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.”
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
Nathaniel Popkin is the co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and co-producer and senior script editor of the documentary film series "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment." He's the author of Song of the City: An Intimate Portrait of the American Urban Landscape and The Possible City: Exercises in Dreaming Philadelphia.