The End Of The Road For 40th And Pine

 

| Photo: Michael Bixler

The Levy-Leas House, on the Philadelphia Register of Historical Places since 1973, takes a bow as it is razed for new residential development | Photo: Michael Bixler

What is haunting about the demolition of the Levy-Leas House at 400 South 40th Street is how uniform and attractive the 160-year-old historic home looks now that most of the concrete additions have been removed. For decades, the Samuel Sloan-designed mansion’s beautiful, bracketed cornice and flat-capped cupola were overshadowed by stark, unsightly white cinderblock walls–added to the mansion when it was converted into a nursing home–and a gangly, black fire escape crawling up the north-facing wall. On the surface, it was an Italianate Frankenstein only a preservationist could love. The building was hard on the eyes and a challenge to get beyond the distraction of the additions, but the home was far from blighted or compromised. With a little adjusting of perception it wasn’t difficult to visualize the mansion’s potential for a full restoration even in its heavily altered state. The history of the building’s former owners—19th century shipbuilder John Patterson Levy and leather manufacturer David Porter Leas—and its inextricable connection to West Philadelphia’s pastoral expansion only fortify the value of the building. Seeing the Levy-Leas House now in its unobstructed, original layout without the additions is affecting and it brings the building’s obscured architectural context back together in a cohesive, bittersweet whole.

Even as the building is dismantled it easy to imagine one of Penn’s schools or academic centers occupying the house, like the respectful reuse of Eisenlohr Annex at 38th and Walnut and Kelly Writers House on Locust Walk. Equinox Properties’ 2007 proposal for restoring the mansion and building a seven-story apartment building on the property was not only palatable, but it would have been the home’s saving grace. That is all in the past now. After the eight year long legal battle over the building between neighbors, preservationists, the Historical Commission, and Penn, saving the building was not in the cards. However, no stakeholder can claim a victory in this case. We as a city failed the Levy-Leas House, one of the few Samuel Sloan buildings left in Philadelphia, and its memory will be forever shrouded in disfunction, dispute, and shame.

Take a walk around the Levy-Leas House in its final days.

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About the author

Michael Bixler is a writer, photographer, and managing editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter with Mountain Xpress weekly in Asheville, North Carolina and a native of South Carolina. Bixler has a keen interest in adaptive reuse, underappreciated architecture, contemporary literature and art, and forward-thinking dialogue about people and place. mmbixler.tumblr.com

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13 Comments


  1. Thank you for the walk-about. The interior has nothing of Samuel Sloan, not even a segmental arch. And the interior trim seems to have been replaced mid 50’s. Now there is that nice Colonial Revival chimney-breast. The character was long gone.

  2. I was told that there’s actually no record indicating that this is a Sloan house.

      • You’re a talented observer and writer, but citing yourself for the proposition: “Many of these houses were designed by Samuel Sloan, an ambitious carpenter-turned-architect who was receiving a barrage of local commissions. One of them was almost certainly the house John P. Levy purchased in November of 1853. Erected on speculation by plasterer Thomas Allen (a known Sloan collaborator), it resembled the published designs for Italianate villas that were earning Sloan national renown at the time,” is hardly proof that the Levy house was designed by Sloan. It simply is not known.

        Again, this could have been saved, but you seriously cannot contend that it is 90% Penn’s fault when it proposed to not only save it, but also rehab it back to its original condition if it could put a dorm on the property as well and got tied up in court for years. So it will do what it has the right to do on the property.

  3. There is some truth to the fact there is no actual paperwork recording this as designed by Sloan. It may have been a sloan disciple. No one knows certainly.Sloan did design a lot of projects in that community, so it is more than possible. It is a certainty that the baptist church on 40th at Ludlow, which was demolished a few months ago to make way for a private developer to build a dunkin donuts, was a Sloan building. Granted not an Italiante design. But, there was no drama around saving that building. Wonder why? WAs it the design? The fact that it was a church? That it was in a more commercial zone?
    I only wish the Woodland Terrace Homeowners Assoication would have agreed to the comprimse plan that kept the stucture and approved a zoning variance to build an l-shped apartment building around it. What an amazing entry that would have been. The design was nicely done, by local architect Sam Olshin. It was a win-win. But the Woodland Terrace Homeowners have appealed any zoning variance, and the city historic commission saw the property as too far good to be reused without exorbidant expenses placed on the owner. This led to the utilization of a rare case in which placing the cost of preservation on the owner is similar to a “government taking” and so a hardship exists on a case by case basis to nullify these situations. But the apartment would have thrown off the necessary resources to finance the restoration. AT the end of the day, it could have been a positive case study in how to compromise, preserve, and build.

  4. Seems a shame, I’d always had the idea America really loved it’s older buildings; far more respect shown than in England, where our towns & cities are robbed of beautiful & superior historic buildings for depressing concrete/glass boxes, just to profit greedy soul-less developers. All about £$ for a few.

  5. Lesson to be learned is never overplay your hand when confronted by a voracious lion. Woodland Terrance had the chance to save the mansion and they overplayed their hand only to see the University proceed to get the permits to demolish it. They filed an appeal and it will most likely be dismissed once demo is totally completed.

  6. It doesn’t even look like they are salvaging any architectural elements, just chewing up everything up to be sent to a landfill. So typical.

  7. Disgraceful. It seems like every two or three weeks there’s yet another historic structure in the news that couldn’t be saved. There’s always this attitude/sentiment surrounding each loss of “Well, looks like we lost this one. It was long hard fight, but it just wasn’t meant to be.” What’s it going to take to save a building? We’re always hearing about losing the fight; are there ANY at all that we win? Hardly. What’s the running score right now?

    Historic Preservation 2
    Development 46

  8. I certainly hope someone got to salvage that marble fireplace and the glass cabinet doors before the wrecking ball entered.

  9. That would be up to the demo company as they have salvage rights to the debris. You could ask but they may say no or you might be surprised. By now, almost all of the structure should have been demolished. Thus, making it easier for Commonwealth Court to dismiss the meritless lawsuit as there is no building left to litigate over.

  10. Ever since Penn bought this place 12 to 14 years ago, I also have thought, like the author mentioned, that this would have been a nearly perfect property to have their Historic Preservation students work on, as in researching and managing the prep work, and then have be used for visiting staff, or some small but important department could have had their offices there.
    But Penn being Penn decided otherwise.
    Yes, this certainly turned out to be a complicated game where most people lost. But I still say 90% of the ‘blame’ goes to Penn. They bought it (at a hugh inflated price), did nothing with it for many years, and then really never included the neighbors and neighborhood in a discussion about its future.

  11. Penn had to get zoning for a 11 story apartment building with the Sloan house demoed. Neighbors objected, Penn compromised with 5 stories, still neighbors objected, Penn compromised with offer to include Sloan House only to be rebuffed by one neighborhood group who then files appeal, Penn wins demo of Sloan house from Historical Society and has now demoed Sloan House. Next step to start construction of 5 story apartment building once meritless appeal dismissed in court.

    Yes, nobody won, but the construction will be started soon.

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