Editor’s Note: Development pressure is growing substantially in Philadelphia as the real estate market continues to improve. The pressure is deep and wide, impacting many neighborhoods across the city. It’s what accounts for much of this year’s list of lost buildings–demolished to make way for new uses. (To see our previous annual reviews of lost buildings, click HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.) Intensifying development pressure means more buildings will be threatened with demolition. Mostly this is good news–Philadelphia is growing and evolving, and beginning to embrace new architectural and urban forms. However, the increasing real estate activity means that it is more important than ever for Philadelphia to identify and protect buildings that matter. The Historical Commission, beleaguered by a small budget and overextended staff, and perhaps outmoded systems, isn’t doing this. Often this state has been fine: when real estate development is anemic, very little is threatened by new uses (the threat comes from decay instead). But now an awful lot of what makes Philadelphia feel particular–the rhythm of row houses, factories, churches, and civic buildings–is under the gun. Without rejecting the necessary new, can we protect this particularity?
1. Letto’s Deli (formerly Dewey’s Famous), 13th & Chancellor Streets
Dewey’s set up shop in 1940, catering to Philly’s lunch hour crowd with feel-good “American” fare (think malted milk with ice cream). The 13th Street location opened around 1955, and it was a real architectural oddball. Although the one-story building reflected modernism typical of the time, favoring clean lines and simple colors over the ornate styles of decades past, its look was more reminiscent of a Western diner. Armand Carroll, a skilled movie theater designer, cooked up the original building, which was remodeled after a fire in 1969.
Other Dewey’s locations opened around the city, but this corner hotspot morphed into an urban haven in the 1960s. The LGBT community found a central place to mingle with neighbors from different ethnic backgrounds and social groups. More importantly, people unified to make political statements about gay rights. Large-scale fast food development put Dewey’s out of business in the late 1970s, though the building housed several restaurants in the coming years. Letto’s Deli, its last occupant, closed its doors in 2009. Chef Jose Garces reportedly considered remodeling it into a German-themed restaurant, but no deals panned out, and the building was torn down this fall. Chef Sylva Senat, formerly of Tashan, has been keeping quiet about his plans, saying that he envisions something “fun, elegant, and chef-driven” in a July article.
2. John F. Kennedy Vocational Center, 730 Schuylkill Avenue
The JFK Vocational Center started its life as a different kind of government institution: a military warehouse. To be precise, it was the Marine Corps Depot of Supplies Schuylkill Warehouse, built in 1941 with war on the horizon, to store goods like small arms and clothing. To the casual observer, it looked like a typical brick factory building, albeit a massive one. A closer look, however, revealed what The Shadow, in his article on the building’s demolition, called a superb example of the industrial Moderne style, “a simple, seemingly endless facade with long horizontal bands of windows and a minimum of unnecessary ornamentation.” Soon, the Motor Transport Division of the Corps also began utilizing the space for truck storage and other purposes, and it quickly became the building’s primary occupant.
The federal government declared the Schuylkill Warehouse surplus property in 1964 and handed it over to the School District of Philadelphia. A vocational school toting JFK’s name was established, and remained open until 1980, teaching skilled labor to the unemployed. After that, the Center became a space for School District offices and storage rooms. The Warehouse was added to National Register of Historic Places in 2004, but a developer willing to take advantage of the tax credits that accompany designation never materialized. The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia eventually purchased the property and is in the midst of razing it to make way for a new research center.
3. Stokes House, Holme Circle (Northeast Philadelphia)
All too many historic buildings are demolished with nary a peep from the neighbors, while others become the object of spirited campaigns to save them, making it all the more painful if they are eventually torn down. Such was the case with Stokes House, where the Holme Circle Civic Association fought tooth and nail to preserve the historic structure located on land that was once part of Thomas Holme’s 17th century Well Spring Plantation. In the 1990s, traces of a log cabin were found in the basement, hinting at a structure that may have dated back to the 18th century or earlier. There is evidence to suggest that Revolutionary War vet Abraham Griffith was among a long list of owners, which reads like a Who’s Who of Holmesburg’s history.
Samuel “Buzz” Stokes, Jr., who had inherited the house from his father, would perhaps still own it today if not for an unfortunate series of events. The building was already suffering from expensive structural problems when Stokes was indicted for (and later found guilty of) helping funnel money to the campaign of his brother-in-law, former Pennsylvania Representative John Perzel. Faced with mounting legal bills, Stokes decided in 2011 to sell it to developers Olivia and Associates. Tensions between the development company and local residents were elevated because Olivia and Associates was able to obtain variances allowing it to build six twin, two-story duplexes of 24 units on a lot zoned for single-family homes. Click HERE to check out more photos from the buildings 11th hour by Hidden City’s Michael Bixler.
4. Queen Lane Apartments, 32nd & Queen Lane
In the beginning, the idea seemed to make a good bit of sense. Housing stock in poorer neighborhoods, already substandard, had deteriorated even further thanks to neglect during World War II. Such an overwhelmingly large problem demanded a radical solution, the thinking went, and so in neighborhoods throughout Philadelphia, blocks of row homes were demolished and replaced with high-rise public housing.
The Queen Lane Apartments, which opened in Germantown in 1955, were Philadelphia’s sixth public housing project. Forty two row homes, as well as several other structures, were demolished to make way for the 119-unit building, which was a designated “nonwhite project” that exacerbated residential segregation. Although many of the people involved no doubt acted with good intentions, the choices made by local and federal government paint a different picture.
“They were placed in areas where community opposition would be minimal, industrial areas, near highways,” said John Kromer, the city’s housing director in the 1980s. “They were built in bad places with inferior materials and without amenities to support size of population.” Architects also played a significant role in beefing up high-rises by exceeding recommendations for unit-to-acre ratios and created smaller floor plans, both of which created issues down the line. By the 1970s, civil groups and disgruntled neighbors alike were rallying for change. Click HERE for Ryan Briggs’s story, which details the project’s history and provides a good overview of public housing in Philadelphia.
5. Coward Shoe Store, 1118-20 Chestnut Street
Center City’s golden age of retail was just about to begin its decades-long decline when the Coward Shoe Company decided in 1947 to build a new store on Chestnut Street. The firm hired the great Modernist architects Louis Kahn and Oscar Stonorov to design the structure, a minimalist storefront with large sheets of glass, and a free-floating display case inside. The aesthetic goal was to focus on the merchandise’s appeal, rather than on “extraneous display.” Coward was one of a small number of Kahn’s confirmed commercial works, and until last year the only surviving example. The building’s overall character was further enhanced by what was concealed: the skeleton of a commercial development from 1902. Its demolition reminds us that Philadelphia needs to make a more aggressive effort to protect Mid-Century architecture
6. West Philadelphia Jewish Community Center, 11 Cobbs Creek Parkway (formerly S. 63rd Street)
The WPJCC, fashioned in the Romanesque style, opened its doors in 1927. A “synagogue center,” it enhanced the neighborhood by combing recreation and worship. There were spaces for athletics and social programs, drawing in young participants, so the $300,000 it cost to construct seemed justified. (At the time, it was the most expensive synagogue built in West Philadelphia.) The facade was decorated with appropriate iconography: a Star of David, menorah, Torah scroll, and Hebrew script. These were complimented by tablets perched on the roof, which bore the Ten Commandments. Semi-circular stained glass panels adorned the font doors.
The nearby Walnut Park Plaza hotel and apartment building–still intact, and still an apartment building–often collaborated with WPJCC. Walnut Park hosted its weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other events. Most recently, the WPJCC facility was home to We Are More Than Conquerors Deliverance Ministries, a small church whose sign remained tacked to the building as it lay dormant. In November 2010, Philadelphia Suburban Development Corporation (PSDC) purchased the property. A year later, PSDC presented a plan for a “private and public penal institute” to the Zoning Board of Appeals, but that plan was scrapped. A permit for demolition was pulled in November 2013, sealing the deal. Plans for the future of the site remain unclear.
7. Greenwich Street Church, 240 Greenwich Street
Despite its Gothic appearance, Greenwich was most recently home to the Khmer Palelai Buddhist Temple, which served Philly’s Cambodian population. Before that, it was the the church and Sunday school of two congregations: Third Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia (still active today as Old Pine Street Church in Society Hill) and Fourth Presbyterian. The chapel was built in 1867 and enlarged in 1880, gaining more architectural flair. At one time, the western tower held a steeple that rose to 100 feet. The church property also boasted 200 feet of gardening space, which was of no small importance to city-dwelling Victorians.
The lights went out after the Temple, which had used the space since 1987, announced that construction for their new location at 58th Street and Lindbergh Boulevard was underway. Two single-family homes by Landmark Architectural Design will replace the worship site. Pennsport Civic Association did not receive (or require) notification of the demolition, president James Moylan said in an email. We’re curious to see how the two houses will occupy this plentiful space.
8. Francis McIlvain House, 1924 Arch Street
It seems like this handsome brownstone was simply built in the wrong place. PMC Property Group, which also purchased the land next door, demolished the house to make way for Logan Square’s newest 14-story apartment building. It was still in good shape.
The slender building demonstrates the Second Empire style. It was constructed in 1869 as a residence for Francis McIlvain, a foundry owner. Over the years, it was also the home of his son-in-law, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin publisher Ferdinand Fetherston. When it was added to the National Register in 1979, it was cited as a rare surviving example of the neighborhood’s 19th-century middle class residential architecture. Energy Coordinating Agency, a nonprofit concerned with clean energy solutions, occupied the building before relocating its offices to a LEED Gold facility in Kensington. Not being on the local Philadelphia register is often fatal, especially for small buildings with historical merit.
9. Jewish Iconography at B’Nai Reuben, 615-621 South 6th Street
Technically, this one isn’t a demolition. However, a controversial development decision is worth talking about. This one effectively stripped the building you may know as Antiquarian’s Delight of its history. Few will now remember that B’Nai Reuben was Philadelphia’s first Hasidic Jewish congregation, founded in 1905 (though a plaque explaining the building’s history was recently installed near the front door). Its members vacated the building in 1956 in the midst of a postwar wave of congregations leaving the city for the suburbs.
In June, Jewish symbols were sanded off the former synagogue lickety-split. For the past several years, 6th Street’s mishmash mall sold antiques, collectibles, and handmade clothes. Jordan Fetfatzes, of the Fetfatzes family that owns Bella Vista Beer Distributor and Bainbridge Street Barrel House, previously told us his family “never had ideas of knocking it down because of the history and culture it affords.” While removing religious icons is increasingly common in a secular world, more could have been done to incorporate the “culture” reflected by the architecture into the building’s 12 new apartments. Fetfatzes also demolished murals in the upper floor sanctuary. Spread across the vaulted ceiling, these depicted Hebrew months and the mazalot (Zodiac signs). Multiple Hidden City requests to photograph the murals were denied.
We wish we had more information about the Franklin Motor Inn. It was not designed by a famous architect, or even a local, commercial architect that we can confirm by name. Its mid-century charm undoubtedly became grittier and plainer during its last days as the Best Western Center City Hotel. According to Philadelphia Magazine, the Inn was built in 1959. The magazine’s writer, Simon Van Zuylen-Wood, set up shop there for a week, rounding up locals with long memories for interviews. Of the former Motor Inn, he writes “New York boxing promoters used to put up their guys here…businessmen prowled, and the bar used to stay open till 4AM.” Nostalgia is tangible on the Internet, where you’ll find postcards, room keys, and ashtrays for sale.
About the author
Isabella is a student at Drexel University. An English major by trade, she spends her Saturdays in Germantown, where she gives tours at a house museum and (occasionally) dons Victorian attire. In her spare time, she volunteers at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia and the National Museum of American Jewish History. She is also an editorial reader for the Painted Bride Quarterly literary magazine.
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