The City of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections has issued close to 168 demolition permits since January 2016, which tops annual totals of roughly 114 in 2006 and 98 in 2009. The 2016 demolition count is almost certain to escalate beyond last year’s total of 260 and even the record number of 276 set in 2014. Philadelphia, the first American city to join the Organization of World Heritage Cities, has administered over 2,000 demolitions in the last ten years. Naturally, many have made way for needed investment and improvement. Many can be justified for reasons of safety or nuisance.
However, Philadelphia operates without a citywide survey of historic buildings. As a city, therefore, we can’t ever be sure what we’re losing. And Philadelphia’s Historical Commission protects approximately 10,000 buildings on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places–barely three percent of the city’s building stock. Without a survey and without strengthened regulatory measures, the city will continue to lose buildings of historic and architectural significance that contribute to the experience of place. (See a map of full demolition permits issued by the City between 2006 and the beginning of June 2016 HERE.)
As I write this article, real estate developers Priderock Capital Group are removing the last pieces of rubble from the demolition site of Whitman’s Chocolates at the head of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. In place of the entirely adaptable world famous chocolatier’s massive, 110-year-old brick and concrete industrial facility, Priderock will build uninspired dreck–right at a grand entrance to the city. Closer to the river in Old City, the final bits of dust settles from the razing of Wetherill Paint’s, a late 19th century complex near Elfreth’s Alley. South of Washington Avenue, developers Concordia Group and partner Greg Hill are still chiseling away at the ruins of Mt. Sinai Hospital, perhaps the finest building ever to grace the skyline in Pennsport. In Kensington and Fishtown, demolition permits are sought and issued ad nauseum for beautiful churches, old brick and stone factories, warehouses, and industrial workshops. 200-year-old wooden houses built of first-cut timber have been cleared away with almost no protest.
In West Philadelphia, which possesses one of the finest collections of late-19th century residential architecture in the nation, and unprotected, developers have no incentive to repair and restore great buildings. Instead, ham-fisted, they throw up vinyl-clad boxes better suited for the suburban strip. Further out, the same type of uncoordinated urban planning allows the removal of key buildings from the Colonial Germantown Avenue National Historic District, a National Historic Landmark. Because the district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and not the Philadelphia Register, there are no regulatory protections in place against demolition. In Sharswood, the Philadelphia Housing Authority has found new and innovative ways to justify mass redevelopment with the acquisition and clearing of 372 structures and more than a thousand vacant lots spread across 40 city blocks. The 10-year, half billion-dollar redevelopment that will produce 1,200 units of mixed-income housing was possible because Philadelphia continually under values its historic neighborhoods. Near the Parkway, the City recently approved the demolition of the former Please Touch Museum. The Pompeian brick and Indiana limestone façade will be destroyed for more low density frame housing.
The Top Five Percent
According to data revealed at a recent National Trust for Historic Preservation conference, American cities protect an average of five percent of their building stock. Cities like Charleston, New Orleans, New York City, and Washington, D.C. protect much more than this average. In 2015, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission decided to focus preservation efforts on previously ignored sections of the city’s five boroughs. Officials there registered for protection nearly 2,000 buildings–all in one year (Philadelphia registered 30 buildings last year, but only with the substantial effort of advocates, calendaring new nominations at a snail’s pace). More than a quarter of Manhattan is already protected. Washington, D.C. has a swelling list of registered historic properties and a designation hearing schedule with a sizable backlog to boot. Unlike Philadelphia, in that city, building permits expedite designation review. Also, because the municipal government of Washington operates as both a city and a state, all of the properties placed on the National Register of Historic Places are locally protected. In New Orleans, there are roughly 15 local historic districts that encompass most of their NRHP-listed properties. Even Pittsburgh has established an incredible preservation record. In terms of historic preservation, these are progressive preservation practices that Philadelphia can learn from and adopt.
“Demolition delay” or “demolition review,” although a passive solution, is a fairly common procedure that puts a temporary stop to razing an undesignated historic properties and other important buildings and sites in a city for further examination. In Boston, specific areas, including the entire downtown and all buildings over 50 years of age, are subject to demolition review. Cities like Alamo Heights, in Texas, Albany, Boulder, Cambridge, Chicago, Portland (OR), and Denver have controls in place to ensure that undesignated cultural resources are not destroyed without governmental oversight. In Washington, D.C., the Historic Preservation Office reviews all demolition permits, a measure partly taken to ensure that no designated properties are destroyed.
Undermining A World Heritage City
Over 97 percent of the buildings in Philadelphia may be demolished by-right. Less than three percent of the building stock is legally protected, which explains why 2,000 buildings have been demolished over the last ten years. Concurrently, the Philadelphia Historical Commission has approved the designation of the lowest number of buildings in the department’s entire history. Between 2006 and 2014, 75 individual designations were added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The 30 30 individual properties protected in 2015 was the highest number since the 1985 Philadelphia Historic Preservation Ordinance was passed and double the previous total of 16 in 2013. Although 386 designations were covered by the designation of historic districts during that same period, the majority of those, 320 in all, were from the Parkside and Tudor East Falls historic districts additions to the local register in 2009. No historic districts have been added to the Philadelphia Register since 2010.
The issues surrounding the City’s diminishing commitment to historic preservation is not just a locally recognized concern. The State Historic Preservation Office, known as the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bureau for Historic Preservation, recently conducted a review of Philadelphia’s Certified Local Government Program. The report, addressed to Mayor Jim Kenney, identifies key issues related to the problems facing historic preservation in Philadelphia. The primary conclusion of the study was predictable: the Philadelphia Historical Commission is inadequately staffed and insufficiently funded. The report urged the city to undertake a comprehensive, citywide survey.
One aspect of the problem is that the designation process is dismissive, inconsistent, and tiresome, especially for the layman. The leadership does not allow properties to be immediately calendared upon submission, despite the fact that a demolition permit is effective immediately. Instead, the “complete and correct” process has been used to slow the designation process, often taking months, despite a building being endangered. Grammatical errors and stylistic preference trump the urgency of pending demolition. A great deal of effort is often put into rejection letters by the Commission, which are often sent to individual nominators three and four months after nominations are filed. In my own community work, often performed in underserved communities, time and money spent filing a nomination is a critical factor. I have seen several rejection letters that, while clear and detailed in regards to the procedural faults of the nomination, lacked any helpful guidance or resources from the Commission for individuals trying to protect endangered neighborhood properties.
There are more than 10,000 Philadelphia properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, at least three National Historic Landmarks, and scores of NRHP-eligible historic properties that are not on the local register. This is in effect a survey–or at least a start. As for secondary resources, there is a small library of documents that identify historic properties ranging from subject-specific surveys commissioned by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Section 106 reports, and graduate school projects. Most of these resources identify undesignated historic properties, but nominations are rarely filed. Perhaps the most discerning example is a survey of African American houses of worship. This well written document, completed for the Preservation Alliance in 2008 by Emily T. Cooperman, founder of ARCH Historic Preservation Consulting and currently an appointed member of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, identifies important historic buildings related to the religious and social life of African Americans in Philadelphia. Many of these buildings have been demolished since the survey was released. Marion Anderson’s girlhood church—the former Union Baptist Church at 11th and Bainbridge—was razed just last year. At the time of its construction the former Union Baptist Church was the largest African Baptist congregation in America. While I agree that a citywide survey is needed, I would first suggest a survey of the surveys, an audit if you will, of formal research that already exists. Ideally, any future identification efforts of historic properties would also include practicable, actionable plans that lead to the nomination process–data collection driven by a proactive approach to preservation rather than simply compiling information for academic ends. Or, at a minimum, this survey should be linked to a demolition delay.
In an earlier article in these pages, “To Preserve and Protect: Preservation At A Crossroads in Philadelphia”, I detailed what drives my passion for saving Philadelphia’s built history. Almost a year has passed since that confessional was published and during that time I have further discovered that the problems surrounding historic preservation in the city are stifling and manifold. The best tool to ensure that a property is preserved is local designation, of course. While this is not the only part of the preservation process, it does ensure that important buildings will not be demolished without legal oversight. In the best case scenario, one would then work to find a developer or patron for the preservation and reuse of a building or site. St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown is an example of a building that would have likely been razed had I not filed a nomination, which was enforced by tireless involvement from the community and others not carried it beyond the nomination process. The folks from Save St. Laurentius and developer Leo Voloshin are doing their best to ensure that this neighborhood landmark lives to see another century. Current plans include the residential conversion of this Edwin Durang-designed masterpiece. However, positive outcomes like St. Laurentius, where the community and individual nominators triumph in the face of pending demolition, are few and far between.
Fortunately, community organizations in East Kensington, Fishtown, and South Kensington have taken an active interest in preservation. Local historian and Kensington extraordinaire Ken Milano has pushed several nominations. Andrew Fearon, chief architectural conservator at Materials Conservation and lecturer in Penn’s Historic Preservation program, founded the advocacy group Kensington Olde Richmond Heritage, LLC. Dana Fedeli and her husband Quentin led the effort to save East Montgomery Avenue Methodist Church. Others are currently working on nominations in East and South Kensington. When I started I was largely alone. Now there are people involved all over the city.
Further Action Required
Authoring nearly forty-plus nominations in less than two years, primarily as an individual, I have most recently worked with CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia to establish a new preservation organization, the Keeping Society of Philadelphia. As project director, my primary mission is protecting undesignated historic properties in Philadelphia from demolition. The goal is simple: “Keeping Philadelphia.”
However, preservation should not just be limited to our rag tag efforts. The City of Philadelphia must take some responsibility for protecting historic properties in a larger sense, as part of the new Office of Planning and Development. While the office oversees intensive municipal and neighborhood planning, preservation strategies are rarely executed. Recently completed surveys broken down by planning districts identify a few historic buildings, several of which have already been demolished.
Make no mistake, there is a preservation crisis in Philadelphia. If we do not protect our historic properties now and foster a culture of retaining and reuse rather than demolition we will lose the character of our city. Unchecked demolition and poor quality new construction in Northern Liberties is a living example. Nearly every building–including breweries, factories, and lumber mills–related to the Industrial Revolution there has been unceremoniously razed. North Third Street now echoes the haunting sentiment in Gertrude Stein’s famous line, “There was no there there.”
Philadelphia first grew north and south along the river in the 18th century before it spread west. The last vestiges of Philadelphia’s old waterfront neighborhoods stand among largely vacant lots east of Interstate 95, north of Arch Street and south of Aramingo Avenue. Richmond and Allen Streets comprise the last intact, closed-in residential section adjacent to the river, an important array of modest old houses. Just above Richmond Street on Frankford Avenue stands the Frederick J. Rapp House built in 1787. It is the oldest house in Fishtown, which J.M. Duffin and I successfully nominated to the Philadelphia Register last year. In 2014, nine frame dwellings constructed between 1790s and 1830s stood in this neighborhood. There are now five, one of which is pending demolition. The last building related to the Cramp Shipyard, one of the largest maritime enterprises of its kind in American history, has recently been destroyed. And not so long ago an old longshoreman’s hotel was razed on Beach Street near Penn Treaty Park.
Slightly south in Northern Liberties, an emphatic row of Federal-style brick homes that date back to the 1820s command attention at 81-95 Fairmount Avenue. Slated for parcel development, this is one historic property that might be preserved. A nomination of the block will be reviewed by the Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation next Wednesday, June 15, 2016. The area is dotted with an interesting timeline of old residential, commercial, and industrial buildings that could be thoughtfully woven into future development. Just last year a one-story municipal warehouse with three Belgian block driveways was demolished. Since none of these buildings are protected, the last of the historic waterfront will no doubt be lost.
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.
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