The Robert Purvis house is being repaired at 16th and Mount Vernon.

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In a win for historic preservation, a neighborhood group has saved a former Underground Railroad stop from destruction by neglect.

Vital repairs are underway on the old Robert Purvis house at 16th and Mount Vernon streets, where the famous abolitionist helped thousands of people escape slavery to freedom through Philadelphia.

The fresh fixes follow a yearslong legal battle to wrest control away from the historic property’s current owner. Under his absent watch, the monument to African American history suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage — and was nearly on the brink of collapse.

Credit the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation for taking responsibility and forcing a fix.

A Philadelphia judge recently granted the group’s plea to become the “official conservator” of the Purvis house. That means the property can remain under its current ownership, but the CDC has legal right to fund and enforce much-needed repairs.

Conservatorship is still a highly unusual solution. In the decade since it became a thing in Pennsylvania, only a few Philly civic associations have embarked on the effort.

Why? It’s expensive — and there’s a good chance conservators won’t make back the money they spend on restoration.

In the case of the Purvis house, the historic property was in such bad shape that neighborhood leaders say it was well worth the $100,000 they’ve already spent.

“It would be a shame to only have a plaque out front without preserving what was left inside,” said Barbara Wolf, official conservator and Spring Garden CDC board member. “I think that’s really important.”

Years of fighting + $200k in fines 

The corner rowhome on Mount Vernon near 16th Street was built in 1859. It became a key stop on the Underground Railroad. Purvis is estimated to have hosted 9,000 slaves in his Philadelphia home before the end of the Civil War.

By this time last year, the structure at 1601 Mt. Vernon St. had decayed so badly that it was at risk of permanent collapse.

On long-time owner Miguel Santiago’s watch, the outside of the property was defaced with graffiti. The rear wall was damaged so badly that the Department of Licenses and Inspections declared it “imminently dangerous,” and required it be taken down. The interior of the house suffered major water damage when the windows were left open during 2018’s Hurricane Florence.

Worst part? All this happened while the property in the Spring Garden Historic District was already listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Status on the register means the property owner has a duty to keep the building in “good repair” to preserve its legacy — but in this case somehow found ways to “delay or avoid responsibility” to fix problems, said Department of Planning and Development spokesperson Paul Chrystie.

Santiago’s neglect apparently set a city record. Officials spent more time enforcing the “good repair” requirement on this property than on any other in the city, Chrystie said. There have been dozens of court appearances, multiple attempts to seize the property, and more than $200,000 in judgements and daily fees.

Santiago declined to comment for this story.

The slow destruction of the Purvis house was hard to watch for Faye Anderson, founder of the Philadelphia public history project All That Philly Jazz.

“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.”

Conservatorship is a financial gamble

Santiago still owns the corner rowhome, but as conservator, the Spring Garden CDC is authorized to make repairs as long as they’re pre-approved by a Court of Common Pleas judge.

The cost manifests as a lien on the property — so next time it sells, the CDC should be able to recoup its losses.

Wolf, the Spring Garden CDC board member, first applied for conservatorship in January 2018.  It was awarded in spring of 2019. First on the list was fixing up the internal framing so the building wouldn’t fall over. Now, contractors have moved on to laying new exterior walls.

“It had so much damage that the strong veneer of the bricks was worn away,” Wolf said. “That can kind of disintegrate much faster.”

Spring Garden CDC President Justino Navarro said the ongoing repairs have cost the organization $109,000 so far, funded through an existing bank line of credit.

The situation is unusual, per Philadelphia Association of CDCs policy director Beth McConnell, because civic associations rarely have thousands of dollars to spend on a property they don’t actually own.

PACDC doesn’t track the number of conservatorships undertaken by member organizations. Mount Airy USA has done it a few times, and just a couple weeks ago, the Tacony CDC applied for its first conservatorship.

“It’s quite rare,” McConnell said. “I do think conservatorship is a useful and valuable tool, but it doesn’t work in every situation or for every property.”

It’s also time consuming, and then there’s the financial risk. Conservatorship generally works best with one blighted property on a block that’s otherwise well kept, with high property values, McConnell said. That way, cash-strapped community groups are more likely to make their money back.

McConnell recalled how Mount Airy USA ended up in a tight spot. After rehabbing a property from the bottom up, the house was auctioned at sheriff’s sale and sold at a highly reduced rate — leaving Mount Airy USA without full reimbursement.

“For many CDCs working in some of the most disinvested neighborhoods with significant vacancy, there’s not enough money to make it work,” McConnell said.

What’s next for the Purvis House on Spring Garden? Years of repairs are ahead. Navarro said last year that his goal was to rehab the property back to its prime and convert it into multi-family housing.

But to do that, Navarro will need court approval. And for the CDC to make its money back, it depends on cooperation from property owner Santiago.

“That’s one of the reasons that people don’t necessarily do conservatorship, particularly for properties in a historic district where standards have to be met,” Wolf said. “But we want those historic standards to be met. It was part of our goal. I think it’s worth it.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...