A little more than a decade ago, Lorraine Gomez and her husband Gerald, both military veterans, decided to move back to Gomez’s old neighborhood in Parkside. The idea was to save money and to live in a more attractive area. “Why live with all this overhead when we can live in a beautiful place,” Gomez says now, more than a decade after leaving the suburbs of South Jersey for Viola Street, just one block off Parkside Avenue and West Fairmount Park.
In 2007, Gomez and ten of her neighbors formed the Viola Street Residents Association (VSRA). Members of the VSRA wanted to help bring the revitalization they saw happening in the park and along the avenue onto their own block. Beginning in the 1990s, the Parkside Historic Preservation Corporation had restored twenty of the late-19th century mansions on Parkside Avenue. In 2008, local and state politicians proposed major funding for improving the Mann Center and the Philadelphia Zoo. The same year, the Please Touch Museum moved to Memorial Hall, an iconic building erected for the Centennial Exposition.
“We saw a lot of work on the perimeter of the park and inside the park, but not much on the interior of the neighborhood,” says Gomez, now a VSRA block captain. Now, Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia, as part of its home repair program in West Philly, is helping Gomez and 17 other residents of the 4200 block of Viola Street restore their row houses. Seven of them, all on the north side of the block, fall into the Parkside Historic District, one of a handful of neighborhoods on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. (The block is also part of the much larger Parkside National Register Historic District.) The Flemish revival brick row houses, designed by Henry E. Flower and built by brewer Frederick Poth in the late-1890s, feature copper bays windows, gothic windows and a hint of the modern with exposed steel beams over the porches.
A First for Habitat Philly
Though nationally Habitat has dabbled in this kind of restoration work, this is the first time Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia has attempted to preserve buildings according to historic specifications. “It’s great to have Habitat been in on this project,” says Cassie O’Connell, director of Habitat’s The Other Carpenter program, “even as we face a learning curve with the historical commission, we can help homeowners repair their homes.”
Gomez traces the current project back to one of VSRA’s first actions. VSRA members approached a local non-profit repair program called The Other Carpenter (since taken over by Habitat for Humanity), about two empty lots on the north side of Viola Street. In front of the lots, trash piled up on the sidewalk, weeds grew out of control, and people abandoned their vehicles. The Other Carpenter helped residents erect two wooden fences, which still stand, at the front of the lots.
“That made all the difference,” says Michael Burch, co-chair of VSRA. “Just having the symbol of the fence told people this is off-limits. We realized, if things were going to turn around, it was going to take the residents doing it.”
Burch, like Lorraine Gomez, moved back to Viola Street after a long absence. In 2007, he inherited the house he grew up in after living outside of the city for 20 years. But in all that time, he never stayed a stranger. He loved Fairmount Park so much he came back to Parkside most weekends from suburbs like Drexel Hill. Burch initially planned to rehab the house and sell it, but when he saw the revitalization efforts of VSRA and The Other Carpenter, he decided to stay.
“The flavor of the neighborhood is coming back,” Burch says.
Years later, when the VSRA approached The Other Carpenter about doing home repairs on their block, they found out that Habitat for Humanity had acquired the organization in 2012. The VSRA then organized 18 residents to apply for Habitat’s home repair program. Gomez says Habitat also helped some residents sort out the entangled titles that come along with inherited properties, so they could work directly with homeowners on their houses.
The first week of work on Viola Street drew about 170 volunteers, doing repairs on the facades and porches of the 18 homes as well as basic interior safety upgrades like installing railings, smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and bathroom grab bars. Work has continued, with around 20 volunteers working every week.
Cassie O’Connell says many of the challenges Habitat faces in working on the homes in the historic district are new to her. She has extensive experience building, repairing and restoring houses, dealing with lead paint removal and attempting to retain the character of the facades of older houses in Philadelphia, but this is her first time working directly with the city historical commission in a historic district. “We were absolutely not looking for a preservation project,” she says.
O’Connell says that some of the commission’s rules for older historic buildings, like requiring the use of mortar containing no Portland cement, scares off many contractors and can cost much more than standard repairs. When Habitat cannot afford to fully restore an aspect of the façade on the houses on Viola Street, such as the copper cornices, O’Connell says she’d like to repair the damaged features and leave them in a “preservation-ready” state. To do this, O’Connell says, Habitat must get the commission’s board to approve the work. This can involve lots of paperwork and take a long time.
“Working with the historical commission is a tedious process,” says O’Connell. “It would be very challenging for a homeowner or a smaller contractor to do on their own.”
Jon Farnham, the Commission’s executive director, writes in an e-mail to Hidden City that the work O’Connell wanted to do on the copper cornice exceeded the commission staff’s authority and would have required Habitat to submit a formal application for approval to the Commission and its architectural committee. O’Connell met with a member of the commission’s staff, but did not submit the formal application for the cornice work. If she had, the commission would be required to respond within 60 calendar days, though the commission “typically completes its reviews within about 30 days,” according to Farnham. The staff, on the other hand, reviews issues under its purview within five working days.
“The Commission’s staff cannot exempt applicants from the required process,” writes Farnham.
Preservation in an Impoverished Neighborhood
But the results of navigating this bureaucracy can be worth it from a preservation standpoint, says Aaron Wunsch, assistant professor of historic preservation in the School of Design of the University of Pennsylvania. “This is, in many ways, the direction I would like my field to go in,” says Wunsch. “It brings the mission of Habitat into the world of preservation.”
Wunsch, however, has heard much naysaying about preservation projects in lower-income neighborhoods. “I hear it all the time from people, ‘If you care about social justice, why are you working with buildings?’” says Wunsch.
Wunsch says social justice and historic preservation are not incompatible. In fact, they go hand in hand. “My answer is, it allows people to stay in their neighborhood, where generations of their families may have lived,” he says.
For the critics who claim that preservation work wastes money that could be better used on new construction, Wunsch says it’s all a matter of short-term versus long-term investment. “You could restore the full oak window sash and it won’t need any real work for another 50 years, or you could install a new vinyl window. You’ll get a five-year warranty, but after that you’re on your own,” he says.
O’Connell says home repair, even in the short run, is much more cost effective than new construction, which is Habitat’s traditional mode. The $140,000 it takes to build a new house in Philadelphia could go to stabilizing between 30 and 40 existing houses, she says. Preservation adds a lot of cost, but the alternative, allowing the homes to fall into further disrepair, is untenable. And if anyone doubts Habitat’s commitment to historic preservation, says O’Connell, they should just look across the street. On the south side of the block, where Habitat is working on buildings outside of the historic district, they are still trying to retain the character of the brick row homes.
The problem, says Wunsch, is making the preservation process more flexible for small projects like this. “The last great piece of this puzzle,” says Wunsch, “is how do we get local preservationists to be flexible and let go of the purist approach where everything has to be up to colonial Williamsburg specs.”
Kathy Dowdell, a preservation architect and professor in Drexel University’s Westphall College of Media Arts and Design, says the challenges of preservation are many, but the historical commission staff is very responsive when issues arise. “There is always concern when a historic district is created,” says Dowdell, “that homeowners might not be able to afford to follow the rules.”
But, Dowdell says, there are many contractors in Philadelphia who have experience with the commission’s rules and preservation standards in general. Even still, she says she understands Habitat’s early frustrations in their preservation work. “It’s not for the faint-hearted, that’s for sure.”
Using Volunteers to do Preservation
Habitat’s project on Viola Street isn’t the first time volunteers have done preservation work in Philadelphia. Lauren Drapala, of the Young Friends of the Preservation Alliance (and a Hidden City Daily contributor), says that the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust, her former employer, relies on help from students, interns and volunteers for its preservation workforce.
“But you definitely need a certain amount of knowledge going in to a preservation project, knowledge a volunteer might not have,” says Drapala, who works as an architectural conservator with Building Conservation Associates.
Drapala and Meg Kelly, another member of the Young Friends of the Preservation Alliance group, stepped in to help organize volunteer work on the restoration of the windows on Viola Street. Kelly surveyed all the windows and labeled them, training volunteers in restoration techniques, leaving the project so that Habitat could move forward with a clearly organized plan.
Bringing in experts like Drapala and Kelly may be part of the answer to reducing the cost of historic preservation in districts like Parkside. The work YFPA did on Viola Street allowed Habitat to do more preservation with the limited funding already in place, says Drapala. “We had a great opportunity with this project to help a community that we don’t normally get to serve,” she says.
Sean Solomon, who bought his house on Viola Street for $5,000 in 1998 when it was slated for demolition, restored the façade and many of the rooms on the first and second floors to their 1890s specifications. Solomon salvaged materials discarded or shared by other homeowners in the neighborhood to restore his windows and the woodwork in some of the rooms. He now advises Habitat on preservation details and volunteers on the block. In 2010, the city historical commission installed a historic marker at Solomon’s house.
Financing Viola Street
Habitat’s Viola Street effort may be the largest preservation project in the city so far that relies so much on volunteer labor. But no matter how many volunteers show up for workdays on Viola Street, adequate funding must be in place before any preservation project can go forward. Thrivent Financial provided $40,000 and church groups in Philly raised another $15,000 for the work on Viola Street. No government funding was used in the project. “For future projects,” O’Connell says, “further funding will have to be found.”
One national organization is trying to fill in this gap. The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) has partnered with local Habitat for Humanity affiliates in at least nine other municipalities around the country, including a preservation project in a historic district in Newburgh, New York, where 23 historic houses were rehabbed.
According to the NTHP, these projects have been successful. “The restoration and reuse of historic homes in depressed areas not only contributes to the economic revitalization of communities, but also helps preserve these neighborhoods’ historic fabric and character,” says Brent Leggs, senior field officer at NTHP. “Time after time we’ve seen areas of once abandoned and neglected historic buildings transformed through historic preservation.”
In Parkside, the residents seem energized and committed to revitalizing their block, says Lorraine Gomez. “Habitat really threw us a lifeline,” she says. “The neighborhood got a transfusion that day [the volunteers first came].”
Both Gomez and Michael Burch, who call themselves “retreads” because they came back to Viola Street after so many years away, say they hope the revitalization of Viola Street spills over into the rest of the neighborhood. They both remember a time when you didn’t have to go further than 42nd Street for anything.
“42nd Street should be back in business again,” Gomez says.