Fourteen Philadelphia properties were added to the local Register of Historic Places by the Historical Commission today, including sites of community and cultural importance in neighborhoods from across the city.
The designation of these properties gives them additional protection from demolition and non-historic alterations, and—in the case of the Bethel burial ground beneath Weccaccoe Playground—ensures that it will be analyzed for potential archaeological artifacts during the park’s renovation.
However, two properties—both houses in Germantown associated with prolific architect George T. Pearson—generated varying degrees of conflict, with one house being tabled at its owner’s request and the other approved for designation over the homeowners’ objections.
Joe Frazier’s Gym on North Broad Street kicked off the agenda of nominations, representing the fulfillment of a two-year campaign to raise awareness of the site’s endangerment and formally protect the property. The gym, one of the few surviving Philadelphia landmarks associated with the legendary boxer, is now listed on both the national and local registers.
Brent Leggs from the National Trust for Historic Preservation visited Philadelphia from his office in Boston to speak in favor of the local nomination. He called the site “a beloved place,” telling the Commission that “the City of Philadelphia has been working to commemorate the life and legacy of Joe Frazier,” and hoped that the gym would become a “treasure” for the city.
However, the tone of the three-hour meeting was largely colored by the questions raised repeatedly by Commissioner John Mattioni: whether the property owners had been contacted by the Commission and whether they were in favor of designation. An attorney by trade, Mattioni declared that he supported the nominations based on merit, but had concerns about whether a designation would benefit a property if the owner had no inclination to maintain it. His concerns were often seconded by Anuj Gupta, a Mount Airy community leader and former L&I commissioner who also voiced concerns about property owners’ roles during the meeting.
Those concerns arose with the Stiffel Senior Center, whose owner was said to be opposed to designation but did not attend the meeting. However, that building—described as the most important extant Jewish community center in the city—was added to the register with unanimous approval.
Concerns of owner rights were again addressed, this time head-on, when the owners of the Pearson House at 125 W. Walnut Lane presented themselves to protest the nomination.
Homeowners Peter and Katherine Commons, whose young daughter was also in attendance, stated their objections to the Commission’s regulatory oversight, the possible diminution of their home value as a result of designation, and questions about the constitutionality of the preservation ordinance itself.
Katherine Commons additionally noted that protection for the house was misplaced, as it was itself an alteration of an earlier design. She spoke of her husband’s woodworking hobby and delicate attention to detail, and also described her neighbors as artists who took pains to maintain their homes. “We believe our house is a physical manifestation of faith in the beauty of change,” she said.
Commissioner Mattioni said that he had “serious reservations” about designating a property against an owner’s active objections. Several others including the chair, Sam Sherman, Jr., spoke of their experiences as owners of historically designated homes and congratulated the owners on their stewardship.
Yet Sherman, who resides in a historic district that was established after he bought his house, told the Commonses that “the issues you have raised [about changes in mortgage] are not the personal experience of mine, nor do I know them to be of my neighbors.”
Executive director Jonathan Farnham also responded to the objections. He described the likelihood of a lender calling a mortgage because of designation to be “in practical terms so unlikely that it should not be considered seriously.” He also explained the Commission’s responsibilities in striking a balance between the public good of preserving historic assets and the rights of the owners of those assets, which he ensured would be upheld by the Commission if the house was designated.
Questions were raised about which criteria the Commission would use to not designate an historic house. Farnham informed the Commissioners that, while the preservation ordinance states that a property “may be designated” if it meets the historic criteria, it does not signify that it must be thusly designated. Therefore, the Commission “has discretionary space to explore any aspects” and arrive at “any conclusion that is defensible” outside of purely historic merits, including homeowner objection.
The motion to designate the Pearson House was ultimately approved, with Mattioni and Gupta voting against it. In all other cases, the votes to approve designation were unanimous.
The homeowners, clearly exhausted, declined comment following the Commission’s decision.
Immediately after, the Commissioners elected to table the nomination of the Flavell Family House at 5340 Greene Street, after Farnham stated that the owner of the house wanted more time to review the notification letter that she claimed to have never received. After an hour spent on the Pearson House, the motion to table was swiftly passed.
The agenda also included one house of worship: St. Petri Evangelical Lutheran Church, located in the Belmont neighborhood, which was home to a large German community until the mid-20th century. The Romanesque Revival church is now home to the Community Church of God.
Noting the church’s condition and occupancy, Sherman commented, “I think this is an example of the proactive way to designate a house of worship,” as opposed to reactive—a subtle yet unmistakable allusion to the historic Church of the Assumption, whose demolition the Commission approved. The St. Petri nomination was written by Farnham partly at the suggestion of a West Philadelphia neighbor, although he said that he had been unable to reach the present congregation prior to the Commission’s designation hearings.
The final item on the agenda was a request to declassify as historic a garage in the Spring Garden Historic District, which the Commission also unanimously approved. The decision redrew the boundaries of the district to exclude the property, which was found to have been constructed in 1937, outside the district’s period of significance. The owners are likely to demolish the structure and redevelop it as a residential property.
Sites Added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places
• Joe Frazier’s Gym (Cloverlay Gym), 2917-19 N. Broad Street
• Dox Thrash House, 2340 Cecil B. Moore Avenue
• Stiffel Senior Center (Jewish Education Center #2), 2501-15 S. Marshall Street
• A. Pomerantz & Co. Building, 1525 Chestnut Street
• Chinatown YMCA (Chinese Cultural and Community Center), 125 N. 10th Street
• Horn & Hardart Building, 15-21 S. 11th Street
• St. Petri Evangelical German Lutheran Church (Community Church of God), 838 1/2 N. 42nd Street
• Leech House (Worrel-Winter House, aka Wilmerton House), 1548 Adams Avenue
• Box Grove Plantation, 8047 & 8049 Walker Street
• George T. Pearson House, 125 W. Walnut Lane
• Happy Hollow Playground Recreation Center, 4740 Wayne Avenue
• Bethel Burying Ground (Weccaccoe Playground), 405-25 Queen Street
• Shofuso Japanese House and Garden, 4301 Lansdowne Drive
• Paschalville Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 6942 Woodland Avenue