Incentives Coming For Renovating Kensington Mills

 

Quaker City Dye Works | Photo: Powers and Co.

The fire that destroyed the Buck Hosiery mill in Kensington has helped to galvanize an effort to create a National Register historic district for commercial and industrial buildings related to Kensington’s textile industry–the first such attempt to systematically treat the remnants of Philadelphia’s “Workshop of the World” as assets for the city of the future.

The “thematic” district, which should receive full approval by the end of 2012 or beginning of 2013, will designate 48 buildings as historic, meaning that they will become eligible for historic preservation tax credits and other financial incentives should owners seek to renovate. The buildings are all in the area bounded by Girard, Lehigh, Frankford, and Germantown Avenues, 6th Street, and Norris Street. The project was initiated by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and has the support of the State Office of Historic Preservation.

The Buck Hosiery building would have been in the district had it not been destroyed by fire.

“What makes this unique is the concentration of factories in Kensington,” says Logan Ferguson, a senior associate at Powers and Co., the consulting firm contracted by the Preservation Alliance in October to prepare the nomination. Unlike the vertically-integrated textile mills of New England, where all processes–from looming to cutting to dyeing–happened under the same roof, in Kensington, “all this happened within the neighborhood and the products were taken from building to building.”

Ruins of Buck Hosiery | Photo: Peter Woodall

With so much of this urban fabric now lost, says Ferguson, “more attention should be paid, really.” Her hope is that the new district will enable City officials and neighborhood organizations to work proactively with building owners to avoid more tragedies like the Buck and to help leverage the buildings as assets as development picks up speed in the neighborhood.

“It’s a good idea,” says Sandy Salzman, executive director of the New Kensington CDC, which had Beatty’s Mill, at Coral and Hagert Streets, designated historic before converting it to live/work apartments in 2005. Salzman also cited the historic designation of the 26th District Police Station as critical in that building’s redevelopment process (though in that case the system broke down, as we reported HERE). “We have a lot treasures in the neighborhood we’d like to restore, but historically accurate renovation is expensive–you have to ensure the integrity of the structure and to do that you have to use top contractors–so the tax credit definitely is a good tool.”

In addition to great mill complexes like Quaker City Dye at Front and Oxford (where the evolution of manufacturing technology and architecture can be seen in one place), the proposed district includes the original Bromley carpet mill across the street from Buck Hosiery, the Drueding Brothers chamois mill at 5th and Master, the two monumental, and threatened, banks at Front and Norris (established by textile manufacturers to serve the industry), and the Hosiery Knitters Union Club on North 4th Street.

Ferguson says that having done a great deal of the surveying and research necessary for the National Register, potentially these buildings can be placed on the Philadelphia Historic Register. Doing so would grant them a much higher level of protection from demolition and make them among the first buildings related to work and industry on the city’s list.

For our report on Philadelphia’s broken system of historic preservation, click HERE.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is also senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine.



4 Comments


  1. Cool idea. I hope they keep the ruins of the hosiery remaining, they kind of look nice. (I mean, if the building itself had to be lost.)

  2. Max Richardson

    How about changing the tax policy that drove these companies out of Philadelphia in the first place?

    • In this case, it wasn’t just unfavorable taxes. Loft industrial structures slowly became obsolete over the first half of the 20th century as the assembly line came to dominate earlier gravity-based chute-fed systems. (See, for example, the massive Atwater Kent plant and Budd complex on Hunting Park West for early examples of such groundscrapers.) Older industrial companies, like Buck Hosiery or Quaker City Lace, have generally had to (a) modernize their plant–that means move to a groundscraper–(b) merge with a company that had already modernized their plant, (c) find and exploit a niche business, or (d) go out of business.

      Making this more difficult is the fact that the needle trades have historically been concentrated in the South, meaning that most mergers occurred with Southern firms, and that the rise of Chinese industrialism has effectively expurgated whatever remained of the American needle trades.

      So, to make a long story short, while I agree that Philadelphia’s business taxation needs reformation, it is unfair to assert that the taxation schema was the only, or primary mechanism driving the needle trades’ decline.

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