Last week we reported that the Historical Commission has released an interactive map of buildings and sites on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. These buildings are legally protected from demolition (though sidestepping that protection through the claim of “economic hardship” is common enough). Take a look at the map, what do you see?
Geographic limitation: most of the properties are in a limited number of historic districts and in Center City.
Use limitation: most of the properties are residential buildings built and/or designed by wealthy elite for the wealthy elite.
Most of Philadelphia, with its variegated landscape of churches, row houses, retail avenues, civic buildings, social clubs, factories and workshops, is missing. Without legal protection we are quickly losing these layers of our collective history–the working class, civic, immigrant, and ethnic and African American city. This everyman landscape, for all the deep layers of urban history it stores, is every bit as important as our collection of landmarks. Yet preservation tools have failed to account for them. Surely, we don’t need or want to preserve everything–we’re hungry for new architecture, too, and to represent our own period of history in the landscape–but without doing anything, we’re jeopardizing the very sense of Philadelphia being Philadelphia. We’re also declaring through law that sites of white Protestant history are more significant than sites of Italian immigrant experience or African American heritage. Why is preservation stuck so significantly behind the rest of our culture?
No better example of this is the likely loss of the handsome church at 12th and Bainbridge Streets where the legendary Marian Anderson learned to sing, which we reported on last month. One of the problems is that nominating buildings to the register is time consuming; some expertise is needed. The staff of the Historical Commission is overstretched. Though they’re supposed to continuously nominate new buildings to the Philadelphia register, they do so only rarely because of underfunding. The same goes for the staff of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which has lost the kind of consistent funding that would enable them to turn out nominations at scale. Another problem is that the nomination of key historic districts has gotten caught up in politics. Meanwhile, some parts of the city, like Germantown, have been largely ignored. The same for whole categories of buildings. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has long fought attempts to list Catholic churches and so most are vulnerable to demolition, especially as they are desanctified and closed. St. Bonaventure is only one particularly painful example. But we are just as guilty, in the workshop of the world, of letting our industrial heritage dissolve away. Only a tiny portion of mills, factories, workshops, and railroad infrastructure has been protected from demolition. In this sense we fail to take this significant aspect of our of civic identity very seriously.
To begin to remedy all this, we’re going to turn to you. Beginning today and until November 17th, we’re crowdsourcing for buildings of architectural, historical, economic, and cultural history that are not now on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places (no survey of Philadelphia buildings exists). We’re thinking of neighborhood buildings that matter to you, that give you quotidian delight. Great fire stations, libraries, retail storefronts, factories, churches, synagogues, banks, power stations, breweries, movie houses, and row houses. The buildings should be 50 years old, they should be justifiably important, and they should be physically distinctive.
When you have an idea for a building, check first HERE if it’s on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, or consult the new interactive map. Then check HERE if it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. If it’s on the National Register (which makes tax credits available for restoration, but doesn’t protect from demolition) then half our work is done, as someone has already documented the building’s significance.
Fill out our simple form HERE. We’ll compile your buildings, publicize them, and then, later, crowdsource the manpower and expertise to nominate them to the Philadelphia Register. In partnership with the Preservation Alliance, we plan to hold nomination workshops in order to jumpstart the process.
Please take the time to submit your buildings HERE.