To Preserve And Protect: Preservation At A Crossroads In Philadelphia

 

When I first visited Penn Treaty Park roughly five years ago, all of my fantastical visions invoked by the Benjamin West’s painting, Penn’s Treaty with the Indians at Shackamaxon (London, 1771-72), were instantly shattered by an overgrown lawn and trash strewn around the William Penn monument. The vacant, blighted lots across Beach Street and Delaware Avenue and garish view of I-95 didn’t help either. My eager preconception that the park would be a place reverent to the foundational history of the city and the state was lost to indifferent modernity and neglect. Though, as often happens in Philadelphia, other historic compensations began to emerge.

At the northwest corner of the park on Beach Street, looking southwest across Delaware Avenue, I noticed an intact row of four two-story wooden Federal style houses, complete with dormers, tucked into East Allen Street. While appearing pretty old, I knew without question that Penn was long gone when these houses were built, reminding me of the Georgian buildings in West’s painting that must have been destroyed at some point for new development. When I found out that this little row of wooden houses dated back to the early nineteenth century I was beaming. Despite two hundred years of urban development, the entirety of America’s industrial revolution, urban renewal, and even the construction of I-95, the very idea that time had bypassed these quiet dwellings left me amazed. Their existence warmed the cockles of my heart. Like most Philadelphians who cherish the city’s dense built history, I relished in discovering this small, incidental time capsule, thinking all the while that this really is a city where history is sacred and its surviving architecture cherished and protected.

In 2015, my perception is markedly different. In the last three years alone, I have watched both careless development and a lack of stewardship gnaw away at the historic fabric of the city while placement of buildings on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places moves at a snails pace. Less than two percent of the city’s buildings are protected by law. This is a grim reality that I cannot stand by and accept.

An Embarrassment of Riches

Bunting House | Photo: Christopher W. Mote

Bunting House | Photo: Christopher W. Mote

In 2012, the beautiful Victorian home, Bunting House, in Roxborough, was demolished by its shortsighted, nay, heartless, owners Giavannone Construction to make way for a vacant lot–just a blip on the radar compared to the number of incredible, heritage industrial sites that were also razed that year. Perhaps the greatest blow of the decade was also in 2012 when nearly half of the Frankford Arsenal, the nation’s second oldest ammunition factory, was mowed down for new development—a decision that likely left Jimmy Biddle, Philadelphia’s exceptional preservationist and former president National Trust for Historic Preservation, rolling over in his grave. Sections of the arsenal’s almost 200 year old castellated exterior wall are still being demolished today.

Frankford Arsenal, September, 2011 | Photo: Peter Woodall

Partial demolition of Frankford Arsenal, September, 2011 | Photo: Peter Woodall

In 2013, a developer unceremoniously razed the 129 year old South Broad Street Armory, a deal largely enabled by political connections and sold to the public alleging that the building was too structurally unsound to save. In its place we are getting six stories of architectural drivel that has effectively disintegrated one of the few remaining historically intact blocks of Broad Street. Though, perhaps the most shocking example of blatant ambivalence took place last year in the “protected” Old City Historic District. The former Shirt Corner on Market Street below 3rd contained four nearly 150-200 year old buildings. They were originally to be incorporated into new development though demolition had begun even before the facades had been braced. While I’m no archeologist, I’ve been told on good authority that a eighteen-century glassware likely made by famous eighteenth century glass maker Caspar Wistar who once owned the premises was found in the rubble. Catty-corner to the building, a load-bearing, red brick neighbor–also nearing its 200th birthday–was demolished after a mysterious fire erupted. The loss of these buildings brought the demolition toll to five in less than two months—all of which took place within a block of Franklin Court. Yet, these Market Street buildings vanished without a word from the preservation community.

Photo: Peter Woodall

Detail of South Broad Street Armory entrance | Photo: Peter Woodall

Sadly, this list doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Philadelphia loses each month, much less each year–a municipal warehouse on Delaware Avenue two weeks ago, a court of houses from the 1700s in South Philadelphia a few weeks before that, a pre-Civil War church in Kensington a month or two ago–the list is long and the developers are unrelenting.

In the fall of 2014, I noticed that the little wooden houses in Allen Street were for sale. Since they had to be on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places–a fantasy I no longer blindly embrace–I smiled upon a potential renovation, thinking that the rare frame dwellings could use the work, having been obscured by faux siding, but that they were going to polish up nicely. (For those not in the know, wooden dwellings were outlawed in Kensington by 1833.) In December of that year, the bliss of my complete ignorance to Philadelphia’s vastly unprotected built environment was brought to a horrid end. Quite literally, the writing was on the wall, as a Notice of Demolition had been affixed to the Allen Street houses.

325, 327, 329, and 331 Allen Street

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The wooden houses of Allen Street in the 1940s | Courtesy of Philadelphia City Archives

While the earliest mention of Allen Street is 1818, George Day and other landholders petitioned for the official opening of the street–from Shackamaxon to Hanover (now Columbia Avenue)–in 1830. Though, eighteenth century deeds prove that the line of the street was first created in the form of an alley by Samuel Hastings after he bought seven acres from Susanna Fairman in 1741. What became Allen Street essentially transected old Delaware River tracts subdivided from the Fairman Estate. The lots containing the new alley began at Richmond Street and extended to the Delaware River—Richmond Street being late Queen Street and, even earlier than that, Point-no-Point Road, often known simply as “Point Road.”

Before becoming a colonel in the Continental Army, Manuel Eyre (1736-1805) was a shipwright in Kensington located off of Point Road. Originally from Burlington, New Jersey, he and his brother Jehu Eyre arrived in Philadelphia County in the 1750s to apprentice with Richard Wright, then one of the most important shipbuilders on the Delaware River. On January 8, 1761, Manuel Eyre advantageously wed Mary Wright—his boss’ daughter. It took Jehu Eyre slightly longer, following suit with Lydia Wright by December. While the Eyres would ultimately take over their father-in-law’s shipyard, they also acquired a property or two of their own. Manuel Eyre purchased the site of 325 and 327 Allen Street in 1761, the lot then extending from Point Road (now Richmond) to the Delaware River. His daughter Mary Eyre—Mrs. Thomas Robinson, who inherited the property and sold it to George Day in 1834. A similar lot, 329 and 331 Allen Street, was purchased by Thomas Newbold in 1754, then home to the Swan Tavern. By 1763, Thomas’ daughter Ann Newbold had inherited the property and her daughter later sold it to George Day as well. Between the 1788 and the 1798 tax assessments, Manuel Eyre became the owner of at least seven dwellings on Point Road, four of which were frame—not uncommon for shipwright. Jehu owned the famous Eyre House that once stood opposite of Penn Treaty Park on Beach Street.

Built prior to proper real estate atlases and permit records, dating such ancient buildings almost always requires a physical examination. Among the extant exterior details, 327 and 329 Allen Street were centered upon and shared massive brick chimneys that aligned front and back. This single set of chimneys was ill placed in a row of four identical houses, making complete sense if between 325 and 327 and/or between 329 and 331–a configuration corroborated by pre-WWII photographs–indicating the possibility that 327 and 329 were constructed earlier than 325 and 331, among other possible conjecture. However, given legal trends, the houses were certainly pre-1833, with post-1788 as the earliest possible period of construction. (It is anyone’s guess where the Swann Tavern was embedded, though it is known that Harrowgate Tavern was also made of wood, parts of which still exist in Kensington today.)

| Photo: Oscar Beisart

Making room for progress on Allen Street at the expense of history | Photo: Oscar Beisart

About halfway to dating the Allen Street houses I reached out to the Philadelphia Historical Commission, expressing my concerns about their significance and welfare. The houses were certainly at least 180 years old and they were of frame construction—not unique in Philadelphia, but certainly rare to have survived in a row of four. The staff member I spoke to was immediately aware of what I referred to as “the early nineteenth century wooden houses on E. Allen Street.” However, I was soon informed the row of homes were more likely late eighteenth century, a sad bit of news given that demolition permits are not reversible once issued. I was told that it was not possible for the Philadelphia Historical Commission to reach out to the developer. Though, as it is stated in their Rules and Regulations, “The Commission may perform an administrative and regulatory function, an advocacy role, or both.” However, time and again I am reminded of how short staffed they are.

Struggling To Save St. Laurentius Roman Catholic Church

St. Laurentius is looking pretty sturdy despite a report by engineering firm O’Donnell & Naccarato, commissioned by the Archdiocese, that says the church is in danger of “imminent collapse”. Upon independent inspection, L&I did not reach a similar conclusion | Photo: Michael Bixler

In an article published by PlanPhilly, “The Next Mayor Must Reboot Preservation Infrastructure,” Ben Leech, former advocacy director of the Preservations Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, painted the clearest picture regarding historic preservation in Philadelphia when he wrote, “Though the Commission does continue to designate individual properties to the Register, these additions have come at a glacier’s pace. About 3,000 of the city’s 10,800 listed properties are outside a historic district, but only 70 of these were designated in the last 15 years.”

Having personally conducted no less than 200 National Register evaluations in half that time, I came to the realization that Philadelphians are not doing their part to ensure the protection of their historic city. That said, most residents don’t understand the process and those who are historic preservationists at heart likely assume that much of the historic built environment is already designated and protected, which is a correct assumption for just under two percent of the city’s incredible stock of old buildings. The sad truth is if a building lies north of Girard Avenue and is within the Philadelphia gridiron its very likely eligible for an immediate demolition permit, requiring no input from the community beforehand whatsoever.

| Photo: Michael Bixler

Neighborhood support for saving Philadelphia’s oldest Polish Catholic church abounds | Photo: Michael Bixler

For this reason alone, I have personally filed five nominations since January 2015, four of which include individual buildings—another containing nine. When I got involved with the Friends of St. Laurentius, I shook my head when I read an email by a committee member and fourth-generation Polish-Philadelphian that said, “We let the National Trust for Historic Preservation know and they’re the highest authority.” The Trust could offer no substantive assistance. And apparently, no one there thought to ask the Friends of St. Laurentius if their building was locally designated—the only real power other than ownership that can even remotely ensure its survival.

Sickened by how few people in the historic preservation community had responded to the St. Laurentius’ situation, even after articles were published in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, I decided to take on a historic preservation “guardian angel” role, as dubbed by a few of the Friends of St. Laurentius. Once given a green light, I compiled a 46 page nomination in just a few days as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was concurrently racing to file a demolition permit before I could submit the nomination to the Philadelphia Historical Commission, looking to exploit a huge problem in Philadelphia’s Historic Preservation Ordinance. Once a demolition permit application is submitted, there can be no stay of execution for an undesignated building. Even if an application for demolition is incomplete or flawed and even if demolition is merely just an option, once the permit application is filed the building is a goner. However, in order to be granted temporary protection, pending review for historic designation, the landmark application must be entirely complete and correct. In other cities, like Washington, D.C., the Historic Preservation Office reviews every demolition permit, and nominations may be filed as long as a demolition permit has not been issued.

| Photo: Michael Bixler

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s office of special projects removed all sacred objects from the church in November, effectively deconsecrating the structure to set the stage for demolition | Photo: Michael Bixler

My current plan is continue writing nominations until a shift in the local government occurs with our next mayor and a more comprehensive approach is taken to protect the city’s historic built environment. Perhaps the best idea was offered by mayoral Candidate Jim Kenney when he suggested that all properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places be made local landmarks. Until that might happen, I will assume that all churches in Philadelphia are vulnerable to demolition permits and that every building except Independence Hall are fair game.

The greatest thing that persists beyond the city’s perseverance is the quality and strength of it’s built identity and sense of place. However, in this era of new development projects consuming so much of the city, much will be lost if something doesn’t change soon. Philadelphia’s European, yet decidedly American appeal and its industrial Victorianism are features that make it the second densest, yet most quaint, big city in America. Through hard work and better preservation policies we may just manage to keep it that way.

About the author

Oscar Beisert is an architectural historian and preservationist activist. The Texas Wend is of both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Beisert co-authored The Photography of Henry K. Landis He is mid-level bureaucrat in federal historic preservation, has just finished his second row house conversion/restoration project, and can be found at almost every Wednesday night at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.



18 Comments


  1. Thank you Oscar for this heartfelt essay and all the work you do for St Laurentius. Knocking down historic structures in this city with so many vacant lots or underdeveloped lots (i.e. parking lots) is completely inexcusable. Once we destroy our historic and aesthetic heritage, there are no second chances.

  2. Philadelphia is such a beautiful city and it will keep getting better.

  3. To preserve and protect, find a viable use for the building. That is why we have Independence Hall still standing as we invest money in keeping it up to snuff. Buildings are torn down by their owners for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is to clear a site for development and make its sale appealing to a developer. Other times it is to build a replacement structure. Problem herein is the propensity of other people who don’t own the affected structure to do anything humanly possible to delay and defer demolition on the grounds the building is historic. Even if it is on the historic list, there is no guarantee it may be demolished some day in the future. We have many old houses in Society Hill converted to homes with modern amenities. Old buildings have been repurposed for newer uses and it is not like we are tearing down all old building. Again, a valid use must be found for an old building lest it be torn down.

    • Exactly what “use” is Independence Hall fulfilling? It’s a museum. There are plenty of possible re-uses for buildings like St Laurentius. If we live in a world where only the marketplace matters we will live in one that is impoverished beyond what dollars account for. Inga Saffron’s article today is spot on . These civic monuments punctuate the otherwise endless blocks of row houses.

    • Most old buildings in Philadelphia are taken down without any understanding of the resource… While I’m not sure what you consider a viable use, the wooden houses were used as dwellings for at least one hundred and eighty years until recently, a concept very common in New England. St. Laurentius was used as a house of worship for nearly one hundred and twenty-five years until the congregation was thrown out by the AD of Philadelphia, trumping-up L&I findings, and also given no rights regarding their own ancestral church edifice. Protection of a historic building and/or neighborhood is equivalent to deed restrictions in suburban neighborhoods, where most of America prefers to live…

  4. Thank you for going way more of a damn than our Historical Commission.

    • While I appreciate the thought, I am positive that the people at the PHC care, I just think the politics of Philadelphia play too strong a role in the designation process. If the Director is to be appointed by the mayor, then he or she should not be involved in the designation process. If something is historic, its historic. No major project should be so delicate that it cant withstand waiting for a historic designation hearing.

  5. Bye Fairman Rogers.

  6. Nicely worded essay. There has been a growing disregard for historic structures and their fabric, especially since the the begin of the 21st century. As a historic preservation carpenter I see much disrespect for these venues of history, with either their demolition or the desecration of their original elements.

  7. Wonderful ….. fabulous article, I love it. Thank you very much Oscar for keeping the faith.

  8. I often drive by the trash strewn, weed filled lot where the Bunting House once stood and am disgusted. It was in decent shape. I would have rather seen it moulder away for a few more years. What was the point of tearing it down? Supposedly it was to make way for commercial businesses. Years later…still nothing. Usually it’s the developers from elsewhere with no connection to the people or place that couldn’t care less about the memories and sentimentality, much less their historical value, people feel towards these old buildings in their community.

  9. Nicky DeFreece Emery

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I hate hearing this news. I earned my MS in Historic Preservation at Penn, and since moved to Dallas, where we are facing exactly the same thing, albeit with much newer buildings. We have had some recent success with the Mayor and City Council appointing a Task Force to address demolitions in Downtown after several National Register buildings were demolished. We’ve made it through City Council, and are on to implementing Task Force recommendations, which were provided by a team of preservationists, developers, real estate folks, architects, and planners. If you google it you can find it, and perhaps it will give you some ideas. We are still early in the process, but we are very encouraged!

  10. “a court of houses from the 1700s in South Philadelphia a few weeks before that” – I seemed to have missed this. Does anyone have anymore information regarding their history and location?

  11. I have some more photos of these houses if you’re interested. I live very close and have been trying to find more information about the architectural history of the area. Where did you find the 1833 date for wood building being outlawed in Kensington? I’ve found very little information on architecture in Kensington in general, or vernacular architecture in Philadelphia – are there any sources you would recommend?

  12. THANK YOU, Oscar, for writing this important piece. It’s amazing how “off the radar” some of our oldest and most important neighborhoods are. We’re learning the consequences weekly.

  13. Hi, Oscar. Thank you for all you do to help save the architectural history of the city. Do you ever teach workshops or mini classes on preparing a NR nomination? Is that form much different from what is used for the PRHP? The process and the NR form are intimidating — this from an MA candidate in historic preservation — so I think it’s hard for people to even think about trying to do one. Also I’d love to know your process for research. Breaking it down for folks might help get more people involved in writing up the noms and at least buying time for review. Thanks again.

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