A religious dwelling's conversion

In Wynnewood, an old seminary building's new rentals will mix modern look with historical flair.

Posted: June 16, 2014

You no longer have to be a man or woman of the cloth to live at the Palmer.

The Depression-era structures that housed the classrooms and dormitories of the former Palmer Theological Seminary at City and Lancaster Avenues in Wynnewood are being updated into modern yet historically accurate apartments that will be available for rent by December.

Redevelopment of the eight-acre property is a $35 million adaptive reuse of the hotel-turned-seminary. The space is being renovated into mostly one- and two-bedroom units, with rents that will range from $1,650 to $2,300 a month.

The project's cost includes $5 million in historic tax credits secured by placing the property on the National Register of Historic Places.

With plans for a saltwater pool, a fitness center off the old dining room, and modern heating and air conditioning, developer Cross Properties is hoping to appeal to the class of health-care professionals working nearby at Lankenau Medical Center and Bryn Mawr Hospital.

"This area has plenty of residential space" - several older apartment buildings along City Avenue, for example - "but a lot of it is schlocky and hasn't been updated since the 1950s," Cross Properties' Kevin Michals said during a tour of the Lower Merion Township property, for which PZS Architects is doing the renovations. Cross Properties is the partnership of Michals and David Blumenfeld, brother of Broad Street-focused developer Eric Blumenfeld.

Lower Merion's obvious appeal includes no city wage tax and a highly rated school district, Michals said.

Development in the area involves a painstaking process, however, said Elizabeth Rogan, president of the township Board of Commissioners. "The challenge is you have to be persistent and listen to everybody," she said. "It's also expensive."

In the case of the Palmer, Rogan said, "it's a difficult corner because it's so busy, but it's an amazing location. It will repurpose a building that's a great historic structure."

The Palmer's update, along with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's request to rezone St. Charles Borromeo Seminary's theology building and the renovated Mansion at Bala rental complex, is among a string of recent developments in Lower Merion, which includes some of the nation's most affluent zip codes, Rogan said.

"The Golden Mile, as it's called, is not just suburban but diverse," she added. "Unlike other first-ring suburbs, we weren't hurt as much in the economic downturn."

Real estate developers want to capitalize on that high-income base. They hope to attract tenants with high-end touches - in the case of the Palmer, an outdoor fire pit, a movie lounge, a business center, and a billiards room. The front entry will have a doorman and 24-hour security.

The Horace Trumbauer-designed main building, built in 1929 as a hotel and sold a decade later, will retain vintage details such as marble stairs, parquet floors, decorative fireplaces, balconies, and a stone patio onto which a demonstration kitchen will open. A garden will sit at the base of the property, next to a parking lot backing up to the Lankenau grounds.

The 120,000-square-foot, four-story, red-brick complex will house 112 apartments, plus additional office space for doctors in a 1950s-era chapel building. The idea is that a physician living at the Palmer could open a private office with examining rooms.

Gone are the old steam radiators and the drafty windows. But the memories remain. For instance: One of Beethoven's most famous works for piano, Grosse Fuge, was found on a shelf there by the Palmer seminary's librarian. The seminary auctioned the manuscript for nearly $2 million at Sotheby's in 2005.

And back when it was the Green Hill Farms Hotel, the property was the site of a murder: Edward Allen killed his sister's lover, Francis Donaldson III, there. The 1931 shooting made national headlines.




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