Dateline Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2015: the longest, widest-reaching, most sustained building boom since the 1960s. Almost $7 billion is being invested–or planned to be invested–in Center City real estate, with about a billion more in University City. It’s in this context we present the 2015 Philadelphia Top 10 Derelict Properties and ask: Why, then, are there so many blighted, vacant, or otherwise unsightly properties with obvious redevelopment potential in areas experiencing deep investment and positive growth? Its a grueling question with no one answer. We’ve selected ten structures that, for one reason or another, resist reinvestment.
2100-2106 Market Street
The three properties at 2100, 2102, and 2104-06 Market Street–vestiges of a time when the west side of Market was half residential and half industrial–have been empty for too long. 2100 Market was held by land speculator Sam Basciano for 15 years before being purchased by Anton Kalandia in 2011 for $662,500. Basciano also owned 2104-06 Market since 1994 until last June when Brandywine Realty Trust bought up the whole block–save the fire station and 2102 Market–for the seemingly arbitrary amount of $16,593,750. Built as a wholesale straw and hay sales loft in the late 19th century, the properties at 2104-06 Market have not been in use since the early 1990s.
2102 Market, the last building to go vacant, is the only property on the block not owned by Brandywine Realty Trust or the City of Philadelphia. This 6,000 square foot structure is owned by the Antipas Family of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. It was most recently occupied by Vanity Nightclub. While Brandywine has announced plans for their contiguous properties on the rest of the block, 2100, 2102, and 2104-06 remain in limbo.
229 and 231 South 9th Street
These two commercial buildings from the 1920s have been sitting empty for over two decades. 229 South 9th was well known in the mid-20th century as the Shell Art Novelty Company, where Edward Dunav sold handmade crafts and jewelry made from sea shells collected from all around the world. Its neighbor, 231 South 9th, was last used by William Eisenberg for an optometry office.
229 and 231 South 9th were both purchased by Wills Eye Hospital through the mysteriously named Abbot, Inc (with one “t”), which functions as a non-profit title holding entity for Wills. The organization has been buying up properties on this block of 9th Street for more than two decades, most recently acquiring 223 South 9th at the end of 2013 and 215 South 9th at the end of 2014. While it is understood that Wills Eye’s very long-term collecting of contiguous properties over all those years has a purpose, no one seems to know what that purpose is. A demolition notice was recently posted on 231 South 9th.
Love Building, aka Philadelphia Housing Authority Headquarters, 2012 Chestnut Street
Built as a speculative office building for contractor Donald Love and designed by his brother, S. Arthur Love in 1927–the same duo who teamed up to build and design the English Village near 22nd and Walnut Streets–this handsome building is much better known as the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s headquarters from 1962 to 2009.
PHA moved to temporary new quarters at 12 South 23rd Street in preparation for the demolition of the Love Building and a planned replacement to be designed by the architecture firm Vitetta. The project never panned out and the building has remained empty ever since. In December, 2013 a Request for Proposals for redevelopment of the property was released by the City and contracts were to be awarded the following May. Apparently that never happened because a new RFQ was just issued, on October 30th, with proposals due by January 6th, 2016.
1039 Chestnut Street
Holding down the northeast corner of 11th and Chestnut Streets for over 130 years, this fine structure was built for the Union Republican Club between 1878-79. The fraternal organization was created for Republicans who took their political leanings more seriously than the members of the Union League. The upper floors were still in use as offices in 1982 when the building was purchased by real estate speculator Sam Rappaport. Rappaport, who purchased Center City buildings in the 1980s only to allow them to deteriorate, sealed the upper floors and split the ground floor into several small retail spaces.
Big changes on both east Chestnut and the unit block of South 11th Street now make this little building stick out like a sore thumb despite a recent spate of new retail tenants–refugees of the closed Gallery shopping mall. At present, the only way to access the upper floors is by taking a ladder 40 feet and entering through one of the poorly sealed windows.
Creswell Iron Works, 113-27 North 23rd Street
This ivy-covered old industrial building is the remains of the S.J. Creswell Iron Works, a company that began in 1835 and was operating on several blocks near 23rd and Cherry Street by the 1880s. This extant portion of the old Iron Works housed the fitting-up shop, pattern loft, and castings cleaning areas.
The business and associated real estate were purchased by Samuel Bernstein in June, 1953, and the company continued to operate there until 1969 when it moved to Comly Street near Roosevelt Boulevard. The 23rd and Cherry Street property was then used as leasable commercial space and the architecture office of Edward Harrison Bernstein, younger brother of Samuel.
Today, the Creswell building is one of the few remains of the neighborhood’s industrial past. It is still owned by members of the Bernstein Family. (One of Samuel Bernstein’s sons posted a detailed history of his family’s association with this property on the Practical Machinist website in 2013).
The neighborhood was a magnate for real estate speculators during the last real estate boom and even more are throwing money around during this current one. Once the surrounding empty lots are filled, this property will stand out more than it already does.
Cunningham Piano Building, 1312-14 Chestnut Street
Now entering its 15th year of being empty, the Cunningham Piano Building, one of my personal favorites, still lingers on with nary an improvement. This super-slim masterpiece, built in 1924 and designed by architect Andrew J. Sauer, was constructed for the offices and salesrooms of the Cunningham Piano Company. The building also once held the title of “World’s Largest Shoe Store.”
Tony Goldman had big plans for the place when he purchased it in 2001 and the small building next door in 2005, but none of it panned out. He sold the properties to the Church of Scientology in 2007, making it the tallest building in the church’s inventory. The Scientologists have held on to it tax-free ever since. Much has changed on east Chestnut, in Midtown Village, and even on Drury Street in the time the the Church of Scientology has owned the tower, only exacerbating the feeling of unfulfilled promise.
Mellor and Meigs Architecture Office, 1322 Chancellor Street
This outstanding building was originally constructed as a carriage house in the late 19th century and later converted to its current appearance by the Mellor and Meigs architecture firm in 1912, who made the place their headquarters for 25 years. The hidden gem was later converted to a series of restaurants and bars. The last concern, a bar called the Key West, occupied the place between 1981 and 2008.
The property was purchased by restaurateur Mark Bee in April 2012 for $475,000. He also purchased the building next door and opened Franky Bradley’s several years later. Mysteriously, 1322 Chancellor has managed to remain vacant all this time. Gayborhood historian Bob Skiba wrote up a thorough history of this great building in 2013.
Heid Loft Building, 323-329 North 13th Street
While there are plenty of underutilized, abused, or otherwise disused properties in the Loft District/Eraserhood/Callowhill Industrial Historic District, none are as pathetically empty as the Heid Building at 13th and Wood Streets. This 101-foot beauty was the factory of Frank P. Heid & Company, once the largest manufacturer of hats and caps in the city. It was a marvel of its time, built in only seven months, from contracts awarded on October 15, 1926 to opening day, June 15th, 1927.
Textiles and printing were the main uses of this building over the years–Sunday school books, accordion envelopes, lamp shades–you name it. It was still in use as artists studios and back offices for local banks when it was purchased by its current owner, Thylan & Associates, in 2004. The firm spurred the movement to create the Callowhill Industrial Historic District in 2010 in order to get the building nationally registered and, therefore, get tax credits for its conversion into residential and retail space.
Despite this effort, the Heid Loft Building has been completely empty for 11 years. It stands as a symbol of blight from both the Loft District and the 300 block of North Broad Street, where it is quite visible looking east.
Scheottle Building, aka Independence Press, 525-533 North 11th Street
The Schoettle Building was constructed in 1917 for the Edwin J. Schoettle Company under the designs of Charles Klauder and Frank Miles Day. The 140,000 square foot beast was the first precast concrete structure in the city (not to be confused with the first reinforced concrete structure, the Hugo Bilgram Machine Works). It’s located in a rapidly-redeveloping neighborhood sometimes called the Spring Arts district.
The Edwin J. Schoettle Company produced paper boxes here and later, in the 1950s, gave way to the Box Manufacturing Corporation of Pennsylvania. Independence Press, Inc, a printing operation, owned and occupied 525-533 North 11th Street by the 1970s.
Independence Press sold the building to Richard Zeghibe’s Patriot Parking in 2007. Zeghibe had it approved for 92 residential units before he sold it to Kabro Associates of Woodbury, New York in 2010 for just over $4 million. Kabro Associates gutted and environmentally remediated the property before listing it for sale again in 2012 for $7 million. In November 2013, the building was put up for auction and later sold to an LLC out of my hometown of East Windsor, NJ for $3 million. In mid-2014, a chainlink fence went up around the property. Just recently, permits from 2010 for residential conversion were renewed into 2016.
Bowes-LeGar Building, 122-24 South 8th Street
The Bowes-LeGar Building was built in 1897 under the designs of esteemed local architect Frank Watson and has been an important part of Jeweler’s Row for 118 years. The last time the building was substantially renovated was after a 1974 three-alarm fire. It went through a flurry of questionable ownership after its primary owner, Henry Sable, retired in 2004. Now owned by a partnership that includes Henry’s son, realtor Don Sable, this beautiful building is now mostly unoccupied on its upper floors and is in desperate need of love.
Don Sable tells Hidden City that he hopes to see the building refurbished and restored in the near future, especially the façade. We look forward to seeing some polish on this shining star of Jeweler’s Row.
I’m surprised not to see the mysteriously undeveloped building at Front & Market not mentioned here. For the 24 years I’ve been in Philly, it’s sat there empty, with only occasional half-hearted renovation attempts, as Old City boomed around it. Given the history of that lot & its overall location, I don’t understand why nothing has happened here.
There is actually a business in the first floor there now. I peeked in a week ago. Not too exciting for what should be a premier spot. But it isn’t empty any longer.
Great article. Unfortunately, we still have a lot of building owners who must have attended the Sam Rappaport School of Real Estate – buy a property, don’t invest in it, sit on it for years, and then sell at a huge profit. It would be nice to have some tools to break this cycle a little sooner. On a recent visit to Washington, DC, I learned that vacant buildings there are, after an interim period, taxed at a much higher rate to encourage owners to either renovate or sell. Seems like a pretty good idea – worth it for Philadelphia to look into.
Agree- should be an important help to preserving buildings and getting them back into action. The classic beauty of many of these buildings will be lost as “new construction” simply builds to make money and not to be an enduring part the community. This whole article is wonderful and, in a way, makes me ashamed to “see” all that my eyes miss seeing.
Good article, very interesting. Thank you.
I’ve always wondered about this phenomenon! Being from Boston where there is nay a vacant building in sight, and I would eat off the sidewalks of the Back Bay, I cringe every time I see obviously derelict and vacant buildings, especially in CC. It rarely happens in Boston! (I’m sure someone will correct me after posting this. )
1344 Chancellor Street was purchased for $475K in 2012? Wish I could find a bargain like that.
As a former teacher in Philly, how about all of the vacant school buildings that blight our city. My school, L. P. Hill School, sits empty. Five stories of a building that at one time housed over 1,300 children located at 32nd and Ridge. Philly is covered with these empty buildings. As each year passes, they too will become an eyesore in a city that has entirely too many eyesores.
I remember looking up the Heid Building several months ago, and the Thylan website said something along the lines of “Coming Soon” which I assumed was a placeholder. Checking back now, it seems they are marketing the building as commercial “Office Lofts” and show sample fit-out plans (http://www.thylan.com/commercial/HeidBldg/com_HeidBldg.html).
A modest proposal: Separate tax rates for occupied and unoccupied buildings. Make it unprofitable to own an eyesore for years.
I was in the independence press building not long ago and on one of the floors there was a huge stack of papers which turned out to be plans for turning the building into lofts. I’m not sure why it hasn’t happened, I doubt they would have trouble filling it.
Anent the comment about the Heid Loft Building: would not Stetson been the largest hat producer in the city?
Thanks for this! And got any clues about the derelict residence (it has looked decrepit forever–at least since
we arrived in Philly in 1977) at the southeast corner of 18th and Delancey?
The building owned by Sam Bernstein is, I believe, occupied, by two flea market dealers, and with creative studios upstairs. It should remain thus.
Place is an organization that develops artist space in existing buildings. Artspace gave up on Philadelphia, but Place hasn’t. We certainly need studio space in Center City. I don’t know about loft space, though. What about the Pomrantz building on Chestnut Street? If they still own it, with all the reductions at Staples, perhaps they could re-open their office supplies business? I need some rubber cement and files.
These are some really valuable properties, even in their state of disrepair. I wonder if the ivy is holding up the Creswell Iron Works?
As of early November 2017, 231 South 9th has a new-looking demolition notice, for “November 15 2017 or later,” directing questions to Abbot, Inc. I wrote to Abbot this time, not Wills Eye as was done last year, to say, please save the prism installation at least, and begging Abbot to contact Philadelphia Salvage Co., 2234 Westmoreland, which is interested in the installation and would like to talk to the demolition company. Have you any more ideas, please? Thank you for your attention, Sincerely, Susan Babbitt firstname.lastname@example.org