser had been vacant only two years by 2004, they were much farther gone than the Boyd. A company that operated them as group homes badly neglected them for 20 years.
If you were paying attention in 2004, you would have heard the same complaints made about the state of the Boyd voiced verbatim about Nugent and Presser: The blighted properties were holding the neighborhood back. The hollowed-out shells had become magnets for rats, graffiti, loiterers. Restoring them, some claimed, would cost a fortune. What profit was there in saving two obsolete, over-sized boardinghouses?
The first difference was that the neighborhood sensed there was value in keeping evidence of its grand past around. The stately homes were built by local business magnates. George Nugent made his money in textiles, and Theodore Presser had cornered the market in sheet music.
Both progressive thinkers, they wanted to provide an alternative to the dismal almshouses that were the last resort for the poor and elderly in those days. In 1895, Nugent hired Franklin J. Stuckert, known for his hotels, to cook up a turreted château in the healthy Mount Airy countryside.
To head off the demolition effort, neighbors nominated the buildings for the city's historic register. The Preservation Alliance took up the cause. But what made the real difference was that the Historical Commission rushed to their defense by fast-tracking the nominations.
Nolen's original plan was to ride the booming real estate market and create luxury apartments, but the housing crash forced it to switch gears. The demand for senior housing was still strong. So, even though the company's bread-and-butter is suburban housing, and affordable housing is a specialized niche, managing director Richard J. Sudall said Nolen decided to give it a try.
That meant learning to navigate the federal government's byzantine tax-credit programs to subsidize the costs. Nolen had to get the buildings listed on the National Register to qualify for the credits. The trade-off was that the renovations would have to pass muster with preservation agencies.
Sudall will be the first to tell you those agencies weren't easy to please. Nolen needed to put a new wing on the back of Nugent to create more units, 57 in all. The National Park Service, which oversees the tax-credit program, kicked back the design, by JKR Partners, several times.
Nolen also took heroic measures to restore Nugent's eccentric details. All 16 brick chimneys had to be rebuilt, even though they are merely ornamental. The architects replicated missing balustrades, resurrected the collapsed porch, and salvaged the monumental staircase. Nolen had to fork out $1 million just for matching wine-red terra cotta roof tiles - no small sum in a project that cost $16 million.
Not all the architectural details are perfect, but they're mostly good. So are the apartments. Anyone over 62 earning less than $36,000 is eligible to apply for a rental. Nolen plans another apartment house in the space between Nugent and Presser.
Meanwhile, the company has its eye on the Victorian carriage house next door, once part of Presser's personal estate. It's been so neglected its wooden clapboards are practically peeling off. Saving it will be a challenge, but Sudall has no doubt it can be done. "It will make a great small office building," he predicts.
Read full story: Changing Skyline: Gratifying tale of buildings preserved