August 6, 2009


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The Chestnut Hill Local
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Mt. Airy landmark destroyed by fire
Historic house designed by noted architect

Firefighters connect hose lines as fire engulfs the historic Garrett-Dunn house at 7048 Germantown Ave. in Mt. Airy.
The house, built in the 1850s, was designed by the noted 19th century architect Thomas U.  Walter, who also designed the dome and the Senate and House wings of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Photo by Walter Fox)

The Garrett-Dunn House, a historic landmark at Germantown and Mt. Pleasant avenues in Mt. Airy, was destroyed in a spectacular two-alarm fire Sunday that showered large pieces of charred debris over an area of several blocks.

Within minutes of the first report at 11:45 a.m., the building was engulfed in flames, sending up a plume of black smoke that could be seen throughout Mt. Airy. The fire was declared under control at 12:24 p.m.

As the Local went to press, the cause of the fire was still under investigation by the Fire Commissioner’s office.

The house, which was listed on both the national and Philadelphia register of historic places, had been part of a plan by developer John Capoferri to turn it and the adjoining stone barn into five luxury residences in a project that would also include the construction of 14 new townhouses on the property.

Work on the project came to a standstill in April 2008 when Capoferri’s funds ran out, but not before contractors had removed the house’s stucco façade, leaving the building open to the elements.

When neighbors and the Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia raised concerns about the vulnerability of the house with winter approaching, the city sued Capoferri in October for building code violations and “failure to preserve and protect historic property.”

Two months later, a court awarded “conservator” status of the house to the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, and, with $20,000 provided by National Penn Bank, holder of Capoferri’s mortgage, the alliance hired contractors to secure the house.

In October of the same year, a civil court judgment in the amount of $1.6 million was entered against Capoferri at the request of the bank.

Built around 1850 as a summer home for George Howell Garrett, whose family had made a fortune in the tobacco and snuff business, the Garrett-Dunn House was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter of Philadelphia, the most prominent American architect of the time. Walter is best known as the designer of the dome and the Senate and House wings of the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

Although originally designed in Greek revival style, the house was given an Italianate addition when Garrett retired and became a gentleman farmer. The adjoining barn was apparently part of a farm that predated the Walter plan.

The Garrett-Dunn House was one of only two examples of Walter’s residential work that survived. The other was Andalusia, the estate of Nicholas Biddle on the Delaware River, north of Philadelphia.

Walter also designed Founders Hall at Girard College and the Chester County courthouse in West Chester.

Capoferri’s company, Hedgebank Partners LP, purchased the 1.5-acre property in May 2007. Records at the city’s Board of Revision of Taxes indicate that $13,405 in real estate taxes is outstanding on the property. Capoferri still is listed as the owner of record.

Laura Siena, executive director of West Mt. Airy Neighbors, who, along with the Preservation Alliance, had been instrumental in getting Garrett-Dunn registered as a historic site, said she was “very, very, very sad” about the loss of the house.

Siena said she had visited the site on Monday and that the atmosphere there was “a lot like a wake.”

She said that, even without the buildings, the property continues to be registered as a historic site, and that future developers would have to conform to that designation. 

Capoferri’s purchase of the former Caruso’s Market in Chestnut Hill in March 2008 also ended badly. The store closed the following September after Capoferri defaulted on a loan of $2.2 million for the purchase of the business.

Since early 2008, Capoferri has been named as defendant in 15 civil suits filed by banks, contractors and other parties.