“Why is it,” noted a Fox29 reporter on Monday night, “we never learn about the history of these buildings until they’ve gone up in flames?”
It’s a damning question, perhaps the most insightful statement in the aftermath of the Buck Hosiery fire.
Let me rephrase it: why is it, in this city whose identity is so closely tied to hard work, production, and industry, we place so little value on the factories, mills, and complexes where the work was–and sometimes still is–done? Built over time beginning in the early 1880s, Buck Hosiery was a piece of elegant and charming industrial architecture. As first Glazier Hosiery then Buck then Smiley, manufacturers of fire protection equipment, what went on in this building helped to key Philadelphia’s development into the leading skilled manufacturing city in North America.
“Philadelphia is primarily a manufacturing city, the greatest manufacturing city on earth–‘The World’s Greatest Workshop,’ but she lays a special emphasis upon her prestige as the world’s largest manufacturer of textiles,” says the caption to the now iconic Public Ledger photo of Kensington’s skyline (find the photo HERE).
And yet Buck Hosiery isn’t on any list of historic sites and buildings and thus there was no special regulatory process beyond imperfect L&I inspections (and a fallible system of property insurance*) to protect it. Indeed, a quick perusal of the Philadelphia register of historic buildings, recently updated and put back on-line coincidentally the day of the fire, finds precious few examples of industrial architecture.
But, says preservation architect Shawn Evans, “preservation need not be constrained within those buildings that have been deemed to be historic.”
In fact, Evans points to available though under-promoted tools to assist owners of buildings like Buck get technical assistance and tax credits. Many of these resources can be found HERE, at the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia’s Preserve! Philadelphia program.
Still, these programs are limited by funding, manpower, and reach. The Preservation Alliance has gone a long way in recent years extending the reach of the act and idea of preservation, as have design-focused programs like the Community Design Collaborative and the fledgling Pew Center for Arts and Heritage’s Gray Area project. The Preservation Alliance’s recent campaigns for neighborhood (particularly African-American historic places) and Modern architecture have found some success in protecting key buildings and broadening the notion of historic preservation beyond its overwhelming Center City and famous architect focus.
The imperative now, if we want to view buildings like Buck as the extraordinary assets they are–and not be forced to deal with them as catastrophic liabilities–is to create a preservation campaign for workplaces, factories, and mills. The point shouldn’t be to over-regulate contemporary uses or building adaptations, but to proactively give owners incentives to take care of them.
The imperative, indeed, is real. Directly across the street from the charred remains of Buck Hosiery is the original John Bromley carpet mill, vacant and exposed. Bromley launched from this corner, innovating methods, machinery, and materials until eventually building a massive complex on Lehigh Avenue, which employed thousands.
Now, as Sandy Salzman, executive director of New Kensington Community Development Corporation, told our Ryan Briggs yesterday, “it’s another one of those heavy timber buildings, and it’s right across the street. I’m so concerned because of how close it is to the Market-Frankford El. If it’s as hot a fire as the Buck building, it could melt the El.”
Is Bromley an asset or liability? The choice is ours.
Let’s get to work, shall we?
*The question of property insurance has been missing from this conversation. Did the owner have insurance? If so, why wasn’t he forced by that company to clean and seal his building? This is just another layer of protection that has failed.
Your commentary works well with today’s Inquirer Op Ed, “Letting A City’s History Burn,” by Steven Conn.
Underneath all those burned out factories are many layers of the City’s history too.
Our City’s priceless archaeology is lost every day because Philly, unlike some other cities, does not have a staff archaeologist on the payroll. Philadelphia Archaeological Forum is Philly’s only champion for such efforts, although John Gallery of the Preservation Alliance is another supporter.
Why can’t tax credits be provided to developers to fund archaeology, I asked reps from the PA Historical and Museum Commission a couple years ago? The best time to conduct archaeology is when a site is ready for development. Why not offer funding that enables both? Other countries do it.
Philadelphia’s problem is not unique to itself. Urban decay is seen in other cities as well. As a native of Trenton, New Jersey I have witnessed the decay and destruction of numerous factories. Some have been saved and redeveloped but most have been lost. There was the massive Roebling wire works in Trenton from which came the cable to build the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate bridge. Trenton, like Philadelphia, was a manufacturing city with many potteries that were world renowned.It was the center of the manufacure of rubber and electrical products. During the second world war many of the factories made war time products. But like all of manufacturing in this country it died a very slow but continual death over the past fifty years and like Philadelphia cities all over the northeast have large inventories of old factories. Perhaps the silver lining in the loss of the hosiery factory, aside from the unnecessary loss of two fireman, is that through your efforts and efforts of others who are reporting this story the city administration will make an attempt to tackle the problems that lead to this tragedy. At the very least the owners of these buildings must be held accountable.
These types of buildings are great assets. In order to help make it financially feasible to adapt and rehabilitate them, the Preservation Alliance has recently submitted a “thematic” nomination of historic textile mills in Philadelphia to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Once approved by PHMC (sometime this year) this will facilitate the listing of these properties on the National Register of Historic Places which in turn will make them eligible for the 20% investment tax credit for rehabilitation. There will still have to be responsible for developers, but being able to get 20% of the rehab cost from tax credit investors will make preservation of these buildings much more feasible.
John, that’s about the best news I’ve heard since the fire. Can you tell about how many mills there are left to be placed in that “thematic” nomination?
So happy to learn as the years pass that more industrial buildings are being saved. From what I see, the John Bromley mill (my great-great-great grandfather) mentioned here in your story has now been saved and the Albion Mill of George Bromley (great-great grandfather) is to become the new Hagert Lofts community at Jasper and Hagert.