Restoring Girard Row family homes

Developer Marc Shaw walks among the restored original walls in the basement of 332 Spruce St., one of two 1830s houses that had been turned into apart-ments in the '50s.
Developer Marc Shaw walks among the restored original walls in the basement of 332 Spruce St., one of two 1830s houses that had been turned into apart-ments in the '50s. (TOM GRALISH / Staff)
Posted: September 30, 2013

As he showed a visitor around recently, Marc Shaw was about as excited as a kid in a candy store.

His candy store being a pair of four-bedroom, 41/2-bath, 4,300-square-foot historic houses in Society Hill, one of which is his. The other, listed for $2.4 million, is under agreement to a buyer who declined to be identified.

Over about a year, Shaw and business partner Murat Aslan, who owns several rental buildings in Philadelphia, converted 332 and 334 Spruce St. from five apartments to two single-family houses.

The properties were unoccupied when they were purchased in 2012 - 332 Spruce for $1 million, 334 Spruce for $850,000, according to the city Recorder of Deeds - and "suffered from benign neglect," Aslan said.

Shaw's desire to remain in the city by finding a house large enough for his family led them to buy the buildings, Aslan said.

Though the houses have all the modern amenities, the yearlong renovation was done in the context of their addresses in historic Girard Row, part of a set of five structures built in 1831-33 for the Stephen Girard Estate by marble mason William Struthers.

The buildings were in disrepair when preservationist architect Charles Peterson acquired them in 1954. Peterson restored the houses but turned them into five apartments, created by penetrating party walls at the front of the buildings to either side of the fireplaces, Aslan said.

Why Peterson hadn't restored them as single houses, Shaw said, he couldn't understand.

Aslan said he was told that Peterson sold the houses to a developer, who converted them.

Robert T. Trump, who restored other Society Hill residences in the mid-1950s and 1960s, said it was, indeed, Peterson's work.

" 'Pete' knew that no one was going to buy houses as big as that in Society Hill in those days," said Trump, "so he created the apartments and, I believe, even lived in one of them and had his office there."

The goals, Trump said, were to rescue historic houses and reintroduce the city and the long-neglected neighborhood.

Reconverting 332 and 334 was difficult, since city code required that the penetrated party walls be closed up with masonry. But Aslan said the 1950s work was done "carefully, almost in anticipation that someone would be making them into two single houses someday."

Transforming residential properties from multifamily use to single-family use is hardly a trend in Philadelphia, said Mark Wade of Prudential Fox & Roach, who rehabbed several single-family houses in the city in the 1990s.

"With rentals popular, there is a premium for anything with a strong address and zoning for multiple units," Wade said.

Contractor/developer John Fries reconverted an 8,000-square-foot Federal rowhouse on Pine Street, a few blocks away, in 2001 as the housing boom was beginning. But the practice was rare then, too.

Fries, who excavated the privies at 332 and 334 Spruce looking for pre-1870 glass bottles at the developers' invitation, said he was impressed by their work.

"They had to take out five rental kitchens and who knows how many bathrooms and then scale everything uphill to make an impact statement to buyers," Fries said. "Investors focused on selling historic houses that must stand alone need to make excellent choices, and everything has to be about quality and detail."

The historic details created the most work for him and Shaw, Aslan said: "It is a job matching millwork and trying to restore details where people have taken liberties."

The red pine floors at 332 Spruce were restored and damaged pieces matched. Wrong doors were replaced, and the King of Prussia marble mantels returned where they belonged. Even the original locksets on the doors were taken to a blacksmith to be put in working order.

Aslan is under no illusions that today's buyers are enamored of historical details, though.

Michael Frolove, a veteran appraiser, said history adds nothing to sale price these days, noting, "There is no way to quantify it. Comparable sales of similar houses set the value."

Buyers now are more interested "in functionality," Frolove said: "Old houses have closets suitable for Muppets, but buyers want large walk-in ones."

Early in the work on 332 Spruce, Aslan said, a prospect "wanted me to put the kitchen in the great room, [but] the pool of potential buyers in this price range was large enough that I didn't have to."




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