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This Old [Skeevy] House?

July 24, 2009

Part of what makes cities so stimulating visually are the layers and contrasts of time and architecture. For instance, the Beaux Arts architecture of the post office and 30th Street Station set off the monolithic gleaming glass of Philadelphia’s Cira Center.  Dramatic contrast, don’t you think?

Sadly, this does not work as well in the suburbs, where, when it comes to new construction, distinctive style generally loses out to cost-efficient cookie cutter boxes that either consume large swaths of former farmland, intrude on empty lots in existing neighborhoods or become a trend called “tear downs” that slowly replace a neighborhood with a consumer-era tribute to “whatever is new is better.”  (This general concept gives preservationists, who are just being environmentally aware, after all, the heebie-jeebies.  It’s not just me; see previous post here.)
Theresa hands up

I can't live in someone's used house. Used houses are skeevy

Did you hear about the woman on Bravo’s “Housewives of New Jersey” who refuses to live in a used house because it’s just too skeevy?  Could this be a sign of things to come as pandemics and germaphobia become regular features of life?  Her custom-built house isn’t anything new or cutting-edge.  It’s not exactly revival anything.  It was certainly very expensive.  It’s a style demanded by a client who aspires to be a Disney princess — one who believes that anything bigger is better and brand-new is best.  Onyx, gold, marble, granite, with roller skates to get from one end of the house to the other.

The old house, lost in the trees

The old house, lost in the trees: 213 Summit Avenue, Built 1894 for William & Amanda Garner (Photo by Lew Keen)

Having rejected the Disney princess role model early in my life, I rejoice when I see the old renewed instead of torn down to make way for the generic, neutral-to-sell box.
I live in an area where many post-war couples bought turn-of-the-century homes to raise their families.  As time passed, the aging folk retired, sold out and moved away.  Others remained in the home they knew and loved, but outstayed their ability to care for the property.
On my block, two little old ladies kept on in a house (see above) long after they could care for it or afford to pay others to do so.  Attempting to avoid maintenance issues they obscured the true form of the house with siding and vinyl window replacements.  The porch fell away.  Entire window openings disappeared.  Stories circulated about raccoons falling through the ceiling on the third floor.  And just like the story of Sleeping Beauty, the landscape grew up and swallowed the building.  It almost disappeared from view.
boxesEventually the ladies moved on and from all accounts the building was just too far gone inside and out from deferred maintenance and water damage.  It appeared the 1894 house would become a tear down.  A small earthmover appeared.  I took photos to document the building before it was gone for good.  I geared up for the arrival of something new, akin to what I’d seen under construction in the next little town.  (seen above — what is with that window arrangement?)
Chainsaws ripped through the trunks of towering weed trees.   As the lot was cleared, the house returned to the neighborhood.  Trucks parked out front, dumpster after dumpster filled up.  The kitchen addition was demolished.  It was assumed the rest would follow.
But, what was this?
Some original details obscured, but windows in the tower are restored, and the return of the porch makes a huge difference to the presence on the street

Some original details obscured, but windows in the tower are restored, and the return of the porch makes a huge difference to the presence on the street

The siding was stripped away and replaced with shingles.  The flimsy storm door was removed to reveal the original entryway..  The porch was replaced.  New windows were installed.   With small top story window openings restored, the tower lost its gouty, pointless look and made sense again.   The house’s scale and form feel “right” and the house has rejoined the street after more than a decade in netherland.  Except for small detail work, the renovation is complete and a for sale sign invites a new family to claim the house as their own.

Demolition seemed like such a foregone conclusion that this makeover feels like a triumph.  While some of the details aren’t quite right, the facelift takes this house back to its youth (see photo circa 1920s) and the neighborhood will be forever grateful.
Want to be my neighbor?  For sales information contact Pionzio Construction, 215/760-9622 or 215/718-5754
See more photos of  the  transformation at the 213 Summit Avenue portfolio.
4/10/10 Update:  The house has a new family.  Here’s hoping they’ll finish out some of the historic details that were overlooked in the renovation.
213 Summit Avenue, Built 1894

213 Summit Avenue, Built 1894

21 Comments leave one →
  1. Valerie Gomez permalink
    July 25, 2009 9:53 am

    That comment struck a cord with me as well. But what do you expect from a table-flipper? Guess you’re preachin’ to the choir though. I love skeevy houses!

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      July 26, 2009 2:07 pm

      I can see the t-shirt now, worn by preservationists everywhere! “I love skeevy houses”

  2. Heather permalink
    December 2, 2009 12:59 pm

    we’re trying to buy that house at 213 summit avenue. don’t know if it will work out, but i really appreciated the info you provided here. it’s not a perfect rehab, but it’s a lot better than the 1970s tract home i live in now 🙂

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      December 2, 2009 4:49 pm

      Heather! What thrilling news! I’m so delighted to hear it and will watch for moving trucks. If you plan to do further work, I can give you a higher resolution version of the historic photograph so you can see some of the details that are missing (I’d urge you to restore the bit of trim that should divide the second and third stories of the tower!) I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you. (There’s another wonderful vintage house nearby and it looks as though instead of having a happy ending like this one, it will be torn down.)

  3. Justine Teller Tant permalink
    December 16, 2009 1:11 pm

    The photo of the 213 Summit Ave I believe used to be my grandparents house. Can you give me more info on the owners. Adaline Cope not sure on the spelling was my Aunt

    thank you , Justine Teller Tant

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      December 16, 2009 1:12 pm

      Justine, thanks for visiting the site. The information that I have on 213 Summit Avenue comes from Trudy & Lewis Keen’s book A Brief History of Fort Washington, Pennsylvania: From Farmland to Suburb. The house was built in 1894 for William and Amanda Garner.

      Amanda Garner was the daughter of Jesse and Mary Ann Shay in the neighborhood. The Garner’s daughter married Frank Angeny. The couple lived in the area for many years. In 1920 Sarah Whitcomb purchased the house. She left the house to her daughter Belle Hook, widow of Walter Hook, who served as chief of For Washington Fire Company No. 1 from 1913-1915, 1918-1922 and 1923-1927.

      No mentions of your the Cope family that you seek, but perhaps they lived in the house later or in similar-looking house in Fort Washington’s charming turn-of-the-century neighborhood. A deed search would give you the answer you need. The Upper Dublin Township Historical Commission offers a page about researching a house or ancestors. You may be able to complete the search online at the Montgomery County Recorder of Deeds Office.

      You could also check with the Fort Washington Historical Society, with headquarters at Clifton House on Bethlehem Pike. Thanks to their good work, you can also access historical copies of the Ambler Gazette online (link is on their site, or via the Wissahickon Library.)

      I hope that’s some help!

  4. Justine Teller Tant permalink
    December 16, 2009 1:13 pm

    It would have been under Charles Teller. We moved away in 1973

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      December 16, 2009 1:16 pm

      Ah, well it appears that the house sold in 1974, so that does seem to be it. Do you have any special memories about the house or your grandparents there? If you’d be willing to share them, I’m sure the Fort Washington Historical Society would love to add the information to its files!

  5. Stephanie Arnold permalink
    January 22, 2010 1:55 pm

    Does anyone know how much they are asking for this house? I recall when it was originally listed before renovations. I used to rent an apartment at 116. Love this neighborhood and want to get back – though I know it is a bit out of our price range. Seems strange that the house is not listed through a Realtor.

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      January 22, 2010 2:04 pm

      Another option might be 213 Fort Washington Avenue. It is currently being renovated and, it is my understanding, will then be put up for sale. It’s a charming Gothic Revival house with some lovely architectural details.

  6. heather permalink
    January 22, 2010 6:31 pm

    We’ve been negotiating with the owner. He’s pretty firm at 575, which is pretty high for the street and the house which, though beautiful, is not really worth that price … Only 3 bdrms with the third bein VERY small and some other drawbacks. He is not a fan of realtors, so I don’t think he’ll be listing it with one any time soon.

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      January 25, 2010 11:08 pm

      Hot scoop for you — the magnificent 1888 Queen Anne Victorian at 303 Summit Avenue (which has been featured in Victorian Homes magazine) will be going on sale on February 1. Asking price will be well below the 213 Summit price so you may want to check it out. Jane Douglass of Prudential Fox Roach will be the agent.

    • donna permalink
      February 1, 2010 3:50 pm

      we live in the area and we’re interested in this house as well. I have spoken with the owner who quoted me at $500,000 so I would be wary to pay $575,000. Its a beautiful restoration but that price is steep

  7. Heather permalink
    February 2, 2010 11:36 am

    oh, 575 is nuts and we said so. i still think 500 is way too high, although it is beautiful, i don’t think it will appraise for that and neither did our mortgage guy. we looked at 303 summit yesterday and that gorgeous home cemented in our mind that the price for 213 is outrageous. if you want your jaw to drop, check it out. gigantic, 5 bdrm, 3.5 baths, two fireplaces, granite countertops, all original floors and moldings. the landings on each floor are as big as a small bedroom. simply stunning … they’re asking 434,900. it appraised for 450, so that tells you something about 213. even trading off the modern upgrades at 213 versus the space and other amenities at 303, there could be no way on earth 213 could be worth 75K more. if you like that neighborhood and that style home, you must look at 303!

  8. Sabra Smith permalink*
    February 18, 2010 9:26 pm

    Heather, 303 is already sold and I’m wondering if it’s you who will be moving in? Time will tell. Wow that was a fast sale! A week? Maybe two?

    • Jenny permalink
      May 22, 2016 6:14 pm

      I’m hopefully going to be the new owner of 303 summit ❤

      • May 22, 2016 8:26 pm

        That house once belonged to Lew Keen, whose passion and fortitude led to passage of Upper Dublin Township’s Historic Preservation ordinance. It has one of the best front doors ever.

      • Jenny permalink
        May 22, 2016 8:33 pm

        I absolutely love the door! I intend on taking good care of her. I’m obsessed with the entire house. Despite being 27, I am terribly passionate about the Victorian era. Already have a lovely antique tea cart for my sitting room. Do you know if it was lew that painted it pink? (it looks like my neighbors are redoing the color scheme, so I may not get away with the pink for too long)

  9. Heather permalink
    February 18, 2010 9:58 pm

    I wish it were, but, sadly, no. We loved the house, but we have two small children and frankly just didn’t think we could make it work. It was just so big and vast … if they were ten years older, it would be great, but it just wasn’t conducive to family living. It about broke my heart to have that opportunity and have to let it go. I cried! I’m so happy for the buyer and the seller that it worked out so quickly.

    The owner of 213 told my husband that he is expecting tomorrow an offer of $535. To that, I have to say good luck and God bless. Loved that house, but no research my me, my real estate agent or my mortgage company could justify paying over five for it.

    So, now I’ve got my eye on something around the corner that’s in the works. When it’s meant to be, it will be … right?! 🙂

  10. vmichael permalink
    March 7, 2011 11:59 am

    Good post!

    • Sabra Smith permalink*
      March 7, 2011 12:22 pm

      Thanks for visiting, Vince.

      With a new fire station under construction elsewhere, the next neighborhood challenge will be what to do with the mid-60s firehouse built in the middle of the block, across the street from the 19th century firehouse. A fascinating timeline to be sure, but the 60s building is a challenge for re-use. (Especially with a 1917 school around the corner that will be torn down unless it finds a new use, a champion and money.)

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