Revival in Philly

After a green renovation, a bath house thrives as a café.

In Philadelphia in the 19th century, the Schuylkill River flowed through a section of rapids about three miles northwest of center city. Today, thanks to a dam, the river runs smoothly, a perfectly quiet field for local college crew teams. One surviving clue to the river's former shape is the name of the neighborhood next to the once-churning section: East Falls.

And sitting in East Falls a stone's throw from the Schuylkill, on land that's part of Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, is a small, century-old brick building known as the Bathey. After serving as a public pool house until 1957, the building was relegated to a tool shed for Fairmount Park, and over time it devolved into idle storage space.

"People didn't see that building for decades," explains Lucy Strackhouse, executive director of the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust, the nonprofit that manages and leases the park's historic properties.

While most people didn't notice the Bathey, members of the East Falls Development Corporation did. A study identified the building as a potential neighborhood "gateway"—an idea that caught on with real estate developer Ken Weinstein about four years ago. Weinstein became convinced that the Bathey was an ideal candidate for adaptive use.

"The obvious use for a gateway like this [was] food," Weinstein said last winter, munching on an egg sandwich inside the Trolley Car Café, the eatery he created out of the dilapidated Bathey building. "Food is what brings people in; it's what attracts other businesses. It's the perfect economic development tool."

Honoring the Bathey

Next month the Trolley Car Café at the Bathey House will receive a preservation achievement award from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, a National Trust partner.

Transforming the Bathey into a café took several years for financial and physical reasons. As a partner in a real-estate development firm as well as the owner of other eating establishments, Weinstein served as both developer and prospective tenant. First, he needed to line up funding, eventually cobbling together a half-dozen different sources that included the Schuylkill River Heritage Association, the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, and the William Penn Foundation. Once financing was in place, he faced an architectural and construction challenge. 

The cluttered, neglected building was structurally precarious. A crumbing rear wall needed to be rebuilt, and the leaky, drooping roof was shaved off and replaced.

"I gave the building two or three years before it started to cave in," Weinstein says. "I believe we were that close. We didn't have very long to save it."

The Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust's Strackhouse agreed: "The roof was pretty much gone." Part of the organization's responsibilities when leasing park properties is to oversee renovation plans and make sure they are historically accurate. For the Bathey, says Strackhouse, "We required they keep the exact roof line, although they used a different framing system." The roof, she noted, is "a distinct feature of the building—it's like a little hat." The Trust also made sure the correct kind of mortar and pointing techniques were employed.

Green Scene iconUltimately Weinstein was able to keep much of the original structure and several accents, including the metalwork in the half-moon windows and the front-door gates that found a second life as decorative display elements. Nonetheless, the Bathey, in its new incarnation as the Trolley Car Café at the Bathey House, sported several modern touches when it opened in June 2010. Five solar light tubes provide lighting, a solar water heater produces about 70 percent of the Café's hot water needs, and two rain barrels gather water for a 20-by-20-foot herb and vegetable garden modeled off the one in Weinstein's back yard.

"We tried to renovate in an eco-friendly way," says Weinstein, noting that when he rehabbed a building for one of his other restaurants 10 years ago, "A lot of that stuff wasn't even on the radar, and now it's front and center."

One factor making a breakfast/lunch/dinner Café project more viable was the creation in the last few years of a multi-use trail along the Schuylkill River that has proved immensely popular with Philadelphians. According to Gina Snyder, director of the East Falls Development Corporation, each month about 22,000 people use the trail. In order to establish the building's "gateway to East Falls" status, the EFDC requested that visitor information be available and the bathrooms remain public for the walkers, runners, and cyclists who pass by on the trail. Using a Schuylkill River Heritage Association grant, Weinstein installed a three-minute video and wall maps of the area in a corner of the Café, "So people could come in, whether they're customers or not, and get a sense of where this sits relative to the whole Schuylkill River."

For her part, Strackhouse is thrilled with the project's success. When the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust considers new functions for the park's historic structures, she explained, "We always look for a way for these buildings to be open to the public. We strive to have public access." While that can come in many forms—an arts center, an events venue, a multi-use office space—Strackhouse noted, "The Café model has worked well for us recently." Reviving the Bathey as the Trolley Car Café is "good for the park, and it's good for East Falls."

 

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Comments

Submitted by Judy Stock at: April 4, 2011
Great article Theresa. I always love it when an old building is turned into something useful becoming a treasure to the community.