A dream more than 20 years in the making is one step closer to reality following Monday's meeting of the Tamaqua Historical Architectural Review Commission.
Sank and Bernadette Griffiths were making a repeat visit to the HARC board, looking for approval to tear down three houses next to the E. Franklin Griffiths Funeral Home, 655 E. Broad St. Their hope was to turn the properties into green space, a reflective garden where people could enjoy nature's beauty, soothe their weary feet as well as their burdened hearts.
The board was reluctant to approve demolition of the properties, which are located in the borough's historic district. At the Griffiths' first appearance, the couple was told to provide three bid estimates to repair the properties at 647, 649 and 651 E. Broad St., and a current real estate appraisal to prove whether or not rebuilding was economically feasible.
One contractor refused to provide a specific total as building costs would hinge on the materials needed to restore the "historic" nature of the buildings. The other two bids were $880,00 - $950,000 and $1.1 million. The three buildings, together, were appraised at $39,900. That would mean the rental fees for such properties would need to approach $2,000 a month, while Schuylkill County's median rental rate is more like $800 a month.
In the meantime, Tamaqua Code Enforcement Officer James Barron inspected the buildings and condemned all three. Barron told the board that two of the properties, 647 and 649, had their "back halves falling in. The fire department couldn't use the vacant buildings for practice, as the floors are unable to hold that weight." His concerns about the third building center around the attic, where "the walls are buckling and the floor has dropped three and one half inches. We'd have to rip out a lot to determine why that happened."
Board member Mark Conville was reluctant to approve demolition as HARC's intent is to "preserve the fabric of each block in the historic district. A green space doesn't fit with the way the street is laid out." He asked the couple to consider restoring the front halves of the property, possibly for use of the out of town families who use the funeral home's services.
Chairman Dale Freudenberg agreed with Conville, noting the structures "don't have to be historically unique to be preserved."
HARC member Sally Neumann supported the Griffiths' plans, noting the "green space would provide comfort to grieving families as well as the neighborhood."
Freudenberger summed it up, "None of us doubt you will do a great job of making the property attractive, a first class job," but the board's goal was to keep history alive. We understand the exorbitant expense involved."
Also, the condemnation notice, in accordance with borough ordinances, left the board with no choice but to approve the demolition of the buildings. Conville cast the only negative vote, while Neumann, Freudenberg, Barron and Dan Schroder all voted to issue a demolition certificate of appropriateness.
Bernadette Griffiths assured the board that every effort will be made to salvage items of historical importance, such as the stained glass, beveled and leaded windows. "We will preserve them."
The couple has gone to the added expense of hiring a historic landscaper and historic architect to ensure the project fits in with the neighborhood. "We bought the first property in 1985, and the second one in 1992, before HARC, with the future intention of turning the property into a garden. We acquired the final piece of the puzzle in 2011 and found ourselves before the HARC board. I understand their concerns, but this is a dream a long time in the making. The community will be proud of the end result, which will probably take up to two years to complete to do it right."
The next step is up to Tamaqua Borough Council, when they vote tonight to either accept or reject the HARC board's recommendation.