Sunday, July 19, 2015

Preserving Fake History

In the mid-20th Century, when one of Frank Furness's many gems was torn down in the name of Colonial revitalization, residents went nuts. At least the locals who held on to a city that was about to go the way of the Edsel. 

Dwindling in numbers, we have those people to thank for the Philadelphia we know today. One without a South Street Expressway. One with a robust downtown. And a city that didn't become "another city with some old stuff."

But try as they did, Frank Furness's Penn National Bank met the wrecking ball in the name of Colonial nostalgia.

The bank was demolished and the Graff House was rebuilt. Unlike the homes of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, both standing as ghost structures, the Graff House was fully rebuilt in the 1970s. Dubbed the Declaration House, the home is nothing significant. Had it been standing in the mid-20th Century, it might be a unique relic amid Market East's booming retail transformation. But as it stands, it's fake.

Rarely open and mind-numbingly boring, the Graff House, named for a longtime owner of a nonexistent house, saw little more than 1000 visitors last year. Two blocks from the Liberty Bell, the Shirt Corner saw more action. But those behind the Graff House are hoping to capitalize on the burgeoning Market East strip by renovating the beleaguered structure. 

If you need a visual for pork, the Graff House is it

What happened at the long-gone house at 7th and Market is sketchy. Those behind the Graff House claim Jefferson drafted the Constitution there. Between Virginia and Philadelphia, Jefferson did draft the Constitution. But again, even if he wrote one draft at 7th and Market, the building that stands isn't real. Nothing happened there

Yet this historical attraction, fake as it is, is trying to get $6-7M it claims is needed for restoration. 

Let's face it, even in its condition, the Graff House is a Society Hill home. On a good day, a large house in one of Philadelphia's poshest neighborhoods might fetch a couple million dollars. Why then has the park service estimated repairs at a price that could easily build five more?

$6-7M is staggering. The city says that the property is worth about $1.5M, and much of that is just land. The Graff House isn't a museum on par with the Barnes or the National Aquarium, it's a humble house museum. Built in the 1970s, this is just a house accommodating a few thousand square feet, if that. Its renovation estimate should be on par with a suburban McMansion in Cherry Hill.

If it really needs more than $6M in renovations, tear the thing down and build something worth $6M. 


  1. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Madison was the Constitution guy.

    The city's estimate of $1.5m would seem to be low as it's a double lot. There is also the 1970s era structure next door that is part of the museum.

    1. Very good call! I completely forgot about the brutalist addition. I still think $6-7M is a bit steep but public estimates are always bloated.