Every building meets its demise via a unique set of circumstances, however the historic buildings lost last year reflect some broad trends that will continue to play an important role in the coming year.
The devastating fires at the Thomas W. Buck and L.H. Parke industrial complexes, and a minor fire at the Divine Lorraine, highlighted the importance of sealing vacant buildings. Doing so isn’t easy–it requires consistent effort. Nor is it cheap, but many of these buildings that appear abandoned are owned by deep-pocketed developers–Tony Rufo, Bart Blatstein and the Lichtensteins, we’re talking to you–who can afford the expense.
The historical value of industrial buildings is finally being recognized, with new federal National Historic Districts at Wayne Junction and in Callowhill, and one pending for buildings connected to Kensington’s textile industry. But the federal designation only provides tax incentives, and the city historic register, which would have protected buildings like those at the Frankford Arsenal from demolition, hasn’t caught up with the federal effort.
Meanwhile, the city’s Historical Commission still lacks a comprehensive survey of historic properties, which would allow it to prioritize what needs to be protected, and would help prevent surprises like the demolition of Bunting House. The commission remains scandalously underfunded overall, with staffing levels that are far below comparable cities. You can read more about the holes in the city’s system of historic preservation HERE.
The city’s stock of beautiful 19th century churches continues to be a source of anguish. There are a lot more churches than congregations willing to call them home, perhaps as many as 200. And even those still being used suffer from decades of deferred maintenance, particularly those in poorer neighborhoods that have congregations with few resources. Now the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is planning to close a half dozen more churches and its downsizing isn’t done yet.
Finding new uses for all these churches will take imagination, will and money. Perhaps a formal program to stabilize threatened buildings could be created by the city. The work can be done quite cheaply with sweat equity, as the example of 19th Street Baptist in South Philadelphia has shown. A robust tax incentive program on the part of the city is another possibility. What doesn’t seem to work is selling churches for a song to nonprofits without the resources to restore or even maintain the buildings, as the Archdiocese did in selling Church of the Assumption to Siloam, an HIV/AIDS group, or St. Boniface to the Norris Square Civic Association.
Philadelphia has one fairly robust–though threatened–way of protecting buildings and that’s by putting them on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Register nominations have fallen off, however, in recent years because no new historic districts have been approved (buildings that contribute to an historic district become listed). In 2012, about a dozen buildings were nominated. Citizens can initiate register nominations–that’s the subject of an upcoming workshop we’re holding on January 16. To register for the event, click HERE.
Thomas W. Buck Hosiery Co., York and Jasper Sts.
Of all the buildings on this list, the loss of the Buck Hosiery mill buildings in an early morning blaze on April 9th is by far the most tragic. The fire not only destroyed a historic mill complex that might have been restored, but also cost the lives of two fire fighters. This terrible outcome might have been avoided had the property been properly maintained. Owners Yechiel and Michael Lichtenstein of Brooklyn-based YML Realty Holdings allowed the building to deteriorate after buying it in 2009, racking up numerous building code violations and $60,000 in unpaid property taxes along the way. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but the building was often open to trespassers, which is an invitation to disaster.
Bunting House, 5901 Ridge Ave.
This Second Empire-style house with a stone facade was built around 1880 by Dr. Ross Bunting, a prominent Roxborough physician. Owners Frank and Anthony Giovannone purchased the building and three adjacent properties on Ridge Avenue at foreclosure sale, and obtained demolition permits from L&I in September. The permit for Bunting House came as a surprise to community groups, since the building was in good condition and had tenants until this year. The Giovannones agreed to postpone demolition for 30 days to look for new tenants, but said they were unsuccessful. They did not accept two fair market offers to buy the property, and a last-minute request for an injunction was denied. With no plans for the site, the lot will remain vacant for the foreseeable future.
Frankford Arsenal, 5301 Tacony St.
Developer Mark Hankin’s demolition of more than two dozen historic industrial buildings on the north half of the Arsenal’s grounds may be the greatest wholesale loss of historic buildings since nine blocks around Independence Hall were torn down to create Independence Mall in the 1950s. Hankin purchased the entire Arsenal–all 86 acres and 167 buildings of it–in 1983 for $3.5 million, financed via low interest loans from the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation. A 1979 survey ranked the buildings on a scale of 1 to 4, with category 1 defined as “historic properties of great significance,” while category 4 buildings contain “little or no historic value,” and recommended preserving category 1,2, and 3 buildings. Since then, Hankin has torn down three category 1 buildings, one category 2 building, and a few dozen category 3 buildings. A shopping center is planned for the site.
Wakefield Presbyterian/Goodwill Baptist Church, 4711 Germantown Ave.
This large stone church was demolished very quickly, without a peep from the media, (including us) leaving a yawning gap in what had been a block-long string of handsome 19th century structures. It was built in 1886 by architect George T. Pearson, whose residential work is still scattered throughout Germantown and who designed both factories and residences for John Stetson, the Philadelphia hat manufacturer. The Goodwill Baptist Church, which purchased the property in 1975 for $115,000. We don’t have any information about when the church stopped being used or its condition, however the roof of the parish building in the rear had partially collapsed.
Church of the Nativity, 11th and Mt. Vernon Sts.
The Church of the Nativity was built in 1844 by noted Philadelphia architect Napoleon LeBrun, who also designed the Academy of Music. An adjacent building that housed classrooms, a convent, ballroom and small chapel, and once featured a bowling alley and basketball court was added in 1909. The Ruffin Nichols Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, the last congregation to make the Church of the Nativity its home, moved out two years ago and sold the property to developer Anthony Randazzo. Both buildings appeared to be in good condition, however Randazzo told the us that structural issues with the church building made restoration too expensive. He plans to build 12 townhouses on the site.
Frankford Central United Methodist, 1515 Orthodox St.
This Romanesque gem was built in 1892 by the prolific firm of Hazlehurst & Huckel, which also designed the Mother Bethel A.M.E. church and the Bachelor’s boat house on Boat House Row. One of the building’s walls partially collapsed in August, 2011, and owner Frankford Group Ministries, a provider of social services, did not have money to repair the damage. The City of Philadelphia paid to have the building demolished, and billed Frankford Group Ministries.
Van Straaten & Havey, 133 W. Berkley St. The loss of this former silk mill built in 1919 is especially unfortunate because it had recently been placed on the federal historic register as part of the Wayne Junction National Historic District established earlier this year. But any help the federal designation might have provided in the way of historic tax credits came too late–much of the roof had caved in years before, and the city deemed the building too hazardous to remain standing. The mill was last used to produce textiles in the 1940s and 1950s when it was No Mend Hosiery, Inc. An apparently defunct charity, the Eddie Francis Cancer Foundation, has owned the building since the 1980s, and accumulated $135,453 in City of Philadelphia real estate taxes, along with a number of property code violations for not maintaining the building.
L.H. Parke, 1100 block of N. Front St.
This small complex of vacant industrial buildings destroyed by fire in July had seen an extraordinarily rich variety of uses over more than 150 years. Manufacturing on the site began in 1843 with the Hope Mill, a maker of textiles. By the late 1850s, it had been replaced by Dougherty’s, a rye whiskey distillery, which thrived until Prohibition forced the company to close in 1919. Coffee roaster L.H. Parke moved in the next year, and the company’s faded, hand painted signs could still be seen on several walls. In recent decades the complex housed an appliance wholesaler and a cabinet maker. The buildings were badly deteriorated, and if they didn’t burn were probably destined for the wrecking ball. Still, nothing had been done to take care of the buildings, and the complex was often left unsecured, making fire all too likely.
Willys-Overland Building, 325 N. Broad St.
Built in 1910 for the Willys-Overland Motor Co., at the time the second largest auto maker in America, this colonial revival building was torn down to make way for the Pennsylvania Ballet’s new $17.5 million dance center. Part of North Broad Street’s “Auto Row” that developed in the 1910s and 1920s, the building had recently been placed on the national historic register as part of the Callowhill National Industrial Historic District. The demolition generated some controversy, not only because the building was on the federal register, but also because the project was funded in part by state and federal money.
Union Traction Company Substation #2, 123 E. Chelten Ave.
Described in 1990 in Workshop of the World as a “beautiful little system [that] has been operating reliably for over 80 years,” Substation No. 2 was taken off-line when SEPTA converted the Route 23 trolley to “temporary bus” in 1992. It had “a classic open-front switchboard of ebony asbestos, with gleaming copper knife switches and Weston meters with cast iron cases. Facing the switchboard are three rotary synchronous convertors, alleged to be among the last station sets in Philadelphia.” The substation was built in 1900 to provide 600 volts direct current to northwest Philadelphia’s trolley system. Deferred maintenance over the next twenty years allowed the building to deteriorate. With the restoration of trolley service on Route 23 still on indefinite hold, dismantling began late last year and was completed in 2012.
Peter Woodall is the co-editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a graduate of the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, and a former newspaper reporter with the Biloxi Sun Herald and the Sacramento Bee. He worked as a producer for Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane and wrote a column about neighborhood bars for PhiladelphiaWeekly.com.