Pricey Property In The Northeast

Posted: December 03, 1989

As a successful Realtor, Charles Scully could afford a lovely home in the suburb of his choice, but he prefers to live in Northeast Philadelphia.

His reasons are simple: He grew up in the Northeast, his family and friends are here, his business is here, he loves the city.

"To me, a house becomes a home when I put myself in it," said the city's 1986 Realtor of the Year. "I never did chase after a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."

Scully and his wife Mary live across Grant Avenue from the Torresdale Country Club, of which they are members, in a stone house that they spent 18 months renovating. Contractors rearranged walls to add a second floor, create a master-bedroom suite and a state-of-the art kitchen with a sunny den facing the grounds of St. Catherine of Siena Church. They installed computerized air conditioning, lighting and windows with built-in blinds.

The Scullys paid $70,000 for the house and half-acre lot; he figures it might sell now for about $250,000.

Said their friend, Kay Salvitti: "When Mary first showed me the house, I said, 'You're crazy.' Now I see what they saw. The house is beautiful."

Salvitti would know. She and her husband Tony, a real estate appraiser on Grant Avenue, have a stunning 2-year-old house built on a hillside on Kings Oak Lane in Bustleton that he estimated is worth $400,000.

Airy and ultra-modern, the second-floor living room, done in mauve, gray, white and black, is completely open to the kitchen. Both rooms overlook the parquet-floored "music room" and tiled foyer on the first floor.

"I pinch myself when I drive down the street," said Tony Salvitti, who spent most of his 51 years in Mayfair.

These two homes are among a relatively small but growing number of pricey properties in the Northeast.

They are anomalies in a 7-by-7-mile area better known for its tidy, relatively inexpensive rowhouses, twins and duplexes. In 1987, only 6 percent of Northeast home sales were for more than $100,000, according to city Planning Commission figures.

By comparison, half of house sales in Philadelphia's Pennsylvania suburbs that year were for more than $100,000, according to the National Association of Realtors in Washington, D.C.

Many of the Northeast's priciest properties go largely unnoticed, because they are tucked away on small tracts along parks or suburban borders or both. Sam Gabriel's Kings Oak Lane development and Carmen Calvanese's Christopher Drive development, for example, are both off Pine Road abutting Montgomery County. (In fact, Calvanese's own home on Christopher Drive is just over the county line.) Both developments feature custom homes worth up to $1 million.

The demand for such properties is limited but strong, developers and brokers say. It reflects a desire for upscale suburban spaciousness with city accessibility - a combination found in very few places outside the Northeast.

"I think there is a cross-section of people who want this kind of (expensive) house, but don't want to commute an hour and a half to get it," said Gil Lewin, whose planned development off Bloomfield Road will feature five houses - minimum 4,000 square feet and $300,000 apiece - complete with cathedral ceilings, walk-in closets, skylights and jacuzzis.

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Once, part of the Northeast was famous for its exclusive digs.

At the turn of the century, many prominent Philadelphians lived or summered in baronial splendor along Torresdale's riverfront. The area was second only to the Main Line in attracting the city's cultural, business and philanthropic leaders, according to members of the Glen Foerd Conservation Corp.

Glen Foerd, a 139-year-old mansion that sits just off Grant Avenue, is maintained by the group and owned by the Fairmount Park Commission. South of the gold stucco structure is Morelton Manor, the only riverfront manse still maintained as a private residence.

All the other grand estates are gone, replaced by condominiums and apartment complexes.

But a scattering of stately old houses - some aging gracefully, some not - remain in Torresdale. In the 5100 block of Grant, for example, a huge house with many once-fashionable porches sold in May for $190,000.

Some of Torresdale's venerable properties now stand in jarring proximity to modern ones. Fitler Greene, a McCracken Construction Co. development that sits across the street from Morelton Manor, has 10 homes, $205,000 to $275,000 apiece. The angular, cedar-sided "contemporary" architecture, featuring vaulted ceilings, skylights and big windows, would not look out of place on a snowy Aspen mountain.

"East Torresdale is sort of a funny area because it's a wild mix of housing," said Neale Hancock, a real estate agent for Fitler Greene.

Not far away off Grant Avenue is Eden Hall, a Calvanese Corp. development named for the well-known girls' school that once graced the site. The 25 semi- custom homes, minimum $275,000, range from classical Georgian architecture to contemporary.

Eden Hall sales have been slower than projected and real estate agents speculate much of the problem may be Interstate 95, which runs like a gouge through the riverfront neighborhood.

The highway doesn't bother Madge and Frank Russo, though they can see - and sometimes hear - it from their bedroom. Nor do they mind paying higher taxes than when they lived on 2.5 acres in Bensalem.

They are enjoying their amenity-laden, 3,500-square-foot home, which backs up to Joseph C. Fleuhr Park and is just six minutes from Russo's plant, Deval Inc. in Tacony.

"We looked all over in Bucks and Montgomery County," Madge Russo said, standing under a skylight at the top of a winding oak staircase that leads to the spacious foyer. "We couldn't find anything as nice."

South of Torresdale, in Frankford, lumbering and textile industries flourished at the turn of the century. Captains of these industries built grand homes, some still standing, particularly in Northwood, the exclusively residential part of Frankford.

It is the only neighborhood south of Cottman Avenue in which some homes would sell for $200,000 or more - although none has yet, said real estate agent Joseph C. Fleuhr Jr., son of the namesake of Fleuhr Park.

At Dyre and Rutland Streets, at Large and Wakeling Streets and on the 4700 block of Castor, stately stone homes show off features of a bygone era: columns, slate roofs, arched wooden doors, balconies, a coat of arms.

"These are a bear to maintain," Fleuhr observed during a driving tour.

For that reason, some homes have fallen into a genteel shabbiness and, in the 1960s, several spectacular ones on Leiper Street were torn down. Apartments now occupy the spots.

"These were great buildings and they are not replaceable," said Northwood Civic Association President Francis J. Hanssens Jr., who as a boy delivered newspapers to the mansions.

The first half of this century gave the near Northeast - the area south of Cottman Avenue - a far more enduring legacy: two-story row and twin houses. Even during the Depression-wracked 1930s, expansion along auto traffic and railroad corridors continued in the Northeast, according to Still Philadelphia, by Allen F. Davis, Fredric M. Miller and Morris J. Vogel.

Thousands of Orleans and Korman houses were built with "as little provision for preserving open space as zoning regulations required," the historians write in their sequel, Philadelphia Stories. That enabled developers to squeeze 96 rowhouses - each on a lot about 20 by 100 feet - onto a city block.

Nonetheless, these homes were more varied than those in older center-city neighborhoods.

"Houses affordable for middle-class families were often set well back from the street, their front lawns leading to an enclosed porch or an elaborate facade," Still Philadelphia says.

Thus did the Northeast become "a suburb within a city," a place where generations of Philadelphians could afford their own homes and escape center- city congestion.

Today, nearly 75 percent of the Northeast's 155,000 dwellings are American

Dream material: owner-occupied and single-family. (In addition to detached houses, single-family dwellings include rows, twins and duplexes.)

But only as development crept into the far Northeast - north of Cottman Avenue - did builders add tracts of more expensive, detached colonials, ranchers and cape cods. Winchester Park homes off Rhawn Street is an example.

Several enclaves have homes now worth $200,000 and more - much, much more.

"Crestmont Farm, Security Patrol, K-9," warns a sign on a street pole entering the tract, which sits off Knights Road abutting Poquessing Creek along the Bucks County line.

There are half-acre lots and no sidewalks in Crestmont Farm, the better to preserve its rural character. While many of the homes were built in the 1920s and '30s, some are brand new. City Councilman Brian O'Neill, for example, is now building in the tract.

The most stunning is a blend: a stone and frame house undergoing a massive expansion to include a three-car garage, several impressive entryways and vaulted ceilings.

Is there a downside to renovating or buying an expensive home in the Northeast?

Hermin Khodanian pondered the question as she stood in the 5,000-square- foot, $750,000 Georgian home on Christopher Drive where she lives with her husband John, a Center City jeweler, and their two daughters. Every room was filled with mahogany and cherry reproductions of 18th century furniture that she lovingly chose. Every room had fabulous window treatments - swags, jabots, cornices - that she made herself.

"I'd like a little more land," she confessed.

Even the largest Northeast lots - up to an acre - pale compared to what is available to wealthy suburban homebuyers, developers agree.

"There's not much available land left and zoning (requirements are) difficult in the Northeast," said Jack Bienenfeld, who is building Annen Woods Estates - 48 contemporary homes, about $200,000 apiece, off Krewstown Road in Bustleton. "There are a few scattered sites. We bought our land several years ago. We had to build a $250,000 bridge to the site before we could start construction."

But a small lot is a small compromise for convenience and comfort.

Said Sam Gabriel: "If I'm going to move out of the city, I'll move to the shore."

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