Philadelphia lost many wonderful buildings to fire and general neglect during its long, post-World War II decline. Yet one could argue that this extended coma did much to retain the city’s diverse streetscape: relatively little got built, especially compared to cities such as Chicago and New York, so not much got torn down. As a result, there were still plenty of great old buildings to restore once Center City and its perimeter neighborhoods started to rebound. Yet development pressure has finally reached a point where buildings with larger footprints like churches, warehouses and factories have become juicy targets for developers looking to build blocks of housing. That’s what happened to several of the properties listed below, and it’s a trend that we expect will continue to grow over the next few years.
Gretz Brewery (partial), 1524 Germantown Avenue
Possibly the oldest building in the complex, and undoubtedly the most charming, thanks to its mansard roof and a pressed metal balcony with wonderful, curlicue-shaped brackets. L&I first cited the owner of property, local developer Tony Rufo, in July of 2012 for falling brick, and approved the demolition of the building in May. The brewery shut down all the way back in 1961, and part of it has been used most recently as an auto repair shop and as an ice cream stand. Some restoration work on the mansard roof was done several years ago, but the repairs were abandoned before much progress was made. The fate of the rest of the buildings remains uncertain.
2. Ortlieb’s Brewery, Poplar and American Streets
We almost escaped 2013 without any old industrial buildings burning down; to our knowledge, the only casualty was a small, 19th century factory at 18th and Sedgley that most recently housed a company that remanufactured axles. However, just this past Thursday, December 26th, there was a fire on top of the roof of one of the Ortlieb’s Brewery buildings waiting to be demolished. The only wonder is that it didn’t happen sooner–Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments has done a notably poor job of sealing the property over the past decade.
There wasn’t much atop the former malt house that seemed like it could catch fire. Perhaps it was the stubborn tree that has been growing up there for the better part of a decade, maybe more. In 2012, when the demolition notices first were posted, artist Daniel Davison tied a flag to the top of the tree that read “I’ll miss you.” It was a lovely tribute, and Davison made a superb video documenting the intervention. Someone cut the flag down along with most of the tree last fall, but it grew back again this summer.
The decaying brewery was actually quite plain compared to more ornate examples in Brewerytown, but it did have presence, looming over the corner of Poplar and American Streets. The complex was one of the few remnants of an older, pre-gentrification Northern Liberties that hadn’t been torn down or fixed up, and as such it will be missed by this semi-longtime resident who found the neighborhood’s slightly post-apocalyptic character back then both depressing and exhilarating.
6. St. John the Evangelist church and parish house, 3rd and Reed Streets
This mainstay of the Pennsport neighborhood shut its doors in December, 2012 and demolition began fewer than six months later. The congregation at the “spiritual rock of Southwark” was known for its tolerance, good works and strong connection to the community. Although church attendance had declined, and an arrangement to share the building with a Lutheran congregation ended recently, the Episcopal Diocese’s decision to sell the building puzzled many parishioners. Twelve townhouses are being built on the site in a style that Hidden City reader and friend Todd Kimmell has dubbed “Hi-Tard, which offers the return of early 70s mansard matched with the return of late 80s hi tech.”
40th Street Methodist Episcopal Church, 40th and Sansom Streets
Samuel Sloan and Addison Hutton designed this simplified, Romanesque-style church, which was completed in 1871. Three congregations worshipped there: initially the Centennial Methodist Episcopal congregation, then from 1908 to 1954 the First Church of the Covenanters, and until 2007 St. Joseph’s Baptist Church. St. Joseph’s sold the property to P&A Associates–developer of the Murano and the St. James–for $2 million. Saying that the numbers don’t pencil for reusing an older building is an easy way for developers to brush off preservation advocates, however P&A founder Alan Casnoff seemed sincere when he told us that he tried to find a way to retain the church and even offered the building to two local congregations for the purchase price. “We racked our brain for five years over this,” Casnoff said. A single story building designed for retail tenants, with plate glass windows making up most of the facade, is planned for the site.
1510 N. Broad Street
Unfortunately, all we have is this lousy Google Streetview image with which to show you the building that stood between the long-vacant Alred E. Burk Mansion on the corner and the Art Deco storefront church to its north at 1512-1516 Broad Street. Temple University, which also owns the Burk Mansion, tore the structure down citing structural failures.
There were a number of buildings we considered that didn’t make it into the top ten. Here are a few of them:
Freihofer’s Bakery, 20th and Indiana Streets
Food processing was second only to textiles among Philadelphia’s industries in 1910, and gave the world such future mega-brands as Keebler, Breyers, Whitman Chocolates and Tastykake. Freihofer’s built this plant at 20th and Indiana in 1913 and sold the complex of buildings in 1958. For a look inside the factory before it was torn down, click HERE.
Second Baptist Church, 924-928 New Market St.
This “stucco swathed curiosity” was built as the Second Baptist Church in 1803 when Northern Liberties was still a town, sold to a Jewish congregation in 1873, and from 1965 until several years ago housed the AA Fence Co.
7-Up Bottling Plant, 819 Carpenter Street
Local lore has it that 7-Up was invented here in Philadelphia, however the company’s website notes St. Louis as the soda’s birthplace. It was a fun story, though, and noticing the tile lettering that spelled out “Home of 7-Up” was one of those discoveries that make walking in the city so enjoyable. Twenty five townhouses are planned for the site.
The “Fake House”, 3862 Lancaster Avenue
DIY at its finest. Creative folks turned the former appliance factory into living space and a performance venue in the late 1980s and somehow managed to carry on hosting punk shows until being evicted in 2012. A 22-unit apartment building is planned for the site. Philly Weekly had a nice write-up about the place back in 2003 that’s worth a look.