As summer temperatures rose and the cares of daily life grew burdensome, the business partners Jacob G. Neafie and John P. Levy brought their families to a porch-bedecked twin in Cape May. Work in their renowned Kensington shipyard doubtless kept the men busy, but surely they were war-weary, too. In 1866, the year their Cape May “cottage” was built, the nation had just emerged from the devastating Civil War that had brought lucrative Union contracts to their firm. But it also brought hundreds of maimed soldiers to Satterlee Hospital, located just down the road from the suburban villa at 40th and Pine Streets where Levy had lived since 1853. For those who could afford it, it was time for a trip to the beach.
Neighbors, preservation advocates, and the University of Pennsylvania, which owns the historic villa at 40th and Pine, have been locked in a struggle over the building that has lasted twice as long as the Civil War. The details of that conflict need not concern us. The story has so many chapters, players, and plot twists it could fill a (depressing) book. But now that sordid tale is nearly over. Last month, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania upheld Penn’s right to demolish Levy’s house, agreeing with the argument by the university’s lawyers that the building was too costly to maintain. The claim of “economic hardship” persuaded the City to allow demolition. The bulldozers are rumbling.
But in this scenario, no one wins. If the house comes down, each side can blame the other and walk away. Court after court has heard the case. The neighborhood group, which raised some valid concerns, lost decisively in the court of public opinion when it spurned a 2013 proposal that would have saved the house and built a five story apartment complex next to it. Some neighbors preferred to play a hand that–during this era of a developer-friendly Historical Commission–had never been especially strong. And they lost.
Now that Penn holds all the cards, it has every right to demolish the building. That’ll show ‘em! But there is still time to do something civic and decent rather than punitive or purely lucrative. Now is the time when the university, whose lawyers routinely cited its educational mission and non-profit status in order to claim economic hardship, could take a cue from its less affluent neighbor, Drexel University, which recently completed the rehabilitation of another Italianate mansion to serve as the Dana and David Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships. That project will receive an award from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia next month.
The Dornsife mansion is roughly the same age and size as the Levy House. Although it has seen fewer alterations over the years, its restoration and adaptation were major undertakings that did not come cheap. But the result was worth the price. Drexel now has a handsome building that will serve, both visually and functionally, as a model of good corporate citizenship.
Vanquishing an old foe seems like a hollow victory in comparison. Penn itself helped develop plans that would have saved the 40th Street mansion. Many neighbors supported this plan. The developer of that project, Equinox Management and Construction, has shown a real willingness to listen to neighborhood concerns. If the Equinox plans were feasible in 2013, they are feasible now. The neighbors, for their part, could compromise by supporting the reinstatement of that scheme. It is time for serious diplomacy, not finger-pointing, legalistic jargon, and endless recriminations. The Levy-Neafie House, which still stands in Cape May and is available for summer rentals, could serve as Camp David. True, a thick wall runs down the middle. But that is probably for the best.
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