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Foreclosure crisis hits home on old Philly block

Mold covers the drywall, windows and floors; dusty furniture languishes inside. It's like any of the thousands of abandoned homes dotting suburban ghost towns in the wake of the foreclosure cris...

Mold covers the drywall, windows and floors; dusty furniture languishes inside. It's like any of the thousands of abandoned homes dotting suburban ghost towns in the wake of the foreclosure crisis — except this brick row house is in the heart of old Philadelphia, on one of America's first residential streets.

The plight of 109 Elfreth's Alley, on a cobblestone street built in 1702 and visited by 250,000 tourists a year, shows that homes with historic pedigrees are not immune from the foreclosure problem, preservationists say.

"We're subject to the same problems as streets all over America. We have a house in foreclosure, right here," said P. Justin Detwiler, a preservation architect and vice president of the Elfreth's Alley Association, formed by residents in 1934 to buy and renovate homes.

The 200-year-old, three-story house with blue-gray shutters was abandoned in 2008 by its owners, who were building a rear addition, according to the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia's list of the area's 10 most endangered properties.

"The house and its unfinished addition have sat vacant ever since, suffering from severe water infiltration, mold infestation, and vandalism," the list states.

Philadelphia public records identify Scott and Caren Cronin as the owners of the home, which Detwiler said is in limbo between two banks with claims on it. An address for them in suburban West Grove is also in foreclosure, according to Chester County sheriff's sale records.

A call to a West Grove phone listing for the couple was not returned, nor was an e-mail sent to Caren Cronin through her blog. Photos of both houses have since been removed from the blog's home page.

"The house isn't going to be torn down. I don't think anyone would let that happen," Detwiler said. "But there are complicated issues of foreclosure and of renovations gone awry that we need to sort out."

Elfreth's Alley, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is often called the oldest continuously inhabited street in America, though streets in Santa Fe, N.M., and St. Augustine, Fla., make similar claims.

It was built for carts traveling to the nearby Delaware River waterfront and named for Jeremiah Elfreth, an 18th-century blacksmith and land speculator who built and rented out several homes there. Its 32 surviving row houses were built between about 1724 and 1836.

Unlike the nearby Society Hill mansions built for the city's upper crust, the humble homes of Elfreth's Alley were populated by laborers, shipwrights and craftsmen. Waves of immigration from the 18th to the 20th century were reflected in the block's changing ethnic mix.

The Industrial Revolution surrounded the block with smoke-spewing factories, and poverty and decay overtook many of the homes. The Elfreth's Alley Association began working to save the block from threats of demolition.

More than 70 years after it was derided as a slum, the street today bustles with young families, college-age renters and camera-toting visitors.

While it doesn't appear that a historic private home in the U.S. has found itself in a similarly serious bind, several historic churches nationwide are languishing in foreclosure. Preservation Alliance president John Gallery said 109 Elfreth's Alley was placed on the group's endangered list as a way to shed light on a larger issue.

"Elfreth's Alley and the houses there are significant, but what we thought was most important was to show that foreclosure issues can affect historic properties even in such historically important locations," he said.

The neighborhood association has found one of the banks with a claim on the house but hasn't yet tracked down records on the second one, Detwiler said. His group wants to secure funding and volunteer labor, he said, but such ideas will remain speculative as long as the house remains in an uncertain state of receivership.

The city is poised to enact legislation requiring individuals or banks that acquire foreclosed vacant homes to bring them up to code in 15 days.

Under the proposal passed by City Council and backed by the mayor, owners would have to register with the city, or appoint a local manager if they're not based in Philadelphia, and post names and contact information on the building for residents to call with concerns.

Lawmakers said Chicago and Milwaukee have adopted similar measures in an effort to prevent the rapid deterioration that often follows foreclosure — and make it easier to track down banks holding foreclosed properties.

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Online:

Elfreth's Alley Association: http://www.elfrethsalley.org

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