In Germantown, Saving A Neighborhood’s Character One Renovation At A Time

 

Conversations about historic Philadelphia buildings with new demolition notices appear in social media threads almost every other day. It is becoming increasingly easier to account for what is being lost to real estate development, especially as whole blocks are wiped out in homebuyer hotbeds like Fishtown and South Philly. In Germantown, however, one can find hope and inspiration by observing a flurry of commercial and residential restoration projects that are equally diverse in scope and budget. This thrust of community pride recently led neighbors to win a nationwide contest held by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The $160,000 in awarded funds will provide necessary facade and structural improvements to two significant 20th century African-American landmarks: Parker Hall at 5801 Germantown Avenue and the John Trower building at 5706 Germantown Avenue. Both buildings date back to the 1870s. It is this critical mass of community members supporting each other while valuing their neighborhood’s built environment that is crucial to preserving the unique architectural character of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods. Here are nine renovation projects that are contributing to keeping historic Germantown a local and national treasure.

Shelli Branscomb: Restoration on a Budget

Shelli Branscomb pointing out the original details of the front vestibule of her twin. | Photo: Emily Birdie Busch

Shelli Branscomb was born and raised in southern California. She moved to New York City, living in Uptown Manhattan and Brooklyn. After Branscomb began visiting some friends in Philly she felt drawn here by what she saw as a better, more affordable quality of life for herself and her teenage daughter. She settled into a job at Temple University as a social worker and began renting in Germantown. Branscomb admired the neighborhood’s mix of history, architecture, and unique spaces. She soon realized that she was ready to become a homeowner. Branscomb found a twin on Wayne Avenue on a block with a diverse mix of retail and residential, something she values and reminds her of her old NYC neighborhoods. She was awarded a Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) rehab loan. The program was created to give working class people the opportunity to buy and renovate homes with minimal out-of-pocket costs. Despite the program’s laborious requirements, she stayed the course to finish a beautiful renovation that brought original elements of the house back to life.

Like many properties in Philadelphia, Branscomb home had a lot of deferred maintenance to be reckoned with. It had also been divided into multiple units and had layers of cheap fixes that had to be addressed. The state the home is now crisp and fresh. Original details have been restored and the flooring was refinished. Her contractor, John Idi from Design Smart Restorations, was instrumental in getting the job done. Branscomb was able to bring her own vision to the house despite a prohibitive budget. The renovation process was one that required a lot of proactive thinking and trust. Overall, it was educational and humbling and gave her newfound respect for people in the building trade. She would like to see the history of Black carpenters in Philly explored and the skills passed on to a new generation of African American tradesmen.

Gabriel Saffioti: Mindful Development

Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books at the corner of Church Lane and Germantown Avenue opened in late 2017. | Photo: Michael Bixler

At this point nearly everyone in Germantown knows about Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books. The cafe is situated at the corner of Church Lane and Germantown Avenue next to historic Market Square and has become a creative and cultural meeting place. The owner of the business is Marc Lamont Hill, writer, political commentator, and professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University. The building was purchased by developer Gabriel Saffioti of SafRock Investments, a Brooklyn-based firm with real estate holdings in Philadelphia since 2002. After one of Saffioti’s friends moved to Germantown he began looking to buy properties in the neighborhood. Saffioti looked for years at commercial spaces closer to Chelten Avenue, but never found anything that excited him. The corner building Church Lane and Germantown Avenue was a gut purchase that felt right from the beginning. He knew that the success of investing in the property hinged upon the right tenants to help drive traffic to the building and reinvigorate the sleepy commercial corridor. Hill’s concept of being open later, having bright lights, and no security gates was a shared value and vision. Saffioti and Hill were introduced by Asasiya Mohammad of Inner Circle Midwifery and Healing Center, which occupies a space in the building to the right of the cafe. Saffioti sees past corruption within the neighborhood’s leadership as having been a significant roadblock to reinvesting in Germantown, but he believes that transparency and inclusion will mend past wounds. “We need to move on and be supportive of all stakeholders in the community,” Saffioti said.

Bruce McCall of Teklaw Properties: Revitalization One House at a Time

Before and after Bruce McCall renovated this first investment property on Coulter Street. | Photos: Bruce McCall and Emily Birdie Busch

Bruce McCall came to Germantown by way of East Mt. Airy as a graduate of Jumpstart Germantown. The program, spearheaded by developer Ken Weinstein’s firm Philly Office Retail, is driven by a mission that calls for adaptive reuse, not demolition. The organization works to empower surrounding communities through training, mentoring, networking, and providing financial resources to local, aspiring developers. The program had McCall cruising around the neighborhood on a regular basis and and led him to a house on Coulter Street across from Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. This would be his first Germantown renovation project. The house was peculiar. Painted Pepto-Bismol pink, it had small windows and a boarded up take-out counter at street level. His restored it back to a more residential feel, and the house was appraised at $100,000 more than expected. McCall is now on his third Germantown project. A self-professed design junkie, he loves finding ways to incorporate preexisting features into his renovations in a way that make them unique assets to the home. McCall praises big projects like the Furness & Hewitt-designed St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on the 6000 block of Wayne Avenue that was renovated for Waldorf School of Philadelphia. However, he believes that there needs to be better support for people taking on small-scale projects and easier access to tax credits as incentives to revitalize old building stock.

Todd and Emily Grant: A Single Structure, a Ton of Vision

Left: Firehouse Arts Germantown on left. Right: Spiral staircase in the back of the building was kept. | Photos: Emily Birdie Busch

What will soon become Firehouse Arts Germantown sits at the corner of East Bringhurst Street and Germantown Avenue. It is a former firehouse, so the name came naturally to Todd and Emily Grant. The couple were no strangers to restoration, and Todd’s background as an architect and Emily’s experience in the arts has given them the confidence to take on challenging projects. Still, Firehouse Arts will be their biggest project yet. The Grants moved to the neighborhood from the Fishtown area into a house from the 1750s. The two would drive past the old firehouse regularly and lament its neglected state until a “For Sale” sign appeared on the building. The couple immediately reached out to their realtor. The sale was long and messy, but, after much persistence, the deal went through. Aside from  closing on the building, their biggest challenge was repairing the 35-foot clear span timber truss that was in a bad state of decay. Visits to the Germantown Historical Society uncovered blue prints and photos of the firehouse that influenced the couple to reposition the stairs to its original spot and reopen the original skylight, which now casts an incredible amount of natural light over the workspaces. Reused timber beams became a monumental wall, old marble makes its appearance in the common space, and the original firehouse doors have been restored. Every window on each side of the interior yields gorgeous views of the surrounding neighborhood filled with spires and steeples, honeycomb slate roofing, and wrought iron decks–a panorama of hundreds of years of architectural and cultural history. Once open, Firehouse Arts will provide creative studios with flexible accommodations in size and rent. The building is also zoned commercial with the option for leasing to a cafe or restaurant. While the project has taken longer than planned, with plenty of twists and turns, the couple is excited and confident that their building will become a vibrant community landmark. When asked what was one of the biggest rewards along the way the couple replied, “Without immediate renovation, this lovely piece of architecture would have been condemned and listed for demolition.”

Jordan Ferrarini: Rebuilding the Unbuildable

Left: The Royal House before Trades for A Difference began restoration. Right: The Royal House during restoration. | Photos: Emily Birdie Busch

5011 Germantown Avenue was originally owned by the Royal Family. The long-blighted property was recently acquired by Trades for a Difference, a job skills training and entrepreneurial learning program. The organization’s goal is to increase minority representation and inclusion within the upper echelon of the skilled construction industry. Staff at Trades for a Difference nearly walked away from buying the property three times due to the high price tag to renovate a building in poor shape. Also, the property is listed on the local register of historic places, which has its own set of City-mandated requirements. But the organization came around when it decided that the project’s positive impact on lower Germantown would outweigh the negatives. At first glance the building appeared unsalvageable. The biggest challenge in rescuing the property was incorporating a new foundation system into an existing one that dates back to the late 1700s. A daunting task, but one Jordan Ferrarini, founder of Trades for a Difference, described it as a fun experience that exposed young students to the ins and outs of specialized historical construction. When completed, 5011 Germantown Avenue will be a headquarters for career education and employment resources. Apartments will provide housing opportunities for young people aging out of foster care.

Tim Horlacher: Come for the Architecture, Stay for the Neighbors

Left: Timothy Horlacher on porch of the home he restored at 7 Harvey Street. Right: Horlacher was sure to preserve original details like this decorative vent plate. | Photos: Emily Birdie Busch

Timothy Horlacher is a self-professed lover of history and old homes. Germantown gave him the opportunity to buy an affordable house with both a yard and a porch that features an original decorative transom window that glows with color like a kaleidoscopic. The home is within eyeshot of both vacant Germantown Town Hall and the newly restored dome of St. Vincent De Paul Church. It’s a view that make one feel like they are standing in an old European City.

Repairing deferred maintenance on the large home kept Horlacher with plenty to do. Being a busy general contractor, the hardest part was just finding the time to do the work. But his family helped him restore the home’s old charm, like the original wood crown molding that graces many of the rooms. Horlacher’s biggest reward has been the positive feedback from his neighbors, all who have come by to give him praise and encouragement. “In the end, the house is for you to use, but the house sits in a community of people for everyone to enjoy,” Horlacher said.

Dan Gordon and Tom Peters: A Commitment to Commercial Districts

Left: 5026-5028 Germantown Avenue before renovations. Right: The property as rehabilitation nears completion. | Photos: Emily Birdie Busch

Like many buildings that sit on Germantown Avenue, you would never know the massive size of the parcel that sits behind 5026-5028 Germantown Avenue. When Tom Peters and Dan Gordon purchased the combined properties they had a lot of work on their hands. The buildings were packed with stuff and required an intense clean out before any work could happen. The project has cost more money than Gordon and Peters has anticipated, but they still consider it in line with their main goal of developing the back parcel with new construction behind the existing buildings. From street one can see a stellar restoration with care to save the existing bay windows. Apartments were placed upstairs above the commercial spaces and rented quickly. So far, one of the two ground floor spaces has been leased, while the other is still in need of a tenant. Gordon and Peters currently use a small back section of the building as an office.They consider themselves accomplished in bringing life back to their moribund building, but preservation alone isn’t enough. They recognize that the increasing foot traffic and activity is the other necessary component to their project’s success.

Rhakeim Miller of Ross Street Investments: Who Are We Serving?

Left: Before renovations on a Ross Street Investments property. Right: view of completed work. | Photos: Rhakeim Miller and Emily Birdie Busch

Rhakeim Miller and his wife bought a home in East Germantown a few years ago to raise their family. The house needed serious updating. Miller’s neighbors were supportive and encouraging of both his  investment in the home and his continued stewardship of the block. He eventually partnered with J. Kwame Gray to create the real estate firm Ross Street Investments. Sensitive to the demand for quality, affordable rentals, the two focuses primarily on investing in properties to rent to residents that qualify for the Housing Choice Voucher Program. Unlike most profit-minded developers, Miller said he and Gray believe valuing people is key to profitability and success so families can feel safe, happy and truly at home.

Miller believes that all Germantown homes, no matter the size or style, contribute to the character of the neighborhood. His goal with each property has been to modernize everything, while also preserving as many details as possible. Miller maintains that historic preservation is about so much more than just the buildings and takes a holistic approach to addressing pressing social issues surrounding economic and social inequality. 

Hap Haven and Laura Richlin: A Lifelong Labor of Love

Left: Original archway of Sunhaven Carriage House. Right: The pervious patio of Sunhaven Carriage House. | Photos: Emily Birdie Busch

One of Philadelphia’s first green home, the Sunhaven Carriage House, sits behind the community garden plots at Old Tennis Court Farm. Sunhaven was once the carriage house of a long-demolished Italianate mansion that sat at the corner of Wissahickon Avenue and School House Lane. Hap Haven and Laura Richlin began renovating the carriage house on Laurens Street in the mid-1980s. They were led by the motto, “Live well with the smallest environmental impact possible, including our daily needs for food, shelter, and water.” The two gutted the building, but incorporated the dramatic archway into the design of the home and repurposed nearly all of the lumber, stone, brick, metal, and mill work. The building was enhanced to maximize passive solar features including a thermal system that provides the home with hot water. The patio was built with decorative, but porous, fanned stone and the driveway was designed to direct water to a drop inlet and then to a 600-gallon cistern where it percolates back into the soil. A canopy of black locust trees help shade much of the property, while hundreds of lower-standing perennials dot the landscape and are fed by compost generated from yard waste. Although the carriage house feels like finished dream home, the couple said the renovation is still a “work in progress.”

About the author

Emily Birdie Busch has been a working creative in the city of Philadelphia for the past 20 years. She received her B.A. in creative writing with a minor in Anthropology and Music from the University of Miami. She lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia in a Civil War-era Federal-style home and is passionately involved in civic discourse and the built environment of what is one of the most historic neighborhoods in the country.



5 Comments


  1. Great article Em You certainly are multi-talented.

  2. Loved the restored Firehouse and I hope the owners of it will invite Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel to visit it on the day it is dedicated.

    • James. Glad you like it. It is almost done. Just walked past yesterday and they finally put on the left side original door cause they restored both front entries. Looks amazing.

  3. Carolyn Hernandez

    I lived at 45 E. Church Lane, down the street from Uncle Bobbie’s book store back in the 1980’s. I lived in the “town houses” on the block. A historic building in itself. If I remember correctly, it was the Seminole Hall owned by a wonderful landlord at the time Jerry Levin and his brother. Loved living there and loved the history of Germantown. Uncle Bobbie’s was a black art gallery when I moved there. Brought my first two pieces from there. Cunningham Piano Co was still around the corner on Germantown Ave. I still travel through the neighborhood for one reason or another. Sad note for me…never took advantage to enjoy Market Square directly on the corner from where I lived and take in it’s history and enjoy the structure…not to late…still there…but not kept up as it once was.
    Thank you for the share.

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