Built-in 1890, the Spence Building is one of West Chester’s most prominent structural fixtures. When Zukin Realty decided to start renovating the building, they had specific plans in mind. Not only for the Spence Building but also for the soon-to-be Hotel Indigo that will stand beside it: a taste of modern with a salute to the past, if you will. Their primary vision was to turn the building into eleven one- and two-bedroom apartments with a small restaurant on the first floor. They weren’t long into the project before they realized they would need to alter their plans. What they found under the faux brick/stucco facade brought years of history to light.
Uncovering the Past
In the beginning, removing the facade and replacing it with white brick would have allowed the old building to blend in well with its surroundings. They chose to return the building back to its original glory. They would save the historical integrity of the building by restoring the original sandstone facade. This included maintaining the curved shape of the door and windows on the first floor. They also chose to restore the mansard roof using the original materials: slate and copper.
The Spence Building
Note: All Images Property of Zukin Realty
Bringing History to Life
The Spence Building is named after well-known restaurateur and entrepreneur James Spence. Spence was recognized throughout the area for providing quality food and hospitality to his patrons. “My great-grandfather originally ran the restaurant that served the ‘elite’ in West Chester. Our family grew their own radishes and made their own horseradish in the basement that they served to guests in the restaurant,” says Vernét Spence-Brown, a local resident and great-granddaughter of James Spence. “Our family was enslaved at one time in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, before the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. We eventually end up in West Chester, PA,” elaborates Mrs. Spence-Brown. Against unspeakable odds, James Spence achieved his dream by becoming a local business owner.
James Spence was the first African American to apply for and receive a liquor license in Chester County. Sadly, an unconfirmed scandal–intertwined with local mythology–later resulted in the building falling out of the family’s hands. “Someone from town (nobody knows who) wanted to push Irish, African-American, and other ethnic business owners out of that end of town. They sent someone into my grandfather’s restaurant to order a drink who was underage, there was a raid, and–subsequently–my grandfather’s liquor license was revoked. My grandfather spent all his money to clear his name. The case went all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. My grandfather ultimately won, his name was cleared, but sadly he spent all his money in the process,” exclaimed Mrs. Spence-Brown.
Looking to the Future
As the renovations at 29 East Gay Street continue, Scott Zukin looks to the future. “The building was in awful shape for many years. My family bought the building in 1978 from the Nagle Family (a prominent local family), and it was our first major purchase in town. It was directly next door to my father’s (the late Stan Zukin) pharmacy.
Working with any historical building poses unique challenges. For townies who remember, it was originally the Quaker Baker. After many years, the structure deeply needed to be brought up to code, and we had to close it for quite some time to make sure the building was safe and brought up to code,” says Scott Zukin. His goal was to restore the Spence Building while maintaining the city and county building guidelines. He is giving the old building a new lease on life by adding foam insulation where other types of installation may not fit and upgrading the electrical and plumbing. At the same time, one of West Chester’s oldest and most beloved buildings is being given the facelift it deserves. “The building isn’t really anything new,” chuckles Zukin. “It is all the old stuff that has been meticulously restored, the slate roof brought back to life, and the facade now reveals the original limestone that was covered for decades by brick. I think this building will always remain one of the most prominent buildings in our beloved town. I don’t believe anything will change that.”
West Chester is a community built on tradition and a commitment to preserving its history. “I am excited that this building won’t be torn down. That happens a lot in our country, and history is lost forever. Not many people know that this building is a part of a family of African Americans who were formerly enslaved people,” exclaimed Mrs. Spence-Brown. For Scott Zukin and Zukin Realty, saving the Spence Building is far more than just restoring some sandstone and roofing. He is giving the community a small piece of its history that it can cherish and appreciate for many years. “The historic restoration of the Spence Building just had to be done. It had to be done for the legacy of James Spence and his family name. It just had to be done.”