Riverside talks about developing historic watchcase tower

The Keystone Watchcase Co. building includes a museum of the company's days as a pioneering maker of watchcases.
The Keystone Watchcase Co. building includes a museum of the company's days as a pioneering maker of watchcases. (VIVIANA PERNOT/ Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 25, 2014

A towering Riverside landmark used in the early to mid-1900s to produce gold-and-silver-plated watchcases may be converted into luxury apartments under the latest plan for the building.

"It took nine years to find someone to develop it," said Mayor George Conard Sr., referring to the Keystone Watchcase Co. building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. "I sat in all these meetings, and at all these tables, and it didn't come about." At least three other plans had been reviewed and then withdrawn, partly due to the economic downturn, he said.

Bob Kenney, the township's historian and the author of a book about Riverside's history, said the seven-story building presents a unique challenge for developers. "It was believed to be one of the first to be built by pouring concrete, and the walls are 22 inches thick, and the floors are 22 inches thick," he said. "Developers would come in and their eyes would light up. . . . But you can't get wires through those walls, and it has only one elevator shaft."

Rafi Weiss, president of the Brooklyn-based Simshabs Partners, is undaunted. "We'll be able to handle it," he said. Simshabs Partners is proposing 64 apartments of 1,300 to 1,800 square feet each, with a "lot of light," he said. Rental prices for the two- and three-bedroom apartments have not been determined, but will be competitive with other new units in the Philadelphia area, he said.

"It's time the watchcase tower was brought back to its former glory," Weiss said, estimating the renovations could be finished in a year or two.

The factory built by Theophilus Zurbrugg, a Swiss inventor, was the world's largest manufacturer of watchcases, according to the town's Historical Society. Kenney said Zurbrugg created special alloys to make the pocketwatches lighter and hired 1,000 workers to make beautiful, intricately engraved cases that were shipped around the world. The increasing popularity of wristwatches contributed to the plant's closing in 1956.

Kenney, 79, a lifelong Riverside resident, recalled that the factory had been the hub of the township and that its whistle would blow each day at noon to signal the lunch hour for the workers.

After the factory closed, the building was vacant for years and fell into disrepair. The 400-pound inner workings of the classic clock at the top of the tower was stolen.

Then, in 1988, the building was acquired by Lippincott, Jacobs & Gouda, an engineering firm that cleaned up the building and occupied the first floor. The Riverside Business Association raised money and restored the clock in 2001, hoping the effort would spark a revitalization of the town.

Meghan Jack, the township administrator, said the town's redevelopment plan 15 years ago envisioned 1,000 residential units to be built on land occupied by closed industries. The plan includes the sites of the now-demolished metals factory, a hosiery mill, and the watchcase tower. Units are also planned for the site of the former Zurbrugg Hospital, which was found to be contaminated after it closed.

"We've always looked at the watchcase building as the most important piece of the puzzle and the most difficult because it's historical," she said. ". . . We're hoping this will be the start of the redevelopment and the revitalization we've been working on for the past several years."

The current owners and Simshabs Partners have reached an agreement of sale contingent on obtaining approvals, Jack said. Besides site-plan approval, the company would need a variance from the local planning board to increase parking from 94 to 128 spots, she said.

The developer also would have the option to acquire 15 acres behind the building that the township currently owns, Jack said. The site sits along the Rancocas Creek and could be used to build waterfront units.

Weiss said Simshabs Partners was considering building houses and a charter school on that tract. But first the group wants to get approvals to renovate the watchcase building. Weiss said the group was proposing to install high-speed elevators and create a "well-appointed lobby with a concierge" to greet the young professionals and families they would like to attract as tenants.

A special planning board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Riverside Elementary School cafeteria at 112 E. Washington St.


jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

www.inquirer.com/burlcobuzz

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