Does Historic Preservation Matter?

December 2, 2014 |  by  |  Soapbox  |  ,

 

St. Bonaventure interior, demolished 2014. Many preservationists say it is cheaper to stabilize buildings like this than to tear them down.  | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

St. Bonaventure interior, demolished 2014. Many preservationists say it is cheaper to stabilize buildings like this than to tear them down. | Photo: Chandra Lampreich

Does historic preservation matter? We like to think so–Philadelphia’s essence is its layers. If you tear down too many places of economic or cultural or architectural significance you risk sacrificing the soul of the city.

Hidden City was founded in 2009 as a kind of preservation intervention–to jumpstart new uses, even temporary ones, for old buildings that matter. We think reuse and reinvention is preservation and we also think significance is a relative term: your favorite old factory may well be someone else’s eyesore, the Art Deco storefront across from your office might be worth more on the real estate market if it’s torn down. Not everything ought to be saved. Not everything can be saved.

On the other hand, as we have documented in report after report on historic churches, firehouses, factories, row houses, mansions, social clubs, movie palaces, and banks, Philadelphia’s system of historic preservation is broken and bizarrely underfunded. The nation’s most historic city has fallen way behind its peers in protecting its valuable architectural heritage. A place like Germantown, with its unparalleled range of architectural invention, languishes–for no reason other than intransigence and lack of vision.

With mayoral election season approaching and City Council grappling with the hottest real estate market in decades, the time has come to transform frustration into action. Here at the Hidden City Daily, we plan to lead the conversation. But we can’t do it without your help. We live and die with our readers who provide the critical financial support to keep our writers reporting. For over a year we’ve been unable to pay for key staff positions. At this critical juncture, we can’t afford to fall further behind ourselves. We need you to pitch in.

With eight days to go on our Fall campaign, we’re only halfway to our modest goal. To get there, we’ll need about 100 readers to step up. Won’t you join us today? Donate HERE.

We want to find out where mayoral candidates stand on preservation. We want to ask Council members what it would take to pass a bill like the one proposed by Councilman Kenney to raise the Historical Commission’s budget. We want to find out why so few new buildings are being added to the Historic Register. Why historic districts languish. Why key sites of economic and cultural life–the evidence of the Workshop of the World–are being tossed away.

St. Bonaventure during demolition almost a year ago | Photo: Bradley Maule

St. Bonaventure during demolition almost a year ago | Photo: Bradley Maule

If you think Philadelphia is undermining its future without strong standards for preservation–without even an accurate survey of significant buildings–then join us today. We’ll continue to cover key conflicts with the nuance and context you’ve come to expect. We’ll continue to probe. We’ll continue to explore and imagine.

Make it possible with a donation now to our Fall campaign. Click HERE. Philadelphia owes it to itself!

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 senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



2 Comments


  1. This is off the subject, on the surface. Preserving historic and other places is worth the effort and monies. At the same time, we need to think, too, of preserving Philadelphia. At the present rate of dis investment, and jobs leaving the city, and really, none coming into it, we need a serious discussion if you want a Detroit or your want a vital, neighborhood-based city. First start with the egregious wage tax. Do I hear ‘leadership?”

  2. Every time I see pictures of good old St. Bonnies being torn down, …… it makes me ill. Spent 8 years in the school and went to the church, with the exception of Saturday, every day for mass. Such a beautiful church to meet an end like this.

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