The Philadelphia Historical Commission is not currently reviewing nominations to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, placing several key heritage sites at risk that were nominated to the Register last year. Preservation advocates and community leaders expected the nominations to be reviewed by now, but a delicate political situation related to the designation of the nominated Overbrook Farms Historic District has frozen action on pending nominations and there is no timeline for when reviews will resume. (For our report on the conflict over the Overbrook Farms district, published first in Grid Magazine on February 7, click HERE.)
Designation to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places provides buildings with the highest level of protection from demolition or significant alteration.
Among the most vulnerable of the 14 recently nominated properties are the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia (pictured below), a fundamental part of 20th-century Jewish civic life nominated by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia; the Gretz Brewery in South Kensington nominated by South Kensington Community Partners; the home of printmaker Dox Thrash in North Philadelphia, nominated by the Preservation Alliance; and the early colonial Worrell/Winter House on Adams Avenue in Frankford (pictured above), nominated by the Frankford Historical Society.
Meanwhile, the nomination for the Washington Square West Historic District, which would cover 1,500 buildings, half of which are not currently protected, has languished for more than two years without any staff review.
The majority of the individual nominations, as well as the nomination for the Washington Square West district, were the product of a concerted push by the Preservation Alliance, motivated in part by their desire to make up for the Historical Commission’s lack of staff capacity and to keep the nomination process moving.
“The designation process is one of the first responsibilities of the Commission in the city’s historic preservation ordinance,” said Preservation Alliance advocacy director Ben Leech. “While we understand there might be capacity concerns, it seems as if they’re leaving the designation process at the bottom of their priority list and if that’s the case it’s very troubling.”
But Jonathan Farnham, Historical Commission executive director, told the Hidden City Daily that “there’s never been any sort of official timetable” for reviewing nominations to the Philadelphia Register.
The Commission’s Committee on Historic Designations meets on an as-needed basis to consider nominations before the full Commission votes on their approval. Recent practice has seen the committee meet an average of two to three times per year to review anywhere from four to ten individual nominations per meeting. The Designations Committee, however, has not convened since last February. The last comparable period of inactivity was a 12-month stretch in 2007-08–although that, said Leech, was mainly owing to a lack of nominations to review.
One of the buildings at greatest risk is the Worrell/Winter House, thought to be the oldest building in Frankford and “a classic example of rural Southeastern Pennsylvania farmhouse architecture that’s found within city limits,” said Kristin Hagar, the historical consultant who prepared the nomination for the Frankford Historical Society.
Constructed between 1718-1728, the stone structure is in “fair-to-poor condition,” according to the nomination. Patricia Coyne, a Frankford Historical Society board member, said the group had expected the nomination to be heard by the Historical Commission in August. “It didn’t happen in August,” she said. “It didn’t happen in September. We were very disappointed. We knew it was on the agenda, but they still haven’t scheduled a meeting.” The Historical Commission’s efforts to reach out to the owner of Worrell/Winter have been unsuccessful. And recently, the building was cleaned and sealed by the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspection. “We’re in a race against time.”
Other buildings in the queue, while structurally sound, remain vulnerable to redevelopment forces. The best-known example is Joe Frazier’s Gym on North Broad, which closed in 2008 and has been converted into a furniture showroom. The Preservation Alliance drew up the nomination for the gym with assistance from students at Temple and Penn as well as the Heritage Consulting Group, as a parallel effort to the push to list the gym on the National Register of Historic Places–that nomination, recently approved at the state level, is now pending before the National Park Service.
Two other sites–the Chinese Cultural and Community Center in Chinatown and the Pomerantz Building at 15th and Chestnut Streets–are vacant buildings whose fragile, elegant facades could be altered or completely removed. The Overseas Motorworks Building, a mostly one-story Art Deco structure at 15th and Fairmount, is adjacent to two large construction sites in a neighborhood experiencing strong development pressure.
Several factors have combined to keep these buildings from receiving the Commission’s timely attention, including perennial staffing shortfalls, a series of time-consuming legal appeals, and a dispute over the nomination of the Overbrook Farms neighborhood in West Philadelphia as an historic district.
Everyone agrees that the Historical Commission is understaffed. Its four staff members in addition to Farnham makes it significantly smaller than similar agencies in other cities with smaller inventories of historic buildings. And of those staffers, only one quarter of one staff position is dedicated to processing historical nominations.
But whether understaffing is the real cause of the delay is disputed. The eight-year saga of the Overbrook Farms nomination, which has claimed an oversized share of the Historical Commission’s attention and resources, points to the influence of politics on a supposedly apolitical bureaucratic process. Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., responding to pressure from landowners opposed to the district, went as far as to threaten to assert councilmanic prerogative over the authority of the Historical Commission. The nomination deadlocked after Jones and City Commerce Director Alan Greenberger asked the Historical Commission to table the nomination while a political solution was found.
“Designation should be a reflection of both the physical assets and attributes that define an area, and a community’s desire to define itself in terms of those physical assets and attributes,” said commissioner Richardson Dilworth, III, a professor of history and politics at Drexel University, who chairs the Committee on Historic Designations. While calling himself a fan of the Overbrook Farms nomination and praising its “wealth of historical detail,” Dilworth said that there seemed to be a clear divide between residents for and against the district, leading the commissioners to agree that more time was needed for the community to talk things over.
Several people involved in that conflict told Hidden City they had expected the issue to be resolved quickly. But as the year wore on without resolution, the Commission’s nomination process was paralyzed. Presumably, with its authority in question, it doesn’t want to weigh in over other pending nominations, even as Councilman Jones has said publicly that it’s now up to the Commission to make the next move.
Farnham declined to speak on the record about the Overbrook Farms situation. But according to Ben Leech, the Historical Commission has been reluctant to process nominations while Overbrook Farms is still pending, even though none of the buildings are located within the proposed district.
“My understanding is they had been aware, informally, for at least six months that these nominations were coming. What I thought was going to happen was that the Overbrook fiasco was not going to affect the historic nomination process,” said Leech.
Meanwhile, the Washington Square West district has yet to even receive a review. Part of what may be working against the district is what critics consider to be its redundancy: of the 1,500 properties it covers, about half are already designated individually. Still, that leaves a number of significant properties in the neighborhood unlisted, such as the Gothic-style Beasley Building and the Romanesque Baptist Publication House, both of which date from the 1890s.
Dilworth, whose committee is responsible for reviewing the nominated Washington Square West District, agreed that it merits review. Apart from staffing constraints, however, he said he isn’t sure why the nomination hasn’t been brought to his committee for review.
The fight about Overbrook Farms is one that the Historical Commission, preservationists, and City Council members have taken up before, when the nomination of the Spruce Hill Historic District came before the Commission. In that situation, City Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, acting on behalf of some property owners in the district opposed to the designation, forced the tabling of the nomination.
That political confrontation caused the Commission to undertake a public reassessment of the historic district nominating process, according to preservation architect and former chair of the Philadelphia AIA Preservation Committee Shawn Evans, and with some improvements in data collection and communications, the district program was put back to use. Several submitted districts, albeit much smaller ones, have since received approval; the largest, Tudor East Falls, consists of 210 properties (the Spruce Hill district remains tabled). “The upshot is there’s generally strong community support for historic districts,” he said.
But according to Evans, tabling the Spruce Hill district and reassessing the district nomination process never impacted the process for nominating individual buildings, which he said Philadelphia has been doing longer than any other American city, since 1955. And nor should it now. “What I don’t understand is why that should impact the listing of individual buildings,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. A building either meets the requirements [to be listed historic] or it doesn’t. There is a legal process in place.”
The rationale of tabling all nominations until the Overbrook Farms issue is sorted out also doesn’t sit well with John Gallery, the recently retired former executive director of the Preservation Alliance. “We hope the Historical Commission finds a way to resolve the issue of Overbrook Farms,” he said, “but if it can’t I don’t see any reason why the Historical Commission can’t move on to other nominations.”
Gallery added that individual nominations are easier to deal with than districts, which often present conflicts and complications. “I would hope the Historical Commission would find a way to deal with this, even if it means spreading them out,” he said.
For community based preservation advocates like Patricia Coyne of the Frankford Historical Society, there is much at stake to further delay. Coyne’s group sees the saving and eventual restoration of the Worrell/Winter House as a critical piece of an emergent community development agenda that’s been so long elusive in this shop-worn but potentially robust part of Frankford: “The renovation of Womrath Park and early planning for resurrection of the Frankford Creek have neighbors here dreaming.”
Peter Woodall and Nathaniel Popkin contributed reporting to this story.
About the author
Christopher Mote is a graduate of Holy Family University and the Creative Writing Program at Temple University. Currently a freelance writer and editor, he lives in South Philadelphia and blogs about art and culture here.