It’s never hard to fill up this list each year in Philadelphia, and 2013 was no exception. If the losses seem a little less severe this time around, perhaps it can be chalked up to dumb luck. Several remarkable buildings that inspire a great deal of passion–the Boyd Theater, Church of the Assumption, Engine 46–are in extremely precarious situations, and 309 S. Broad Street, former home of Philadelphia International Records, Cameo-Parkway Records, and W. Wilson Goode’s campaign office, will probably be coming down in 2014. The human cost was even more terrible than last year, however. Once again, we lost not only buildings but also lives; in 2012 it was two firefighters who died in the Buck Hosiery blaze, and this year six people died in the collapse of the Salvation Army thrift store on 22nd and Market.
Both tragedies focused the attention of city officials and the public on the Department of Licenses and Inspections, which could have done more in the case of Buck Hosiery, but appears to have been following standard operating procedures–for better or worse–in the 22nd and Market collapse. In general, L&I is much improved in recent years, but remains underfunded and reactive, which is a recipe for accidents to happen on an intermittent yet regular basis in a city with thousands of decaying buildings and too many owners who have abandoned all pretense of caring for them. Obviously, the majority of building owners in Philadelphia are law abiding, but a remarkable number are not. In many cases this is due to poverty, yet the track record of owners who possess vast resources is oftentimes not any better, and conceivably worse because they own so many properties.
Here are the first five lost buildings of 2013. We’ll post the second five tomorrow.
Salvation Army thrift store, 22nd and Market Streets
For decades, Richard Basciano sat on prime Center City real estate and allowed it to deteriorate while other developers did the hard work of making projects happen around him (and enriching him in the process). So was it any surprise that when Basciano finally bestirred himself to tear down his buildings on the 2100 and 2200 block of Market Street and turn them into surface parking lots with an eye toward some nebulous future development, that it wasn’t done with care? In fact, according to emails published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, he pushed repeatedly for the demolition contractor to speed up the work, and on June 5th the wall of the former Hoagie City building collapsed onto the adjacent Salvation Army thrift store, killing six people. The smallest of fry in the case–an equipment operator who tested positive for marijuana–faces criminal charges, while Basciano’s exposure looks like it will be limited to civil lawsuits. But as the old mafia saying goes, the fish rots from the head, and that has never been truer than in this case.
Book Bin II, 2132 Market St.
Prior to the botched demolition of Hoagie City, Basciano tore down a little gem on the same block that featured a wonderfully decorative terra cotta facade. We weren’t able to track down much on the building’s history, however a salvage contractor from York, PA who purchased the terra cotta wrote in to tell us that it was manufactured by the Atlantic Terra Cotta company, which also produced material for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He said that the architect may have been Bally and Bassett of Philadelphia. Another reader pointed out that putti (cherubs) holding compasses are “an Italian Renaissance motif to indicate the ‘perfect musical measure,'” and speculated that the building may have been a music hall or music store originally. To take a closer look at the compass-holding cherubim, check out Rob Bender’s superb set of closeups.
St. Bonaventure Church, 2842 N. 9th St.
Size and opulence, especially in impoverished neighborhoods, often turn out to be a building’s long-term enemies, and no one built bigger and fancier in the 19th and early 20th century than the Catholic Church. So it shouldn’t be surprising that several of the churches sold by the Diocese since the early 1990s have been torn down, including St. Bonaventure and St. Boniface, with another–Church of the Assumption–in danger of being demolished in the near future. Designed by architect Edward Forrest Durang, (who also designed the Church of the Gesu in Francisville and the Trocadero Theater on Arch Street), St. Bonaventure’s soaring steeple was a neighborhood landmark. The Catholic Archdiocese shuttered the church, along with nearly a dozen others, in 1993, and sold it and the adjacent school building to the New Life Evangelistic Church in 1997 for $110,000. Unfortunately, New Life didn’t have the resources to maintain the main sanctuary, so it moved its services into the school building. Congregations do this quite often–perhaps the Archdiocese should sell these buildings separately in the future, rather than bundling them together, since it’s usually far easier and cheaper to use the auxiliary buildings. This may well be the Archdiocese’s intention, however as of last February, the Archdiocese did not appear to have a clear strategy for what it will do with the ten churches it is currently in the process of closing. For a poignant look at what life at St. Bonaventure was like in the decades before it closed, it’s worth browsing through the photos on the St. Bonaventure Facebook page. For Chandra Lampreich’s excellent pre-demolition photos of the church’s interior, click HERE.
Episcopal Cathedral parish house, 38th and Chestnut Streets
Although attractive enough, the two brownstones in question are on this list because of the legal precedent set by their demolition. The two buildings were ostensibly protected from being torn down because they were listed on the City’s Register of Historic Places. However, the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania argued that demolition was “necessary in the public interest” because it needed to restore the adjacent cathedral, and the only way it could generate enough revenue to do so was by building an apartment tower on the site. The Historical Commission agreed with the Diocese’s novel interpretation, but critics worried that the case would open a small hole in the law that might be exploited in the future. As Christopher Mote put it in his article for the Daily, “they questioned whether the act of preservation in itself was a matter of necessity to allow for demolition, and whether the provision could be interpreted to favor one historic property at the expense of another.”
Third Regiment Armory, Broad and Wharton Streets
The Third Regiment Armory was yet another unwieldy building with high maintenance costs that was purchased by a community group without the financial resources to rehab it or care for it long term. In September of 2003, Tolentine Community Center and Development Corporation, a small, neighborhood nonprofit known for its weekly bingo games, bought the vacant armory from the State of Pennsylvania for $106,246 with plans to turn it into a community center. The organization hoped to receive $5 million in state funding for the renovation, but the money was not forthcoming, and Tolentine was initially barred from reselling the property due to a restriction written into the property’s bill of sale. Meanwhile, the organization struggled to maintain the building, spending more than $500,000 on repairs. Legislation from State Senator Larry Farnese eventually allowed Tolentine to market the property, which it sold in June to developer Michael Carosella for $835,000. Carosella, who tore down two Graduate Hospital-area churches for residential development several years ago, will build an L-shaped apartment building on the site with 50 units and a courtyard entrance along Broad Street.