In a matter of days the Stokes house in Holme Circle will be a fleeting memory. One of few remaining 19th century residential homes in the Northeast, it will be the latest causality of new development in the area. Although the cost and practicality of preserving a house not listed on the Philadelphia Historic Register and with serious structural damage that would cost a willing owner plenty, losing Stokes house to the planned construction of new development will be yet another bell rung for the dead as the erosion of Holmesburg’s built history continues.
While quaint, Stokes house doesn’t jump out at you visually. Its pastoral charm is rather muted, perhaps from centuries of remodeling and modern upgrades, but there is beauty present. The two and a half story Federal style stone farmhouse sits chipped and crumbling at its foundation on an acre of lush green space, where it is believed to have been sitting since the mid 19th century. “There is no other historic structure like this in our community,” says Elsie Stevens, president of the Holme Circle Civic Association, who has led the charge to save the house from demolition. She continues, “We have exhausted our options and time. Our neighbors are devastated and feeling helpless. Although the lead developer informed our civic in 2011 that he grew up nearby and often played in this house as a child, in the end, it didn’t matter. The house will be demolished for money.”
Samuel “Buzz” Stokes, Jr. sold his family home in 2011 to developers Olivia and Associates, no longer able to afford the upkeep of the property nor his legal fees after being indicted in the political corruption scandal “Bonusgate” that found Stokes guilty of aiding his brother-in-law and former Pennsylvania Representative John Perzel of funneling state money into Perzel’s campaign funding. After the new owners made initial concessions to Stevens and the HCCA toward the possibility of building around the farmhouse, the relationship cooled and construction plans quickly changed. Total demolition is now imminent. Although zoned R-5, which only permits single-family homes, clearing the site and the construction of six twin two-story duplexes that will contain 24 units will begin any day now. “The developers were able to obtain the needed L&I variances and permits without having to contact our civic association or proceed via the RCO process,” says Stevens. “Our last hope was to prove that there was a storm water issue that would affect the environment with the building of 12 homes on this site since there is a nearby stream running underground. However, the Water Department did not agree with us and issued the final permit to begin construction.”
The house sits on what once part of Thomas Holme’s Well Spring Plantation that dates back to the late 17th century. Around 100 years later the original 32 acres parcel was acquired by the Edwards family. It is also believed that Revolutionary War veteran Abraham Griffith and chemist William Caswell owned the property during this period as well. Much of the acreage was sold off in the ensuing centuries but an excavation inside Stokes House in 1990s revealed traces of a former log cabin in the basement, possibly dating back to the original 18th century owners or even before.
Indicative of the farm and summer homes of Holmesburg’s wealthy Golden Age elite, Stokes House has played host to a number of local historic figures of the 19th century. Lt. Col. John Clark, who commanded Holmesburg’s volunteer troops during the Civil War, bought the house just two months before being called to the front. Wealthy farming family the Comlys included Stokes House in their large portfolio of Holmesburg land. Sandpaper factory owners and substantial landholders the Barton family owned the house until it was sold to Samuel C. Stokes in 1943. American Manganese Bronze Company owner and excavating contractor, Stokes undertook a major restoration of the building upon acquiring it, and a number of renovations and additions would follow. Eventually, the 200 year old house would fall into the hands of Stokes’ son, Samuel Jr, its final, fateful owner.
Welsh Road is a busy, nondescript drive through the Holme Circle neighborhood. Squat, one-story homes line the road in dull succession. With the exception of a few pockets where Penny Pack Park peeks out from an intersection or from under the road, generic development has removed most traces of historic personality of the area during the last 50 years.
“The paucity of historic structures in the “Far Northeast” above Cottman Ave are both a reason to completely discount them, which has and continues to be generally the case, or to treat them as extremely important and rare items to be preserved for posterity, which has certainly not been the case,” says Fred Moore, Northeast Philadelphia historian. “History is profitable in Center City. Not so up here where what little there is just gets in the way of developers who preach expanding the tax base with town houses even as they rely on 10 year tax abatements to sell their sad “estates.”
With empty houses and an abundance of apartments already lining Welsh Road, the demand for new housing appears pretty low. Saving Stokes house would have been a tremendous financial undertaking. Demolishing the house to make way for new homes will surely turn a profit in the end. Though, the price of erasing this rare historical landmark is high as the continued loss of the neighborhood’s character and identity comes at a cost that money cannot buy.
Take a look inside the Stokes house of Holmes Circle in its final days.
Photos by Michael Bixler