Code hearing board grants changes to Dery designation
On Dec. 5, Catasauqua Borough Council called the code hearing board into session to clarify code issues on the Dery Mansion. The new owner asked for clarifications in code changes that took place during the past couple of decades.
A code hearing is different from the more frequent zoning hearing. A code hearing is necessary when there is a violation of the building code. It is rare the board ever meets.
How did the Dery Mansion get into this predicament? After World War II, the property was converted to a banquet hall, and during the war, it was used for apartments and war functions.
The banquet function of the mansion continued to the mid-1980s when the banquet hall was closed. The mansion continued as an apartment building and finally as a single-family home until it was abandoned.
Every time the building use changed, its code designation changed. Based on the latest iteration, the Dery Mansion is a single-family home. According to the code, a banquet facility cannot be operated in a single-family home — hence the need for a code review. Newer codes carry more restrictive designations.
For background information, everyone who approached the borough to change the code was told the change would be permanent and could not be reversed. That code statement caused trauma among other developers resuscitating the borough’s older, repurposed buildings. The problem is not limited to the Dery Mansion.
Catasauqua’s code hearing board consists of Terry Roberts, James Wellner, John Brubaker, David Harth and Kathy Hinkle. Hinkle was unable to make this session.
The new owner, Herve Rousseau, was anxious about the ruling. He spent over $500,000 on the Dery Mansion as is.
“I could not get a loan to buy the property, so I had to pay cash,” he said.
The code appeal was filed by John Lee Jr. Lee is an architect who worked with Randy Wagner, the last developer who made alterations to change the property to a bed-and-breakfast inn.
Rousseau explained his idea on how to return the mansion back to its former glory in a five-step plan. To get there, he needs to get the wedding venue part of the program underway. His estimated cost is $1.2 million. Rousseau and Lee want to have large, elegant staterooms available for guests. The loan cannot be granted until the code problem is corrected.
The plan rests on Rousseau’s genius to create elegant destination sites. He has a Champagne bar in New York City and his original nightclub in Paris.
“I see this as a wedding venue that I can bring back and rejuvenate. I like the area and intend to be actively involved in the operation,” he said.
Rousseau even mentioned he liked the borough enough to want to live here.
The board, as expected, granted permission to change the coding back to a commercial designation that would allow the banquet facilities.
With that done, Lee asked for changes including eliminating sprinklers, ingress/egress questions and access to the rooftop. Rousseau wants to reactivate the rooftop garden.
Cameron Smith was in the audience. Smith has a detailed knowledge of the mansion, its history and unique construction and details.
“Textile fires were common when Dery was enlarging the home in 1915. He built it with fire protection in mind. The floors are concrete; walls are packed with terra-cotta clay; ceilings and walls are plastered,” he said.
Lee concurred with the assessment.
Special exceptions were granted under the condition that there would be manual and automatic fire alarms, doors would swing properly to allow easy egress and both staircases would be available to access the route garden, so an alternate escape stair could be used if necessary.
With these legal hurdles cleared, financing can now be negotiated. With money, Rousseau will be ready to fire the starter’s pistol and set the project in motion. No firm dates for the project were set at this meeting.