Call the case of the Levy-Leas Mansion a cosmetic curse or a sabotage courtesy of connoisseur’s conviction. Even better, apply the Potter Principle, after Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously declared that while he could not easily define hard-core pornography, he knew it when he saw it. This was the brand of thinking that brought down the Levy-Leas Mansion in West Philadelphia last month: because of neglect and some unsightly additions, the mansion wasn’t pretty enough to look “historic,” and therefore wasn’t worth saving.
The demolition was preceded by a saga that lasted over a decade–one whose sordid and largely mundane history would require the deft narrative skills of Mark Twain and Franz Kafka to recount in a readable manner. (Excavate the details of the fiasco in the archives of Hidden City Daily HERE.)
No one should forget that between the three groups centrally involved in the case—the owner, the University of Pennsylvania, the neighbors, particularly on Woodland Terrace, and the Philadelphia Historical Commission—each blamed the other in the dispute as the focus on the history and architecture of the building was eventually lost. The 160-year-old house would still be standing if even one of these three actors was unwilling to downplay its salvageability and significance. In the owner’s case, this is hardly surprising. Demolition had been Penn’s preferred option since acquiring the property in 2003, though the University’s commitment to it wavered when working with enlightened developers that proposed preserving the home and developing the surrounding lot. The Historical Commission’s recourse to this strategy is a bit harder to explain. Or maybe not when reviewing the outcomes of the Boyd Theater, Church of the Assumption, and Blue Horizon, or while digesting the revealing public statements on preservation made by the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Alan Greenberger.
The “Near Neighbors” group fought Penn at every turn, cloaking themselves in preservationist rhetoric. However, when the university offered a viable proposal for keeping the mansion and building a five-story apartment complex next to it, they balked. Having then lost all influence and credibility in the case, the group nonetheless decided it was time to haggle over parking and density, even though the proposal to increase density near SEPTA’s 40th Portal trolley station would have satisfied a basic principle of contemporary urbanism being followed across the city. To justify their opposition, the neighbors also began to diminish the house’s importance as a material artifact. They claimed it was the building’s size and long-lost relationship to its lot that really mattered and intimated that it would be preferable to return the house to it’s “historic” use as a single-family dwelling, despite the fact that the mansion and most of the older homes on the block have served as apartments for over a century.
Here are the facts that justified the placement of the house on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1973: The mansion was built on speculation by plasterer Thomas Allen in 1853. Allen collaborated with renowned architect Samuel Sloan in this period and the house strongly resembled other early works by Sloan. A Public Ledger article on January 2, 1854 states that most houses in the vicinity were designed by Sloan’s firm, Sloan & Stewart. We know that the house was purchased and occupied by John P. Levy, a key figure in the history of American shipbuilding and an early migrant to the villa-suburb of Hamilton Village as we also know that, in the 1890s, leather merchant David Porter Leas heavily remodeled the home. Leas, it appears, hired a first-rate architect to update the interiors in the newly fashionable Colonial Revival style, sparing no expense on elaborate wood detailing and plasterwork.
Yet, this is what was said during Historical Commission hardship meetings to discount the house’s historical significance and amplify its apparent lack of beauty: The attribution to Sloan is shaky (but see above); little or no information on the house’s history has come to light, either in the Historical Commission’s files or beyond (demonstrably false). The house’s exterior was so altered by 20th century additions that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to bring back its original appearance (but see the below photograph). The house’s interior dated primarily from the 1890s–true, but neither the Commission’s concern nor necessarily detrimental. Demolishing the house might somehow do more justice to its historic context, historic density, and historic parking arrangements than keeping it alongside new student housing amidst an urban landscape with a proven track record of embracing change while protecting the deep layers of its past. Call this the Angel of Death argument, or rather the NIMBY argument, dressed in the jargon of Disney urbanism or simple nostalgia. In the name of preservation, it pushes an agenda that is better and more honestly addressed through zoning.
Demolition is not preservation, and preservation can be part of dynamic urban design. We have lost a historically important building because the parties who decided its fate refused to see beyond simple cosmetic problems, connoisseurish fussiness over attribution, crass profit-seeking, and the most provincial forms of neighborhood self-interest.
As a historian teaching in the preservation field, I frequently express to students who are studying a building how important it is to dig deep, to avoid easy, superficial judgments, to appreciate layers, and to base their significance statements on solid research and clear prose. All of this holds true, but none of it guarantees survival–at least not in Philadelphia. In a city abundantly blessed with historic resources, our willingness to squander them continues to dominate.
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