Thursday, April 17, 2014

Dilworth House: What Happened to the Advocates?

When John and Mary Turchi purchased Washington Square's Dilworth House in 2001, they wanted to restore the mansion as a private residence. But things immediately got...Philadelphian.

Despite the building's Colonial charm, Dilworth House's historic significance lies with why it was built, not when. G. Edward Brumbaugh designed the house for Mayor Richardson Dilworth in 1957. At the time, Society Hill was a blighted slum and Dilworth decided to show confidence in his city by living amongst some of its squalor. Ultimately Dilworth and City Planner Ed Bacon helped transform Society Hill into the charming historic district we know today.

But adapting a home that has been largely unchanged since 1957 comes with all the demons one would expect, particularly when attempting to convert it into the modern and luxurious residence we'd expect to find on Washington Square.

Concerned neighbors fought Turchi every step of the way. After neighbors managed to block his proposed alterations to the house, Turchi sought to demolish the house for a tower designed by Venturi, Scott, Brown. Obviously, neighbors fought. Turchi offered a compromise, one which would require a bit of Franken-tecture, building the tower above the existing house, which would have served as the building's entrance. It was weird.

The ordeal was dragged out for over a decade, and today the house remains vacant. Those concerned neighbors who fought the initial restoration and alterations are now saddled with a vacant mansion at one of Philadelphia's most premier addresses. One has to wonder if neighbors wish they'd have let him make the simple alterations in the first place, offering Washington Square a unique showcase where you'd expect to find a modern high rise.

No one offered money or an alternate buyer, but early comments about a potential museum suggest that neighbors initially wanted the house converted into a public space. But a museum to what? The house itself is not architecturally significant or historic. It's a Colonial interpretation, not even a recreation of anything that ever existed on the site, or anywhere for that matter. 

Plenty of sites, both authentic and recreations are open to the public and nearby. But most are operated by the National Parks Service, an organization with absolutely no interest in a fifty year old house with no national significance. And of course, the city of Philadelphia couldn't afford to operate what would be one of the most boring museums this side of a wax museum that doesn't come to life and eat people.

Additionally, the Society Hill neighbors that fought Turchi have done nothing to follow up on what has become a dead proposal. The house has been saved, for now, but it's ignored by anyone who once claimed an interest. The city's Parks Department is poorly funded, and its primary focus is on parks that residents actually use. Residents typically save sites like Dilworth House by creating a "Friends of..." organization, pitching a proposal for the site that makes sense, and most importantly fields volunteers and donations to actually bring their plans to fruition.

But in Society Hill...crickets.

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