Mt. Airy Landmark May Get Second Chance

 by Jennifer Lin, Inquirer Staff Writer
Thursday April 26, 2012
 
Unlocking a side door to the abandoned Nugent Home for Baptists, James Nolen steps into the darkness of the chateau-style landmark in Mount Airy. He aims a flashlight down a long corridor littered with fallen plaster, trash, and glass shards.His company, Nolen Properties, part of a fourth-generation family construction business in Philadelphia, wants to convert the century-old building at 221W. Johnson St. into affordable housing for senior citizens.No one’s lived here for more than a decade — but someone’s clearly upstairs.Nolen hears footsteps.A raccoon?The sound is too heavy for an animal.Nolen calls police. Even with boarded-up windows and padlocks, Nugent attracts squatters and vandals. They already have stripped every inch of copper wiring from behind walls and ripped out radiators to sell as scrap, sometimes chucking them out windows.

“I once found a man living in squalor in a room on the second floor,” Nolen says. “He had 30 baby strollers and told me, `I’m doing witchcraft up here!’ ”

As two police cars pull onto the property, a pair of twentysomethings sheepishly emerges from the building. Ellen, who holds a camera and flashlight and carries a daypack, apologizes and explains that they are only “urban explorers.” Her friend John insists that they meant no harm and only wanted a glimpse into the Nugent’s past.

Peeved but not about to press charges, Nolen tells them, “Why don’t you make an appointment and look at the building next door that’s safe and finished?”

Next door, Nolen Properties already has restored the historic Presser Building, a former old-age home for music teachers that reopened last year as 45 apartments for low-income seniors.

Now, the company has moved one step closer to doing the same for the Nugent.

This month, the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency awarded Nolen Properties low-income housing tax credits worth $11.5 million. The company will sell those tax credits to investors and use the proceeds to cover much of the cost of restoring the building. The city’s Office of Housing and Community Development has agreed to lend the company $2.6 million.

While that covers most of the $16-million price tag, the project faces one more hurdle. Because the Nugent building is on the National Register of Historic Places, the National Park Service must sign off on the construction plan.

“We’re waiting for more information,” said Michael Auer, who works on technical preservation services for the National Park Service.

If it is approved, Nolen says, the company could begin renovating the Nugent in August. The plan is to convert the 3½-story Nugent building into 25 apartments, while constructing a new annex with 32 more units behind the historic property. The units would rent to people over 62 earning between $16,000 and $32,000.

Eventually, the company would like to create a campus for senior living on the six acres that includes the Nugent and Presser. On the drawing boards, Nolen said, is construction of a third building with 124 apartments.

In Mount Airy, demand for rental units that older people could afford on fixed incomes is strong, Nolen said. When the company finished the Presser Building next door, it rented all the units in three months and has more than 300 names on its waiting list. “The senior housing market is underserved,” he said.

Yvonne Haskins, a member of the zoning committee for West Mount Airy Neighbors, a community association, said residents in the area are “delighted” with the plans for the Nugent building. “The building has such a huge presence in West Mount Airy,” she said.

The mix of old and new will make the project economically feasible, Haskins said. Nolen Properties has said that it will cost $345,000 to renovate an apartment in the old building, vs. $150,000 a unit in the proposed annex. The new construction “is going to be done in a way that’s very sensitive to the historic value” of the Nugent Home, she said.

For the Nugent, the last few decades have been difficult.

Built in 1895, the brick-and-terra cotta old-age home was designed to look like a château. Philanthropist George Nugent, who made his fortune operating a textile mill near what is now East Falls, bequeathed the money for the retirement home in his will. During his years as a Baptist deacon, Nugent was concerned about the living conditions of elderly ministers and missionaries. He wanted to give them an alternative to the poorhouse or other government-funded institutions.

A few years after the Baptist Home opened, a music publisher, Theodore Presser, built a retirement home next door for elderly music teachers.

Both properties were bought in 1980 by an investor group and converted into boarding homes for the elderly and people with mental disabilities. Each had a long history of problems, including fires, decrepit conditions, overcrowding, and sexual assaults on residents.

The owners closed the personal-care homes in 2002 and reached an agreement to sell them to the Rev. Ray A. Barnard, who planned on demolishing the structures to build a new mega-church for his Impacting Your World Christian Center. Neighbors and preservationists were outraged and fought to list the properties on the National Register.

The deal fell through and Nolen stepped in in 2002, buying the two buildings and almost six acres for $2.5 million.

In bringing new purpose to the old Nugent building, Nolen will have his hands full. Historic renovations, he said, are not for the faint of heart.

“You’re going to be surprised,” Nolen said. “But it’s infinitely more rewarding to take something like this that is really art and put life back into it.”

Contact Jennifer Lin at 215-854-5659 or jlin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @j_linq.

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