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The shaggy spot where Jefferson drafted the Declaration

Despite its perch on sacred ground - the place where Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence - the Graff House is usually closed and not often visited.

The Graff House today needs work and is not often open. Officials hope
development in the area renews interest in the house. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
The Graff House today needs work and is not often open. Officials hope development in the area renews interest in the house. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)Read moreClem Murray / File Photograph

Despite its perch on sacred ground - the place where Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence - the Graff House is usually closed and not often visited.

Paint peels from the shutters, and the door is sprayed gray with the exhaust of buses and cars.

Now its fortunes may be about to change.

The development surging across a reviving Market East corridor promises to send thousands of potential visitors past the house at Seventh and Market Streets. And an Independence Park group is planning fund-raising to help pay for millions of dollars needed to repair the Colonial-style brick house.

"We absolutely see it as an opportunity to increase our visitation and to work on improving the exhibits and the house," said Jane Cowley, spokesperson for Independence National Historical Park.

Just east of the Graff House, a hip La Colombe coffee shop has joined the busy Independence Beer Garden at the base of the Dow building. An adjacent parking garage recently sold for $17 million to Brandywine Realty Trust, which sees a potential development site.

To the west, construction proceeds on the $230 million East Market development of stores and apartments, and the tired Gallery mall is preparing to close for a two-year, $325 million remake.

Those factors bode well for the Graff House, which is - historically speaking - a fake.

The home where Jefferson rented rooms in 1776 was torn down in 1883, to make way for a bank. The reproduction was built in 1975 amid a Bicentennial construction frenzy.

Staffing shortages limit its operation - this summer from June 27 to Sept. 7, for official tours only at 1:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. daily. The park plans to open the house in the fall, the dates not yet known.

Last year, open only in August and September, the house drew 1,066 visitors.

The first floor of what is also known as the Declaration House contains exhibits. On the second, the bedroom and parlor where Jefferson lived have been re-created with period furnishings.

The park service says the house needs $6 million to $7 million in major work including new heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, security, and fire-suppression equipment.

That's roughly five times the $1.4 million that the city says the property is worth. The park won't sell the house, or tear it down and rebuild.

"Our preference in the park service is to do everything that is needed to fully rehab the house," she said. "We hear from visitors that it's cool to be in the same spot."

So far, no government money has been allocated to pay for renovations.

For most of its existence, the property was not particularly beloved.

Jacob Graff Jr., a bricklayer, bought the land in 1775, obtaining what was then 210 High St. from Edmund Physick, the agent and negotiator.

The property sat at the city's edge, near fields. Graff built the house into which he and his family moved in spring 1776.

Jefferson arrived in May, a 33-year-old delegate from Virginia to the Second Continental Congress, renting two upstairs rooms. Known for his writing skills, he led a five-man committee charged with crafting a declaration to explain the colonies' insistence on independence.

For nearly three weeks he rose before dawn, ate breakfast, then sat at a writing desk to set down his thoughts with a quill pen. On July 4, the final wording of the declaration was approved and sent to printers, to be distributed across the land.

Jefferson left in September, having lived at the house for about 100 days.

The Graffs soon departed as well, selling the house the next year to Jacob Hiltzheimer, who ran a livery stable. When he died of yellow fever, the house went to a daughter, who sold it to a grocer.

In the mid-1800s the property passed through several hands, eventually purchased in 1882 by Penn National Bank - which tore it down to build a new corporate headquarters.

Frank Furness crafted a stone fortress of a bank with huge Palladian windows. A plaque commemorated the Graff House, and the bank gave Jefferson medals to children.

Beyond that, Jefferson had vanished from the site, which continued to change.

In 1932, Penn National merged with Central National, and the combined bank moved to new quarters. Two years later the bank building was bought and razed by Stern's, whose department store stood on Market.

The company leased the land to Sam Besses for a Tom Thumb hot dog stand. He prospered there for more than three decades, turning back occasional demands to make the site into a Jefferson memorial.

"There is nothing unpatriotic," Besses retorted, "about running a decent business."

As the Bicentennial neared, a public push to buy the property gained momentum. Dwight Eisenhower and Harry S. Truman were named honorary chairs of a fund-raising committee.

By the end of 1972 the hot dog stand was gone. A rebuilt Graff House was dedicated in 1975.

Not everyone liked it.

Inquirer architecture writer Thomas Hine said the money would have been better spent on saving existing older buildings. He scolded backers who put up a Colonial-looking structure in the heart of a city, "as if the 19th and 20th centuries had never happened."

James Cuorato is a big fan of the Graff House.

The CEO of the Independence Visitor Center says the house can play an important role in a reviving Market East, offering historic context to increase the number of visitors and enhance their experience.

"It's almost like a signpost, 'You're about to enter the historic district. You're approaching hallowed ground,' " he said.

The Friends of Independence National Historical Park, which raises money for the park, wants to help clean and improve the exterior, to impress the crowds expected at the papal visit this fall and the Democratic National Convention next year.

The group is at the start of planning a campaign to help raise millions of dollars for a big renovation.

"Anytime we bring anybody into that building, they immediately get it," said Maiti Gallen, the friends' program director. "Once people understand it, we'll definitely have a lot of supporters."