The abandoned, 2,700-square-foot building sits in the center of Powelton Village's main drag.
Its windows are boarded up. Paint on the trim is peeling. Crumpled paper and trash are scattered just inside the entryway, as if someone tossed the debris into the air, let it fall — and permanently locked the door.
In a city where money from real estate investors seems to flow onto new blocks every week, a corner building on Lancaster Avenue, a main commercial corridor in gentrifying West Philadelphia, should have no problem attracting a developer to buy and flip it.
But what about a building tainted by imprisoned abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell?
It's a question that developers could grapple with soon. Earlier this year, the city initiated sheriff's sale proceedings against Gosnell's former "House of Horrors" abortion clinic at 3801-3805 Lancaster Ave., hoping to collect nearly $50,000 of delinquent real estate taxes, plus gas and water debts, that have accumulated since his building was raided in 2010. A court hearing is scheduled for Nov. 27, during which anyone with "ownership interest" in the property — meaning Gosnell himself or someone affiliated with him — can petition the court to pause the sheriff's sale process.
If no one appears, Gosnell's clinic will be sold at public auction in early 2019.
"I would imagine it's unlikely that someone would show up on his behalf, but it's possible someone might," said Cat Martin, a Community Legal Services lawyer who specializes in property tax cases.
But "given that he's unavailable," Martin continued, sheriff's sale is likely.
For Mantua and Powelton Village, two neighborhoods that were rocked by Gosnell's arrest in 2011, a sale could help the community move on, residents say. Since Gosnell was charged with killing one woman and seven babies delivered to term inside his abortion clinic — in addition to charges that he administered illegal late-term abortions and operated a "pill mill" — the vacant, blighted property that he left behind has attracted only rubberneckers and graffiti artists, residents say, and has stalled productive development nearby.
But neighbors disagree on what should happen to the property. Some in the past have advocated for demolishing the structure, physically eliminating any reminders of the crimes inside. Others have argued that the building, estimated to be at least 100 years old, should be maintained for its architectural value. Still others have indicated they care only about what fills the space — whether that be a medical facility, affordable housing, retail, or something else.
"We have not had a true community engagement about that parcel yet, but one thing that I know needs to take place is healing," said De'Wayne Drummond, president of the Mantua Civic Association, which has boundaries that fall just two blocks outside of where Gosnell's former clinic stands. "You can destroy something, but don't be healed, and you can restore something and still don't be healed."
"How can the community come together and go through a healing process with this development?"
Gosnell’s ‘House of Horrors’
Long before investigators descended on his clinic, Gosnell was a well-known West Philadelphia physician.
He was bright and respected — a pioneer in abortion procedures. After graduating from Jefferson Medical College in 1966, he moved to New York, learning abortion techniques years before Roe v. Wade would make abortion legally available nationwide in 1973.
He brought that knowledge back to West Philadelphia, a neighborhood where few doctors worked at the time. He was a friend to the community. He made house calls.
Yet Gosnell also was known for taking risks, including performing abortions on women far along in their pregnancies.
Eventually, that kind of risk-taking turned to recklessness.
When investigators raided his clinic on suspicion that Gosnell was dispensing narcotic prescriptions, they found far more than they could have imagined.
The feet of aborted fetuses were stored in jars. Furniture was stained with blood. Unlicensed employees administered anesthesia, and feral cats roamed the halls. Babies delivered in the third trimester had their spinal cords snipped with scissors once they were delivered. A 41-year-old woman, Karnamaya Mongar, died after receiving too much pain medication and anesthesia.
A 2011 grand jury report called it a "baby charnel house."
Gosnell was arrested days after the report was released and later found guilty on three counts of first-degree murder related to the deaths of the babies and one count of involuntary manslaughter, as well as charges related to dispensing narcotics. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
His clinic sat vacant during the saga — and ever since.
Demolishing doesn’t help
When major crimes or disasters happen, lawyers, homeowners, and organizations nationwide know exactly whom to call: Randall Bell, a California-based socioeconomist and CEO of Landmark Research Group, an advisory firm specializing in real estate damage.
Each case is different, Bell said in an interview, and there's no guaranteed solution. But, he added, it's typically easier to redevelop and move past crime scenes that happen in commercial buildings — particularly ones in urban areas, where he says the bustle and turnover of a city dims memories more quickly.
"When you have a horrific event that's inside a single-family residence, such as Jeffrey Dahmer's apartment, the effects on real estate are typically more profound because people live there and sleep there, and there are memories that you don't want to go home to," Bell said. "With commercial properties, while there can be an effect, it's usually different and typically less."
Demolition and address changes don't help much, either, Bell said, and instead can actually bring new attention — and passersby — to a property plagued by crime. He points to two examples: O.J.'s Simpson's Brentwood home, which was demolished, and the Heaven's Gate house in California, where 39 cult members conducted a mass suicide in 1997. The street name on that property was eventually changed.
"All it did was prolong the news cycle," Bell said. "It just gave people another reason to come out and see it."
In Philadelphia, houses on the sites of some of the city's most horrific crimes have remained standing. From the house of serial killer Harrison "Marty" Graham, who killed seven women and left six of them decomposing in his North Philadelphia house on 19th Street, to the apartment of Ira Einhorn, who killed his ex-girlfriend and left her corpse in a trunk in his closet for two years, most of Philadelphia's eerie real estate listings have found new life — with new tenants — as the city changes.
Philadelphia’s other ‘Houses of Horror’
‘A good owner?’
In the months that immediately followed Gosnell's arrest, many West Philadelphia neighbors wanted to tear down the building, according to Blaise Tobia, the former president of the Powelton Village Civic Association.
"They were horrified that a person they had seen as such a good guy had been a bad guy," Tobia said. "I think [the idea] has faded, and I think the sentiment now is 'Can we get a good owner for that building?'"
The property is zoned to accommodate small-scale commercial uses. Its history of violations with the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections is immense. But as Mantua and Powelton Village have seen a continued influx of wealthier, younger residents, particularly from nearby University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, the property will likely draw significant interest from buyers.
According to Tobia, the AlphaCare Philadelphia clinic next door, a pregnancy center that does not "refer for abortions," expressed interest at a civic association meeting last year in buying the property. He said the organization has been helping with exterior maintenance.
Karen Hess, executive director of AlphaCare, declined to comment.
Among other ideas that have been floated: affordable housing for women and children. The idea was supported in 2016 by the People's Emergency Center, a local community development corporation, as well as Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, who represents the area.
Bids at all Philadelphia sheriff's sales begin at $600. One of Gosnell's residential properties in Mantua, 646 N. 32nd St., will be auctioned at sheriff's sale on Jan. 16.