Battle over Roxborough's Bunting House gets 30-day cease fire

The Bunting House in Roxborough. "All our old mansions are disappearing," said a resident. This one won't disappear for at least 30 more days.
The Bunting House in Roxborough. "All our old mansions are disappearing," said a resident. This one won't disappear for at least 30 more days. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 30, 2012

When the Giovannone brothers obtained a permit to demolish a Victorian house in Roxborough, it's unlikely they expected a phone campaign, hundreds of concerned citizens, and protests outside the Ridge Avene home.

But a week after they posted demolition notices on the 1880's house, that's exactly what happened.

The battle over the Bunting House began last week, after residents learned that Giovannone Construction Inc. had obtained a permit to demolish the stone mansion at Ridge and Roxborough Avenues.

More than 100 flooded Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones Jr.'s office with calls. Local civic associations rushed to set up a meeting with Frank and Anthony Giovannone, the local company's owners and the public faces of a group of investors who own the Bunting House and three other vacant properties on the block.

Longtime resident Jim Lamont made a cardboard picket sign reading "Save the Bunting House" and, on the day before the date on the demolition permit, paced outside the house as cars sped by.

"Everything's getting torn down in Roxborough," he said. "There's no houses like this left, hardly. All our old mansions are disappearing."

Late Friday afternoon, the Giovannones reached an agreement with four civic associations that had filed several appeals against the demolition. They would delay demolition by at least 30 days, though they were legally permitted to knock the house down as early as last Thursday.

The developers say they want to work with the community to reach an agreement that will allow them to preserve the Bunting House, once owned by physician Ross Richardson Bunting, yet still usher in the high-end retailers they're hoping to attract.

For residents in the area, the spat is more than a fight to save a historic building: It's a battle to preserve the character of their neighborhood.

Demolition of historic homes is nothing new in Roxborough. At one point, the Manayunk Civic Association even kept a list of properties facing demolition on its website, emblazoning a large red "no" symbol over photos of properties lost to the wrecking ball.

In 2005, the demolition of the historic Dearnley Mansion prompted local outrage and even a few choice comments from then-Councilman Michael Nutter.

There are few legal avenues to challenge demolition, at least from a historic standpoint, said John Farnham, executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Despite the Bunting House's age, it's not on the city's historical register.

Farnham said about 22,000 properties across the city have been suggested for inclusion on the register, but there are just six employees to review applications.

This isn't the first time developers have eyed the Bunting House. In 2008, the then-owners presented a development plan to the Roxborough Development Corp. that would involve razing the block for commercial retail yet keep the Bunting House intact, said Kelly Erb, who runs a law firm with her husband that until recently had its headquarters in the Bunting House.

The firm left when the building's new owners announced they were planning to renovate the entire property to make way for a new tenant, said Erb, a former head of the development corporation.

The 2008 development plan was never realized after funding fell through, Erb said, and the property was foreclosed on. The Giovannones and the investors bought the property in September 2011.

Erb said local businesses want to encourage economic development, but not at the cost of local character.

"They're not protesting change because they don't like change. They want it to be measured change and thoughtful change and change that reflects the character of the neighborhood," she said.

"Our neighborhood isn't a bunch of torn-down lots. And it's not just chipping away at aesthetics, it's chipping away at the character of the neighborhood."

For the next 30 days, the Bunting House will remain on the corner. What happens after that depends on negotiations between the Giovannones and civic associations.

"As lifelong community residents, the Giovannone family today made clear their genuine desire to try to save the Bunting House from final demolition and preserve it as a long-term community asset," the family said in a statement Friday.

Four area civic associations have hired a lawyer and filed several appeals with the city's Boards of Licenses and Inspection and of Zoning. As part of their agreement with the Giovannones, said Frank Keel, a spokesman for the family, those associations won't move forward with appeals during the 30-day reprieve.

Community members say they hope the house will ultimately remain where it has been for more than 100 years.

"On the financial side, you have a whole lot there, ready for development," said Bernard Guet, executive director of the Roxborough Development Corp. "There's a personal side of me that says, if I was a developer, I would give a very strong consideration to keep the house. It's important for future generations."


Contact Aubrey Whelan at 215-854-2117 or awhelan@philly.com, or follow on Twitter at @aubreyjwhelan.

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