by Pete Mazzaccaro
The 400 block of West Moreland Avenue is as quiet and leafy a street as you’ll find in Chestnut Hill. A block away from the campus of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, the wide, tree-lined street fronts half a dozen or so stately homes.
Tucked behind a row of old trees at one corner of the block at 415 W. Moreland Ave., is an older work of Colonial revivalism, its yard a scatter of fallen limbs and weeds that have grown unchecked for several springs, a stark contrast with the meticulously manicured lawns of its neighbors.
You might not guess by its present appearance, but the large, white Colonial is recognized as a significant historical structure – the highest ranking a historical home can receive – in the National Historic District designation of Chestnut Hill. It was built in 1910 by the noted residential architect Charles Barton Keen for Charles Bromley, then president of the Quaker Hosiery Company.
But the house is no longer in the grand shape it once was for its original industrialist owner. In fact it is is in such a state of disrepair that its owner, local developer Sam Blake, decided the best thing for it is to be torn down and replaced with new homes.
“I’ve looked long and hard to figure out how to make it work, but the house is too far gone,” Blake told the Local.
Blake is not a typical developer. He specializes in historic restorations and new construction that looks like it’s a century old. He has won nearly a dozen architectural awards for his work. He has rehabbed numerous houses in Chestnut Hill, Wyndmoor and Mt Airy. Several of his rehab projects are within a few blocks of the Chareles Bromley House.
“I’ve been in this business for more than 25 years,” Blake said. “It’s not just my living, it’s my love.”
Blake, who has a good local reputation for his restoration work, said he was asked by a real estate agent to have a look at the house last year with the caveat that he could not go inside. He walked around the house, its walls recently painted white. He felt it was in need of repair, but figured it couldn’t be that bad. So in April, he agreed to buy the home from its elderly owners for $800,000.
“My intention was to save the property,” Blake said. “I figured there’s nothing I can’t fix.”
When he finally got into the house, though, he discovered he was wrong. The house was a mess – the roof was in bad shape and there was extensive water damage, mold and structural issues. The home’s original knob and tube electrical wiring was never replaced. He said that much of the exterior stucco had separated from the stone walls. If he were to rehab the property, it would be prohibitively expensive.
So Blake decided to raze the property, subdivide it into two half-acre lots and build two new houses. He said he already has a family interested in one of the yet-to-be-built homes.
“They’re a couple in center city who have children at SCH,” he said. “They are very interested in the neighborhood and I think they’d make a great addition to Chestnut Hill.”
The Chestnut Hill Historical Society, however, doesn’t agree with Blake’s decision to tear down the Bromely house. It sent an email to its members last week urging them to call Blake and ask him to spare the home and have asked members to come to the board meeting of the Chestnut Hill Community Association to voice concerns about Blake’s plan.
“The property is not just important as an example of design in its own right, but also for its contribution to the fabric and character of Chestnut Hill as a whole,” the email reads. “The high quality of design of Chestnut Hill’s built environment and cultural landscape form the essence of what makes this a livable, vital community – a great place to live. The possibility of losses such as this threatens the community as a whole.”
Architectural historian Emily Cooperman echoed those concerns to the Local. Tearing down the Bromley house would be a significant loss.
“The house is a great example of Charles Barton Keen’s work,” she said, noting that Keen has built homes in the Main Line and later went on to become the architect of the Reynolds tobacco family in North Carolina.
“It’s a great design,” Cooperman said of the home. “Losing it would be a real shame.”
Prompted by the email, Blake invited several members of the society, including its executive director, Jennifer Hawk, to tour the building.
Hawk said she spent hours in the property and acknowledged that it is in poor condition, but she didn’t share Blake’s assessment that the home is unsalvageable.
“I went everywhere,” she said. “Walked up and down every staircase from the top floor to the basement. I never once felt unsafe. The house appeared to be structurally sound.”
Hawk said she was accompanies by an architectural analyst on the tour and is waiting for his report. She hopes there’s a way to talk Blake out of razing the property.
“There’s a lot we can do,” she said. “There’s one way we might be able to make restoring the home financially feasible through conservation easements. We want to work with him.”
Blake said he will continue to keep an open mind and will listen to all suggestions.
“I support the historical society and support what they do,” he said.
But at the same time, he said he will continue to move forward with his plans. He already has the zoning approval he needs to tear down the home and subdivide the property. Even though the home is listed as significant, there are no protections that come with the distinction. Nothing stands in the way of Blake’s plan to demolish the home once he receives a building permit to proceed.
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