VENTNOR, N.J. - With a bid of $4.125 million, Steve and Ilene Berger of Newtown Square won Saturday's auction of an historic oceanfront seashore villa owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that played host to decades of vacationing and elderly priests.
The Bergers said they plan to preserve the former St. Joseph's
Villa by the Sea as a family vacation compound for their children and grandchildren, retain longtime caretaker Fran McManus, and have the priests over for an annual party.
First off, a second story porch expansion, a total renovation - and a mezuzah, the ritual parchment placed on doorposts of Jewish homes.
"I feel very blessed to have this home," said Ilene Berger, who blurted out an incremental $25,000 raise in the bid price to seal the deal for the property. "It's a very spiritual house."
Before the auction, Archdiocese representative Thomas M. Croke, who is handling various property distribution for the church as it tries to solve its financial crisis, said there were "lots of mixed feelings."
Afterwards, archdiocese officials, who watched the auction stoically from the side, declined to comment and left immediately after signing papers with the Bergers.
It was not quite a steal of the former church property at 114 S. Princeton Ave., but the concensus among those present, including two developers who bid against the Bergers, was that it was a very good deal.
The 21,875-square-foot, 11 room Tudor style mansion was assessed at $6.2 million and commanded $114,500 in property taxes.
The Archdiocese, facing a $6 million deficit and a price tag of at least $11.6 million for its response to the 2011 Philadelphia grand jury report on clergy sex abuse, was anxious to unload the property.
The auction, conducted by the Max Spann agency, took place under a tent in the property's spacious back yard, with bidders facing what was once a shrine to the Virgin Mary, and onlookers from the Boardwalk peeping over the brick wall surrounding the yard.
The winning bid came after fierce bidding between the Bergers, local contractor Maurice Davis, and two developers who both were planning to tear the building down and subdivide the lot.
The official sale price was $4,537,500 after a 10 percent buyers fee. The terms of the auction required the Bergers to post 10 percent immediately and close within 45 days.
The auction took a total of about 20 minutes, and nearly ended at a $3.8 million bid from the Bergers, with a going once, and going twice called out by auctioneer Joe Bodnar.
At that point, officials from Max Spann went off with Archdiocese officials. They returned to say that the Archdiocese had indicated it would accept any bid from that point on: the auction was now an absolute auction.
They were able to coax out another $300,000, as the Bergers, who own a rental property business in Pennsylvania, went head to head with Mark Hankin of Elkins Park, a developer who was there with his wife, and on the phone with his brother-in-law.
At one point, with Hankin holding the high bid at $3.95 million, the Bergers were looking at each other saying, "It's your call," and "No, it's your call," back and forth. Ultimately, they upped their bid.
Hankin let it stand. "She'll butcher me, but we'll let it pass," he said into the phone before ending his bidding.
Standing next to the Bergers, Deborah Buchalski, a renovator and builder who runs Remarkable Renovations and has preserved several historic homes in Ventnor, erupted in glee. She will oversee the renovation of the home for the couple, who seemed a little stunned.
"It was a little scary for me, but I'm just very thrilled," said Ilene Berger.
The backyard with its contemplative lily pond could easily be transformed into a generous swimming pool in its new incarnation, and the Bergers - who have three children and four grandchildren, with two more on the way - said they planned to do just that.
It could also have been subdivided into six lots, and neighbors said they were relieved that the house would stay. (Another landmark Ventnor property, on Dorset Avenue, sold several years ago by the Sisters of Charity, was later torn down; much of the land is still vacant.)
"I think this is the best outcome for the Archdiocese and for Ventnor, even though I'm a developer," said Eustace Mita, of Ocean City and Media, who dropped out of the bidding after it went above $3.875 million.
Gayle Economou, a neighbor on Portland Avenue, was also relieved. "I've been so nervous. It's critical to my view." She watched the auction from her balcony.
McManus, whose family had overseen the care of the priests for four decades, was all smiles. "It's wonderful," she said. She predicted the priests would take the Bergers up on their offer for an annual reunion.
Local real estate agents had predicted the property could command in the area of $5 million and would likely attract the interest of investors looking to raze the century-old residence and build homes on single lots.
The archdiocese has been engaged in massive restructuring, cost-cutting, and selling of assets, including the Cardinal's residence outside Philadelphia.
Still, the property had enormous sentimental and practical value to the priests, especially the retired and elderly ones.
It was acquired in 1963 by then-Archbishop John Krol from Hannah G. Hogan, a real estate investor and owner of a plumbing supply company. Hogan wanted the home used for elderly and ill priests in memory of her brother, the Rev. Edward Hogan.
Though the property -which Hogan bought for $55,000 in 1961 - was said to have been donated to the Archdiocese, its June 2, 1963, deed shows tax stamps indicating a price of $100,000, according to the Atlantic County Clerk's Office.
That discrepancy was never resolved; the tax stamps could indicate a value placed on the property or a sale.
Under the direction of Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, the church embarked on a $500,000 renovation at the same time it was closing parishes in Philadelphia, leading to protests at the property. The renovations later were said to have been paid for by the John Connelly family of Pittsburgh.
"So sad to see it go," said Peggy O'Neill, from her porch up the block.
Archdiocese officials said they had found some indication in the papers of Cardinal Krol that Hogan wished the property to remain in the Church's hands indefinitely, but there was no legal barrier to a sale.
In any case, Hogan was a significant donor to the church; the property is now one of the highest-assessed homes in Ventnor and amounted to a $4.5 million donation at the end.