Distorted Perceptions Demolished The Levy-Leas Mansion

 

Call the case of the Levy-Leas Mansion a cosmetic curse or a sabotage courtesy of connoisseur’s conviction. Even better, apply the Potter Principle, after Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously declared that while he could not easily define hard-core pornography, he knew it when he saw it. This was the brand of thinking that brought down the Levy-Leas Mansion in West Philadelphia last month: because of neglect and some unsightly additions, the mansion wasn’t pretty enough to look “historic,” and therefore wasn’t worth saving.

The demolition was preceded by a saga that lasted over a decade–one whose sordid and largely mundane history would require the deft narrative skills of Mark Twain and Franz Kafka to recount in a readable manner. (Excavate the details of the fiasco in the archives of Hidden City Daily HERE.)

| Photo: Marianna Thomas

Demolition of the Levy-Leas Mansion began in August | Photo: Marianna Thomas

No one should forget that between the three groups centrally involved in the case—the owner, the University of Pennsylvania, the neighbors, particularly on Woodland Terrace, and the Philadelphia Historical Commission—each blamed the other in the dispute as the focus on the history and architecture of the building was eventually lost. The 160-year-old house would still be standing if even one of these three actors was unwilling to downplay its salvageability and significance. In the owner’s case, this is hardly surprising. Demolition had been Penn’s preferred option since acquiring the property in 2003, though the University’s commitment to it wavered when working with enlightened developers that proposed preserving the home and developing the surrounding lot. The Historical Commission’s recourse to this strategy is a bit harder to explain. Or maybe not when reviewing the outcomes of the Boyd Theater, Church of the Assumption, and Blue Horizon, or while digesting the revealing public statements on preservation made by the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger.

The “Near Neighbors” group fought Penn at every turn, cloaking themselves in preservationist rhetoric. However, when the university offered a viable proposal for keeping the mansion and building a five-story apartment complex next to it, they balked. Having then lost all influence and credibility in the case, the group nonetheless decided it was time to haggle over parking and density, even though the proposal to increase density near SEPTA’s 40th Portal trolley station would have satisfied a basic principle of contemporary urbanism being followed across the city. To justify their opposition, the neighbors also began to diminish the house’s importance as a material artifact. They claimed it was the building’s size and long-lost relationship to its lot that really mattered and intimated that it would be preferable to return the house to it’s “historic” use as a single-family dwelling, despite the fact that the mansion and most of the older homes on the block have served as apartments for over a century.

| Photo: Marianna Thomas

The modern additions to the 160-year-old home overshadowed the building’s architectural integrity and historic value | Photo: Marianna Thomas

Here are the facts that justified the placement of the house on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1973: The mansion was built on speculation by plasterer Thomas Allen in 1853. Allen collaborated with renowned architect Samuel Sloan in this period and the house strongly resembled other early works by Sloan. A Public Ledger article on January 2, 1854 states that most houses in the vicinity were designed by Sloan’s firm, Sloan & Stewart. We know that the house was purchased and occupied by John P. Levy, a key figure in the history of American shipbuilding and an early migrant to the villa-suburb of Hamilton Village as we also know that, in the 1890s, leather merchant David Porter Leas heavily remodeled the home. Leas, it appears, hired a first-rate architect to update the interiors in the newly fashionable Colonial Revival style, sparing no expense on elaborate wood detailing and plasterwork.

Yet, this is what was said during Historical Commission hardship meetings to discount the house’s historical significance and amplify its apparent lack of beauty: The attribution to Sloan is shaky (but see above); little or no information on the house’s history has come to light, either in the Historical Commission’s files or beyond (demonstrably false). The house’s exterior was so altered by 20th century additions that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to bring back its original appearance (but see the below photograph). The house’s interior dated primarily from the 1890s–true, but neither the Commission’s concern nor necessarily detrimental. Demolishing the house might somehow do more justice to its historic context, historic density, and historic parking arrangements than keeping it alongside new student housing amidst an urban landscape with a proven track record of embracing change while protecting the deep layers of its past. Call this the Angel of Death argument, or rather the NIMBY argument, dressed in the jargon of Disney urbanism or simple nostalgia. In the name of preservation, it pushes an agenda that is better and more honestly addressed through zoning.

| Photo courtesy of Howard Haas

The Italianate home sans additions was striking and made a visual case for preservation | Photo courtesy of Howard Haas

Demolition is not preservation, and preservation can be part of dynamic urban design. We have lost a historically important building because the parties who decided its fate refused to see beyond simple cosmetic problems, connoisseurish fussiness over attribution, crass profit-seeking, and the most provincial forms of neighborhood self-interest.

As a historian teaching in the preservation field, I frequently express to students who are studying a building how important it is to dig deep, to avoid easy, superficial judgments, to appreciate layers, and to base their significance statements on solid research and clear prose. All of this holds true, but none of it guarantees survival–at least not in Philadelphia. In a city abundantly blessed with historic resources, our willingness to squander them continues to dominate.

About the author

Aaron Wunsch is an architectural historian and assistant professor in Penn's Graduate Program in Historic Preservation.

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9 Comments


  1. Prof. Wunsch, you once again demonstrate inteligence and cogency. And, you are a talented writer, clearly synthisizing and communicating the complexity and nuances of this case study. There is one sentence that does require some push back. “Demolition had been Penn’s preferred option since acquiring the property in 2003, though the University’s commitment to it wavered when working with enlightened developers that proposed preserving the home and developing the surrounding lot.” I am not sure where you source this fact, but as one who has also followed the case, my recolections is that from the time the property was purchased in 2003, the university canvassed the academic departments within the university offering the space for a variety of uses that would restore the building. There were no takers. The university then went to the private market place seeking redevelpment ideas, many of which included retaining and restoring the original structure. This went on for ten years. Demolition was a possibility made available to any property under that could demonstrate financial hardship. My point of view is that this was not a preference, as much as a last resort.

  2. Peter W, you raise a valid point here. My involvement in this case dates only (!) to 2012 and most of the early history is hard to trace. My understanding is that Penn sought a demo permit for the house in the first year of their ownership and began considering other options only when that permit was not forthcoming. What is clear, though, is that at no point did the university seriously consider treating the house as the sort of amenity that Drexel’s Dornsife Center has become. Since 2010, at least, their model was strictly for-profit — this despite vast expenditures on local amenities such as Penn Park. The hardship question is, of course, another rat’s nest. Without rehashing all the details, it’s worth noting that the precedent set here suggests that anyone in Philadelphia can knowingly overpay for a protected property and get permission to tear it down if their own plans for it don’t prove maximally profitable. I say “their own plans” because placing the house on the market to test the plans of other potential owners never occurred. And I say “maximally profitable” because the University’s hardship case hinged on whether their third-party investor (a hedge fund) would be able to make an 11% return on their investment – a guarantee on which said investor predicated its participation.

  3. The neighborhood group overplayed its hand, thinking that it had the right to stop demo of the mansion as if it owned the mansion and the land which it did not own. Even rejected a compromise that lowered the height from 11 stories to 5 stories plus incorporated the mansion as part of the design. The neighborhood group filed appeal with Commonwealth Court and the judge handling he case recommended to Commonwealth Court to dismiss the appeal as it was without merit. Apparently the Court has not taken up the case as they must have felt uncomfortable handling this as long as the mansion was still standing and the neighbors still strident into their opposition to its demolition and the building of a 5 story apartment. Now, Penn has secured approvals from the Historical Commission to permit its demo and has already demolished the structure which will make it much easier for Commonwealth Court to dismiss the appeal as the building is no longer standing.

    I do not think that historical buildings still standing are in danger of being demolished if purchased by a developer with deeper pockets to get the approvals and battle opponents in the courts. Would a developer try to purchase Independence Hall to tear down for condos knowing full well it belonged to the Federal Government? Opposition would be very strident to this plan not only from citizens, but Government agencies and Congress. Issue here is the poor condition of many older buildings that are left to crumble under the elements with no maintenance performed. To preserve a historical building, action must be taken to encourage the owner to preserve and people must step up to make credible offers of purchase and to invest the monies needed to keep it in good condition. As long as people do not step up to offer to buy and to donate funds to preserve older buildings still in the hands of non profit groups unable to afford the cost of keeping it up to snuff, this trend will continue as developers sign letters of intent to buy with owners and then get relevant permits from the Historical Commission and city agencies to allow it to be demolished and replaced by another product of their choice.

  4. Re: “As long as people do not step up to offer to buy…” The property was never put up for sale after 2003 despite the so-called market test required by the hardship provision of the ordinance.

  5. I am so confused. Philadelphia is trying to become a World Heritage City. Penn and the City (i.e., Alan Greenberger) are on board with this. So why is so much heritage being bulldozed? The Boyd had a buyer, but the Historical Commission didn’t care. Penn could demolish the Sloan building due to financial hardship–it that a joke? I’m always getting mail from Amy Gutmann boasting of the millions of dollars she has raised for Penn. The McIlhenny mansion has been demolished, except for its facade. So many of the little quirks that make Philly Philly seem to be disappearing.

    I know a lot of people think development is good, but I don’t get it. So if a big fancy new hotel is built in Center City, it’s good. I’m never going to use it, nor are my visitors. Penn wrecked that lovely empty Hill Field for a huge new dorm. Once the new buildings go up, there is no need to know what was there before.

    A world heritage city? I’m hoping if it goes through, it will mean that future plans for development attract a bigger audience and put more pressure on the city to preserve its heritage. But the city has to start realizing that its heritage is more than Independence Hall and the historic district.

    • Boyd had a buyer but the Historical Commission didn’t care? The buyer considered a luxury movie theatre for rich denizens in Rittenhouse Square and anybody else willing to pay to sit in such luxury. What happened was the buyer did his research and found out that he would have a very hard time recouping his costs should he go ahead with the project. That is why the buyer never closed on the deal and left it hanging. Eventually walked away in the end.

      Then another developer comes by and offers to buy the Boyd, but to demolish the movie theatre and preserve its façade for a high rise condo only to raise the objections of local historians who jumped in the fray trying to get the developer to let a luxury movie theatre take place on a property that had failed to close on the previous developer’s luxury movie theatre plan.

      That is why the Historical Commission approved the current developer’s plan to demolish the theatre and preserve the façade.

    • Hill Field only existed because Penn demolished that block 50 years ago.

  6. Somebody is writing fiction. The tenant, IPIC Theatres, wasn’t proceeding to do what it needed to do in terms of financing so the would be purchaser of the Boyd, without a tenant, walked away. No local “historians” pressed the current developer for a multiplex.

    Friends of the Boyd’s real offer to purchase the Boyd should have caused the Historical Commission to decide there was no economic hardship.

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