Greylock, the English Jacobean Revival-style mansion Pittsburgh steel magnate Henry Laughlin built as his retirement home in Chestnut Hill in 1909, is being auctioned off to pay back taxes and at least one foreclosed mortgage at a sheriff’s sale scheduled for Nov. 1.
The home, located at 209 W. Chestnut Hill Ave., has been vacant for “a number of years,” according to Lori Salganicoff, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Historical Society (CHHS). Its last occupant was a nonprofit organization that used the mansion as its office.
The sale has as its goal paying off $90,000 in back taxes plus the arrears on a mortgage held by a limited liability company that acquired the loan from its originator, Nova Bank. The stated opening bid for the property is $237,300.
Office of Property Assessment records show the property last changed hands in 2004 for $1.6 million; the OPA currently values the land at $836,400 and the improvements at $1,504,400 for a total market value of $2,340,800.
OPA records list the building as a noncommercial office building with parking, a use permitted under the conservation easement and the lot’s residential mixed-use zoning. Restrictions in the easement limit the nature of the office uses to which the mansion can be put.
The historical society holds two easements that restrict development on the property. One is a conservation easement covering the grounds surrounding the home; the other is a preservation easement that protects the mansion’s exterior. The easements are part of several managed by CHHS in partnership with the Friends of the Wissahickon with the aim of protecting the Wissahickon Creek watershed.
“We have in the Wissahickon a challenged watershed whose health is affected by the development around it,” said Salagnicoff. “The conservation easement is a way to maintain the health of the watershed by encouraging owners to maintain their open space in perpetuity.”
The easements contain detailed rules and guidelines governing use of the building and land. Salagnicoff said that the preservation easement is one of the “more difficult examples” of its kind because of the detailed restrictions.
The mortgage holder that initiated the Nov. 1 sheriff’s sale is one of three that have placed liens on the property. Sharon Humble, managing partner at the law firm of Linebarger, Goggan and Blair, said that the holder most likely decided to proceed with the sale because it anticipates significant interest in the property. “What I expect to see is that there will be competitive bidding on the property,” she said.
That would be good for the owner of the mortgage in foreclosure, said Sherman Toppin, principal and owner of the Sherman Toppin Law Firm. “Most properties that have a great enough value to trigger a sale like this usually don’t make it this far, for the lender will try to work out a straight sale of the property” from which the back taxes would also be paid.
In a sale such as this, creditors are paid after the city gets what’s owed to it. If the sale produces enough proceeds to clear the back taxes, creditors are then paid off in order of diminishing amount owed. If the sale brings in enough money to satisfy all creditors, any amount remaining goes to the owners of record — “but the owners have to ask for it,” Toppin said.
A report in the Chestnut Hill Local suggests that abiding by the easements may be a stumbling block to a successful sale of the property. In 2011, for instance, the Green Woods Charter School sought to amend the easement so it could use Greylock as its new home. The CHHS turned the request down because of the added traffic the school would bring to the site in violation of one of the key provisions of the conservation easement. “The easements committee did not feel that the alteration increased the conservation benefit at the property,” Salagnicoff said.
In addition to observing the conditions set forth in the easements, whoever wins the bidding will also have to make some repairs to fix a few problems that have cropped up since the building became vacant. Roof repairs will be needed to stop seepage that has caused water damage to the plaster work inside, among other things. But, Salagnicoff said, “it seems that the bones of the building are strong and there’s a lot to work with there.”
In a “preservation alert” emailed to members and other interested parties, CHHS said that it “is interested in working with potential buyers to balance the interests of potential development and continued preservation.” The easements prohibit alterations to almost all of the building’s exterior and restrict how the interior may be subdivided or used. Demand for housing in Chestnut Hill is such that the building could be successfully subdivided into condominiums or apartments, but no additional parking can be added beyond the 11 possible spaces now on the site. Any proposed amendments to the easements, Salagnicoff said, would have to enhance the conservation value of the site, and given that one of the main goals of the easements is to prevent further damaging runoff into the Wissahickon, adding blacktop is a non-starter.
Interested parties can email CHHS to express their interest and learn more about what is permitted under the easements. Salagnicoff advises any interested party to do due diligence on the property before preparing a bid.