Protecting Our Philadelphia History

Updated: Feb 1

Back in Time

It’s 1964 and a historic mansion outside Philadelphia is about to be demolished. Run-down and unoccupied, its centuries of history are about to be gone forever.

Fortunately, at the time the Committee to Establish a Youth Hostel in Philadelphia stepped in, circumvented the plans, and turned this historic site into the first urban youth hostel in the United States. Still in business almost 60 years later, it’s a landmark of Philadelphia history.

That’s right, we’re talking about Chamounix Mansion, built in 1802 by former Philadelphia merchant George Plumstead. This federal-style house was protected for decades by a small group of dedicated owners who championed the idea of youth development and sharing Philadelphia’s cultural history.

A Silent ‘S’

In recent years, however, Chamounix Mansion was once again in danger. The youth hostel’s positive mission of education and cultural exchange was put to the test as the City of Philadelphia attempted to reclaim $480,000 in back taxes and interest from 2008-2013. The city claimed the Mansion operated as a hotel, not a hostel, and hadn’t paid the required hotel taxes in decades.

This tax was for “the use or occupancy by a transient of a room or rooms,” but the Chamounix Mansion hostel pointed out their dormitory setup; no one who stayed in the hostel had their own room. For three days, the City and Chamounix Mansion debated whether the hostel could be considered a hotel for the purposes of this tax.

If the courts found Chamounix Mansion liable for these taxes, it would have put them out of business, said Bill O’Brien, a lawyer who chairs Chamounix’s volunteer board.

Ruling in Favor of Philadelphia

The Honorable Lori A. Dumas heard both sides of the argument and understood where the city was coming from. However, the city government failed to issue proper notice and simply couldn’t prove the space qualified as a hotel. In fact, Chamounix Mansion is listed as the city’s only youth hostel and the original 1964 arrangement was to maintain a piece of Philadelphia’s history, not to be a hotel.

The Chamounix Mansion nonprofit youth hostel “created a viable, effective, and impactful place for young people to come and learn things in history that made a difference," Judge Dumas noted, and by requiring the tax would have frustrated that purpose."

As such, Judge Dumas recently ruled against the city, saying their attempt to collect the back taxes was invalid.

Community Partnership

Judge Dumas attributes this ruling to her wealth of experience “looking at more than just the money.” While some may believe it may have been in her best long-term interest to side with the city government, a judge “needs enough experience and exposure to look a little deeper,” she says.

Judges don’t choose what cases come to them, but they can choose how impartial, balanced, and carefully considered their decisions and rulings are. These decisions are often made in “gray areas” that significantly affect not only the people involved, but the surrounding communities.

"I believe in a collaborative effort between community and the courts," Judge Dumas explained, and “I’m proud of that decision because I know it was not only based in the law, but it was the right thing to do.”

There’s no doubt that Judge Lori A. Dumas always puts Pennsylvania first. Her track record of excellence in judicial rulings and passion for Pennsylvania’s citizens are unparalleled. Learn more and support her campaign here.