A former Underground Railroad stop is on the brink of collapse in Spring Garden

The city alleges the property owner has been neglectful for years, ignoring their orders to protect the house.

The house at 16th and Mount Vernon, where famous abolitionist Robert Purvis once operated an Underground Railroad stop.

The house at 16th and Mount Vernon, where famous abolitionist Robert Purvis once operated an Underground Railroad stop.

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

The historical importance of the corner rowhome on Mount Vernon near 16th Street is not in dispute. After the house was built in 1859, it became a key stop on the Underground Railroad run by abolitionist Robert Purvis, who is estimated to have hosted 9,000 slaves in his Philadelphia home before the end of the Civil War.

What is in dispute is who’s responsible for the building’s condition. Next to a historical marker noting its significance, the Purvis house is currently hanging on by a thread.

The structure at 1601 Mt. Vernon St. has decayed so badly that it’s at risk of permanent collapse. This is despite the fact that it’s included in the Spring Garden Historic District and listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places — meaning the property owner has a duty to keep it in “good repair” and preserve its legacy.

Both the Department of Licenses and Inspections and the Historical Commission say the property owner, Miguel Santiago, has been purposefully negligent, and has ignored repeated orders to care for the property.

Meanwhile, the Spring Garden Civic Association is actively litigating to take over the property as a conservator.

“It’s a race against time,” said Karen Guss, spokesperson for L&I, “to get this property into responsible hands.”

More time spent on this property than any other

Santiago, the owner of the house, said it’s been in his family since his parents bought it 40 years ago. Over that time, the property has undergone extensive damage. The outside walls have been defaced with graffiti, and the property itself has been fenced off. About seven years ago, the rear wall was damaged so badly that L&I declared it “imminently dangerous,” requiring it be taken down.

Most recently, the interior of the house was left vulnerable to major water damage when the windows were left open during Hurricane Florence.

L&I demolished the rear wall of the Purvis house years ago after it was deemed imminently dangerous.

L&I demolished the rear wall of the Purvis house years ago after it was deemed imminently dangerous.

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Neighbors reported the open windows to L&I, which sent out a contractor last week to board them up. Some suggested that the act might have been done on purpose, as an insurance play — an accusation Santiago denied. The destruction of the property was “definitely not” on purpose, he told Billy Penn. He said he couldn’t resolve L&I’s violations over the years due to financial hardship during the recession.

“No lending was going on in those particular years, and it made it a little harder for us,” said Santiago, who owns multiple properties in the city, but declined to specify how many.

Meanwhile, the city has spent more time enforcing the “good repair” requirement on this property than on any other property in the city, according to Department of Planning and Development spokesperson Paul Chrystie.

That has included:

  • Four enforcement mechanisms
  • Dozens of court appearances
  • Multiple attempts to seize the property
  • A total of $200,000 in judgements and daily fines that continue to accrue

All the while, Chrystie said, Santiago has managed to “delay or avoid responsibility.” In the past 20 years, only one other owner of a historically designated property has allowed the condition to “degrade to this level,” Chrystie said.

It’s painful, said Faye Anderson, founder of the Philadelphia public history project All That Philly Jazz, to see another important black institution decay due to neglect.

“I believe [the city] wants to protect this historic landmark,” Anderson said. “But they are not black, and they don’t feel the passion that I feel when I walk by it. It’s a different kind of approach to historic preservation when you’re talking about your ancestors.”

The bankruptcy excuse and the fight for conservatorship

With so little success coming from the city’s enforcement, the Spring Garden Civic Association is currently fighting to take ownership of the property by becoming a conservator.

“L&I is to be commended,” clarified Justino Navarro, president of the Spring Garden Civic Association. “It’s through their efforts and their cooperation we’ve been able to keep the building from further deterioration, despite the audacity and defiant behavior the property owners have demonstrated.”

The Purvis house has been defaced with graffiti.

The Purvis house has been defaced with graffiti.

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Recently, Santiago declared bankruptcy, which Navarro called a “stall tactic.”

“It’s absolutely crazy,” Navarro said. “The property owner has been under court order to do certain repairs, and they’ve just ignored them. The community found it necessary to intervene through the courts.”

If the civic association wins conservatorship, Navarro estimates rehabbing the property will cost Spring Garden at least a couple hundred thousands dollars — but he’s willing to incur that expense. Ideally, once all is said and done, the association will convert the property into multi-family housing, sell it to a responsible owner and make their money back.

The city is on board. “This is hopefully going to be really good,” said Guss, the L&I spokesperson. “It means that someone else will take over the property, someone who’s interested in maintaining it and taking care of it.”

The property at 1601 Mount Vernon is flagged by a historical marker.

The property at 1601 Mount Vernon is flagged by a historical marker.

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Santiago countered that he doesn’t need a conservatorship. Since he declared bankruptcy a few years ago, he said, he has the financial means to take care of the property. Ideally, he wants to rehabilitate it and move his parents in, allowing them to retire.

“We take care of what we need to take care of, sometimes it just takes longer than others,” Santiago added. “We want to rectify the situation, restore the property and make it into a great thing.”

The next public hearing on the matter, according to Navarro, is scheduled for Nov. 13 in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas.