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Philadelphia group recruits tenants for historic manses

Goal is to restore neglected homes

PHILADELPHIA -- Philip Price Jr. was driving past Fairmount Park with his son in the early 1980s when he saw one of the park's neglected historic manors go up in flames.

''I thought it was just a tragedy," said the 71-year-old Price, a member of the park commission board.

More than a century earlier, his great-great-grandfather, Eli K. Price, had helped the city acquire private estates along the Schuylkill River to form a vast city park, both protecting Philadelphia's watershed and providing its residents with a pastoral retreat.

The Fairmount Park homes later served as beer halls, house museums, and housing for park employees. But restrictions on their use and funding woes had left many vacant and vandalized by the time Price watched Richland burn.

The nonprofit Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust is now trying to find tenants who will refurbish the buildings while drawing people to little-known corners of the sprawling, 9,200-acre park -- which also boasts the Philadelphia Zoo, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and dozens of ball fields and playgrounds. In return, the trust will grant them long-term leases.

''The biggest obstacle is finding people willing to partner, and getting a strong public consensus that this is what we want to do at Fairmount Park," said Matthew Rader, the trust's executive director. ''Some people believe it should be more of a passive park."

In early November, developer David Groverman won approval to open a cafe at Ohio House, an underused site in a lonely stretch of the park that was built for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. Groverman plans to spend $300,000 to restore the property, which he hopes will become a meeting place for park visitors.

The trust earlier raised money to save a hidden architectural gem: a small porter's house that long served as a jail for park police, but was left to rot when the force disbanded in the 1970s. The Sedgeley Porter's House was designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who would later design the US Capitol. The house -- now rented by the Philadelphia Outward Bound Center -- is treasured as one of America's earliest Gothic Revival buildings.

A mental-health group last year spent $1 million to convert the long-vacant Rockland -- a Federal-style country house built around 1800 -- into its headquarters, with modern cubicles in the basement and an ornate ballroom-turned-conference-room a floor above.

Visitors to the Psychoanalytic Center enjoy the unique training site, once they find their way along dubiously marked park roads.

''Nobody has any real addresses in the park. It makes FedEx deliveries interesting," said M.J. Bobrow, an administrative director.

While New York had the chance to design Central Park from raw land in the mid-19th century, Fairmount Park emerged from the patchwork of acquired sites. Some families donated their weekend estates, while the city took others along the Schuylkill and Wissahickon rivers through eminent domain, with help in the 1860s from the Legislature.

Art historian Elizabeth Milroy, who is writing a book on Fairmount Park, said its historic homes, nearly all on their original sites, offer a rare glimpse of the city's 19th-century landscape. But if park planners valued the homes, they didn't quite know what to do with them, she said.

''It's almost impossible to maintain a historic house unless that house has some kind of endowment," said Milroy, a professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

The city today sets aside only a few million dollars, in a good year, for capital improvements in the park, while the trust has an operating budget of about $600,000.

Auxiliary groups -- such as Colonial Dames of America, which operates Lemon Hill, a neoclassical house that became the first property acquired in the 1830s -- run a handful of the homes as small museums.

''For us, it's about creating sustainable preservation," Rader said. ''If I can get a tenant in Ohio House to pay for its rehabilitation and maintenance and pay me rent to keep Lemon Hill going . . . it's a whole new paradigm."

Price welcomes Fairmount Park's continuing evolution. Park officials in other eras agreed to host the Centennial and build the zoo in the park, he noted.

''Each generation, we search for ways to preserve this great asset," he said. ''I think it's the greatest urban park in America."

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