When Scott Donahue walked by an abandoned home on the 2300 Block of St. Albans Place he disliked the blight. So he decided to do something about it.
“Any of the historic look had been lost. I live on the block so I was concerned about the house, just for the blighting effect it had on the block.” Donahue, an estate and real estate lawyer, said. “I had renovated my house on the block and so I felt I knew how to really restore the house.”
This project, unlike the majority of home renovations, had a specific requirement. The 2300 block of St. Albans Place is a designated historic area, so like Donahue’s home renovation, the restoration of this long-abandoned house would have to be overseen by the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
“2307 had been vacant for 31 years. The woman had died in 1979, and the family settled the estate,” Donahue, 42, said. “Many years went by and it wasn’t inhabited, so it began to deteriorate very badly.”
Donahue was able to work with the estate lawyers to sell the property to him. He then began the year-long restoration process that finished up in September 2011.
“I purchased it at the end of 2010, in October. It took almost a year to renovate. The exterior basically had to be rebuilt to match the historic look of the building so it was done under the supervision of the Historical Commission,” he said. “I worked with my architect and various contractors, some with a great deal of expertise in historical preservation issues, to undertake a full-scale renovation of the property.
The team’s hard work paid off. Upon completion of the restoration, Donahue successfully sold the building to a family, remedied the blighted property from his street and, on May 8, received a Grand Jury Award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.
“The Preservation Alliance, each year, they present a Grand Jury Award to 10 worthy projects around the region for a preservation that took place that year,” Donahue said. “I was the only single-family house to be so honored; most other honorees were larger, institutional structures.”
The luncheon to honor this year’s award winners, which had approximately 500 guests, Donahue said, was held in the Crystal Tea Room of the Wanamaker Building.
“I’d like to continue doing it,” he said. “I really enjoy historic preservation work and I think particularly, with more developmental pressure in South Philadelphia, hopefully whether it’s me or others, we take a look at some of the beautiful properties and try to preserve them.”
<strong> From the suburbs </strong> of Philadelphia, Donahue attended Princeton University before moving on to law school at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I had lived in Center City since 1995, and in 2008, I purchased my current home,” Donahue, who received his law degree in ’95, said. “I noticed a lot of change was coming and it made it more appealing. I think everyone knows Center City started to move out of its traditional boundaries in the early 2000s. A lot of people in Center City, including myself, began to see South Philadelphia as an important area.”
Attracted to the house’s façade, and the ongoing improvements in the neighborhood, Donahue purchased his home and undertook a much-needed renovation. The historic designation only applies to the building’s exterior, and owners can change the interior however they please.
“It was just the look of it [that drew me to my home]. I originally saw my house for sale, walking around the neighborhood. It was the uniqueness of the block and the look of the structures,” he said. “Mine was a full-scale renovation — interior and exterior. It was a complete rebuild of the exterior and interior.”
Not having a particular interest in historical preservation at the time, Donahue’s own home renovation helped spark his interest and advocacy on the topic.
“The houses on South Broad, some of those old mansions when you are heading down to the stadiums, are really beautiful. Most of them are not historically protected,” he said. “I hope people will be more mindful of the historical structures that have historic appeal.”
One way people can get involved is by nominating a structure, area or object for listing on the Philadelphia Registry, which, if approved, would ensure its historical preservation designation.
“You can nominate a property for the registry of historic properties by contacting the Historic Commission. If, for example, you see a beautiful mansion on South Broad that has architectural merit or someone famous lived there or a famous event took place, you can nominate that building to be put on the registry,” he said.
Donahue feels Philadelphians have a special privilege and therefore obligation to preserve the city’s great history through its architectural accomplishments.
“I don’t think you are going to find this kind of interest in Phoenix, Ariz. We have a huge inventory of 18th- and 19th-century structures,” Donahue said. “There has been a lot of development in the last 10 years and renewed interest in city living. We need to make sure we are not building by knocking down a lot of our beautiful old buildings that require renovation. That’s what makes this city special — the architecture.”
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