There is a well recorded history of Native-American inhabitation and eventual displacement by European settlers in the Philadelphia area, but you’d never guess it by walking around the city’s historic district. Among the thicket of historic markers, upscale restaurants, and colonial mainstays, the rusting hulk near 3rd and Chestnut streets is all that remains of a Bicentennial-era attempt to celebrate the region’s Native-American history.
These two 19th Century buildings at 223 Chestnut Street, originally built for textile import companies, were last used by the United American Indians of the Delaware Valley as a museum and “trading post” that folded in 2004. Following a failed redevelopment project that sought to turn the buildings into a ill-conceived spa complex in mid–2000, the imposing structures have once again been marked for redevelopment.
The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, a quasi-governmental agency that supports a variety of urban development projects, was involved in financing the last repurposing attempt. The developer of the spa complex, Silica Investments, defaulted on its loan and PIDC spent years attempting to seize the buildings through sheriff sale, finally succeeding in late 2013.
PIDC president John Grady confirmed that the buildings have been sold to Posel Management, a local builder that was responsible, most notably, for the renovation of Amtrak’s historic North Philadelphia station. Posel’s president, Ross Goldberg, confirmed that a development plan was in place for 223 Chestnut Street.
“We hope the reconstruction work will begin later this year. There are still some plans, permits and approvals to be secured,” said Goldberg. “There are two tenants. The First Church of Christ Scientist will be occupying the first floor and an office tenant on floors two through four.”
While a place of worship for Christian Scientists may not be the sexiest use of a storefront in a neighborhood known for its national tourism appeal and high-profile nightlife, finding stable tenants was likely a stipulation for Posel Management in purchasing the building from PIDC.
Goldberg said his company was working with the city’s Historical Commission to respect the architecturally significant elements of the two structures. The unique, cast-iron façades that won the buildings historical certification have suffered heavy rusting and corrosion in the past decade.
Asked if the original façades would be preserved, Goldberg pointed out that poor maintenance had compromised the wrought iron.
“A portion of the façade does in fact need to be removed and replaced,” he said. “The plans for this have been reviewed and approved by the Historical Commission.”
A little bit less blight in the city’ most historic square mile may be coming with historically-sensitive recreation of ornate, Victorian ironwork in tow. However, those searching for evidence of Native American history in Old City will have to be satisfied with Raymond Sandoval’s sculpture of Lenape sachem Tamanend a few blocks away at Front and Market.