The Committee on Historic Designation of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, in charge of vetting nominations to the Philadelphia Historic Register, will meet Wednesday to review the cases for four buildings and the interior of an already protected building, including Moore Push Pin Company, an Art Deco automobile showroom from the 1930s at 1501-05 Fairmount Avenue, The Angelic Exaltation Of Saint Joseph Into Heaven ceiling painting by Filippo Costaggini at Old St. Joseph’s Church, the Victorian Benjamin Kenworthy House at 365 Green Lane in Roxborough, and the exterior and interior of the Blue Horizon.
As Michael Buozis reported in the Hidden City Daily in September, real estate developers Mosaic and Orens plan to demolish the legendary arena and replace it with a boutique hotel. A listing on the Philadelphia historic register would legally protect it from demolition.
In a joint statement in September, the developers said that preservation of the Blue Horizon is not feasible, citing what they believe to be financially prohibitive repairs and a lack of profitable options for the reuse of the building. Instead, Mosaic and Orens–along with investor Hotel Indigo–intend to build lodging in a corridor outside of Center City that lacks both shopping and tourism appeal, bringing up questions of financial sustainability for the project itself. Hotel Indigo told Hidden City in September that while the building would be demolished they did have plans to salvage architectural details of the arena and use them for interior decoration.
The nomination by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia may be the Blue Horizon’s last chance. If the Historical Commission grants approval for designation, Mosaic and Orens would either have to redesign their hotel project, which would include the preservation of both the exterior and interior of the building—including the auditorium inside—or apply for an economic hardship exemption.
But preservation advocates worry that members of the nomination committee, assuming the developer would be granted a hardship exemption anyway, will choose not to approve the listing. This was the kind of decision made some years ago regarding the nomination of the Richmond Generating Station, which was denied approval despite meeting nine of ten criteria for listing on the Philadelphia Register, according to sources who attended that meeting. A building need only meet one of the ten criteria for approval.
“The designation committee purview is limited to the technical aspects of the nominations only, so if Mosaic shows up and pleads hardship on Wednesday, the designation committee should properly punt that debate to the full Commission meeting on December 12th and make a recommendation solely on the eligibility of the property and the strength of the nomination,” says Ben Leech, the Preservation Alliance’s advocacy director. “We will argue that the designation vote should not be influenced by the perception of hardship, which is at this point a totally untested claim. At best, Mosaic might be able to demonstrate that a hotel doesn’t work if retention of the auditorium is required. But that argument is a mile away from the claim that the building can’t be adapted for any purpose.”
Leech says that one possibility is that the Commission may want to strike a token compromise that would involve the preservation of the exterior while giving the developers free reign of the interior. This is not an ideal outcome, he says. “We wrote the nomination to specifically include the auditorium wing as a significant feature of the interior nomination and would still argue that its demolition (as proposed in the current hotel plan) requires a full hardship application.”
Speaking on the likelihood that the Blue Horizon’s nomination will be approved Wednesday and passed on to the full commission, Historical Commission executive director Jonathan Farnham says that “the Commission could factor Mosaic’s ongoing development project at the Blue Horizon into its designation decision. However, I cannot predict how such factoring might influence the decision.” Designation is an act of discretion, says Farnham. “The Historical Commission is never required to designate, but may designate if it finds that a site satisfies one or more of the ten ‘Criteria for Designation’ laid out in the City’s preservation ordinance.”
If this is an “eleventh hour”–or perhaps ninth round–nomination, Leech points to two successful cases, both from a decade ago. Nominations for the Nugent and Presser homes were submitted as the owner was filing demolition permits. Both buildings were eventually restored and are now significant community assets,” says Leech, underscoring positive outcomes when the Commission takes the long view. Leech believes the best of course of action in cases of highly endangered assets like the Blue Horizon is to designate first, and consider the hardship afterwards.
Commission members will have to make a similar decision regarding the 1871 Benjamin Kenworthy House at 365 Green Lane in Roxborough, recently threatened by a developer’s plan. This summer, community activists successfully stopped the imminent demolition of the house. Now, they hope to protect it against future development plans.
Another nominee, the Moore Push Pin building at Wayne Junction–part of the Wayne Junction National Historic District, which confers tax benefits for adaptive reuse and preservation–was the home of the Moore Push Pin Company from 1912 to 1977. Edwin Moore invented the push pin in 1900; the company is still in business, located in Wyndmoor. The building is nominated by preservation professional Kim Broadbent, who wrote the federal nomination for the Wayne Junction National Historic District. Broadbent also successfully nominated nearby Happy Hallow Playground, built in 1911, to the Philadelphia Register. If the nomination is successful, Moore would be one of the first industrial buildings to be legally protected from demolition in Philadelphia.
Also on the agenda is an amendment to the Historic Street Paving Thematic District–various historic blocks like wood-paved Camac Street in Center City, featured on Hidden City Daily in March, now in a highly deteriorated condition. The Streets Department, responsible for the maintenance of most historic streets in the city, recently employed an outside consultant to assess all of the city’s historic paved streets. Both the firm and Historical Commission staff has compiled a list of streets to add and some that will be removed from the Thematic District’s maintenance list.
A number of factors informed the proposed amendments, says Farnham, including “current condition, loss of historic paving material, rarity of paving material, context, i.e. in a local or national register district, and capacity to regulate. The goal is to spend the limited funding wisely on the maintenance of the most important historic street paving.” He says that while the Streets Department chooses where and when maintenance money is spent, the Historical Commission evaluates those projects to make sure that they meet historic preservation standards.
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The Committee on Historic Designation of the Philadelphia Historical Commission meets at 9:30AM on Wednesday, November 12th in Room 578 of City Hall. The meeting is open to the public.