An endangered historic Roxborough residence became the subject of rallying cries by community activists and preservation advocates last week. Today, there’s new indication that its fate may be spared–for now.
The home, built around 1880 as the residence of Dr. Ross Richardson Bunting, at 5901 Ridge Avenue, is cited by preservationists as a striking example of the French-inspired Second Empire style popular at the time.
On Monday evening, civic leaders met with the owners, Frank and Anthony Giovannone, to work out a possible compromise and avoid demolition.
The Giovannones were planning to leave the parcel at 5901 Ridge vacant, as well as demolish the three blighted buildings (5905-5909) next door to the Bunting. Following the original outcry, they told Josh Cohen, a staffer for City Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., that the house was structurally unsound.
On Monday, however, they revealed a willingness to reach a solution that was financially feasible.
“It went very well,” said Bernard Guet, executive director of the Roxborough Development Corporation. He also said he was awaiting confirmation from the Giovannones to agree to a 30-day halt to demolition while the RDC helped to find funding for repairs and a new commercial tenant.
Although the owners had made no announcement of their plans before applying for the demolition permit, Guet said he felt they were cooperative during the meeting.
“I’m confident that they care about the neighborhood,” he said. “They are from Roxborough and are committed to the area. They just thought it was a simple matter of development. They didn’t know the historical importance of what the house represents.”
A Doctor’s Abode
Bunting (1834-1900) was among Philadelphia’s distinguished physicians and one of Roxborough’s most conspicuous residents. John C. Manton, the author of Victorian Roxborough, has listed 1880 as the most probable year of the construction of the Bunting House, according to deeds and appraisal records available from the time.
An alumnus of Jefferson Medical College, Bunting later studied in France and was one of the first Americans to earn a degree from the École de Medicine at the Université de Paris.
Back home, he became a founding trustee of the Roxborough Home for Indigent Women, still in operation today as a senior center (known simply as the Roxborough Home for Women) at 601 East Leverington Avenue. He was also a member of the Philadelphia Obstetrical Society and contributed widely to medical journals.
Bunting is buried in the cemetery of Saint Timothy’s Episcopal Church, a few blocks down Ridge Avenue from his home, which remained in the family until 1911.
Saving a Community’s Character
Kelly Phillips Erb has a special intimacy with the Bunting House. Her law firm was based there from 2004 until the beginning of this September.
A North Carolina native, Erb and her Philadelphia-born husband settled in Roxborough because of the compromise it offered between city life and green space. They cite the Bunting House as one of the surviving landmarks of “The Ridge,” as locals endearingly refer to the avenue.
“Residents like the fact that this is a green neighborhood,” said Erb, who is also a former president of the RDC. “We actually have a greening initiative that involves pulling up asphalt, not putting it down. So it’s disappointing that anyone would want to eliminate part of that character of the neighborhood.”
Although she dealt with various repair issues as a tenant, Erb felt the house was still in livable condition.
“It’s not in any way falling down,” she said.
The previous owners maintained the property, she said, installing hardwood floors, repainting the exterior and refurbishing the cherry-colored trim. Those owners, unfortunately, fell into financial hardship after the recession hit, eventually surrendering the house and the three blighted homes next door to it at foreclosure.
Before the recession, the previous owners had proposed a plan, approved by the community but never realized, to preserve the Bunting House while tearing down the neighboring homes to build new mixed-use properties.
An Outpouring of Support
When Erb turned in her keys to the present owners, she said they gave her no impression that they would do anything different.
“We didn’t grill them on their plans,” she admitted. “There was some whispering among civic association members, but I genuinely didn’t believe anything unusual was going to happen.”
That was September 4, she said. Two days later, a demolition permit for 5901 Ridge Ave. was approved by L&I. It was only last week that Erb became aware of it and sounded the alarm. Reaction was swift and precipitated a flurry of calls to the offices of community groups and Councilman Jones, as well as an online petition on change.org.
The Bunting House lacks designation on the city’s Register of Historic Places, which would have required the Historical Commission to approve demolition. At Monday’s meeting, as was reported by Newsworks, Josh Cohen also affirmed that the councilman’s office could not deny the owners their permit, but rather, could encourage the best solution among all parties.
The French-born Guet, who describes Roxborough as Philadelphia’s “village,” said that the RDC is beginning to receive mail from parties interested in renting space in the house as a result of the controversy. He supports new development of the other three properties, but draws the line at those homes that give the neighborhood its heritage.
“It’s not something that’s going to be built again,” he said of the Bunting residence. “It’s a part of who we are.”
About the author
Christopher Mote is a graduate of Holy Family University and the Creative Writing Program at Temple University. Currently a freelance writer and editor, he lives in South Philadelphia and blogs about art and culture here.