What is haunting about the demolition of the Levy-Leas House at 400 South 40th Street is how uniform and attractive the 160-year-old historic home looks now that most of the concrete additions have been removed. For decades, the Samuel Sloan-designed mansion’s beautiful, bracketed cornice and flat-capped cupola were overshadowed by stark, unsightly white cinderblock walls–added to the mansion when it was converted into a nursing home–and a gangly, black fire escape crawling up the north-facing wall. On the surface, it was an Italianate Frankenstein only a preservationist could love. The building was hard on the eyes and a challenge to get beyond the distraction of the additions, but the home was far from blighted or compromised. With a little adjusting of perception it wasn’t difficult to visualize the mansion’s potential for a full restoration even in its heavily altered state. The history of the building’s former owners—19th century shipbuilder John Patterson Levy and leather manufacturer David Porter Leas—and its inextricable connection to West Philadelphia’s pastoral expansion only fortify the value of the building. Seeing the Levy-Leas House now in its unobstructed, original layout without the additions is affecting and it brings the building’s obscured architectural context back together in a cohesive, bittersweet whole.
Even as the building is dismantled it easy to imagine one of Penn’s schools or academic centers occupying the house, like the respectful reuse of Eisenlohr Annex at 38th and Walnut and Kelly Writers House on Locust Walk. Equinox Properties’ 2007 proposal for restoring the mansion and building a seven-story apartment building on the property was not only palatable, but it would have been the home’s saving grace. That is all in the past now. After the eight year long legal battle over the building between neighbors, preservationists, the Historical Commission, and Penn, saving the building was not in the cards. However, no stakeholder can claim a victory in this case. We as a city failed the Levy-Leas House, one of the few Samuel Sloan buildings left in Philadelphia, and its memory will be forever shrouded in disfunction, dispute, and shame.
Take a walk around the Levy-Leas House in its final days.