So What’s Happened With All Those Buildings?

March 14, 2016 | by Dennis Carlisle (AKA GroJLart)


After four years of writing The Shadow Knows column, with 97 stories–just shy of a century!–under my belt, it’s time for an update. Here’s a look at 13 different buildings. Some have happy endings, others do not fare so well. But all on this follow-up list have one thing in common: change. Look around–the city is humming right along with bold redevelopment and smart reuse and that, for the most part, is a good thing.

The Saint James Hotel a.k.a. Walnut Square Apartments

| Photo: Michael Bixler

Owners of Walnut Square Apartments played fast and loose last summer with exterior work to the historic hotel, removing an original balcony and performing slipshod masonry work without notification or  approval from the Historical Commission. The building has been on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places since 1979 | Photo: Michael Bixler

Back in early 2012, I wrote about Walnut Square Apartments, built as the Saint James Hotel in 1901. In the story I lamented that the façade of the building, known for leaks in bad weather, was in need of improvement. In 2014, I saw scaffolding going up and I thought my prayers were answered. Unfortunately, I was wrong. While the owners were spending $1 million on repairs and upgrades to the façade, none were cosmetic. The bricks on the building’s party wall were replaced with bricks that do not match the old ones. A balcony on the north façade was removed and replaced by dryvit panels. A cornice that was deemed dangerous was also removed.

However, I wasn’t the only one who noticed this. The Philadelphia Historical Commission placed a verbal Stop Work Order on the renovation, and the owners of Walnut Square had to file an application stating that the work already done was legally sound. The owners cited financial hardship, especially concerning the stone balcony that was removed without approval from the City.

The Historical Commission first met with the owners in April, 2015, then again in August, and finally in October. The third time around, the building owners came armed with lauded real estate lawyer David Fineman, who proved that other façade details had been removed over the years, even after the building was added to Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1973 and before ordinances in 1985 and 1991 concerning preservation of historic properties and firmly establishing the Historical Commission’s authority over such matters.

The Commission ultimately voted to deny the legal approval of the balcony replacement, masonry patchwork, and the mismatched brick color on the east façade, recommending instead that the building’s owners clean the old bricks in order to compare colors. As of today, those repairs haven’t been made and no changes seem to have taken place.

Philadelphia General Post Office

| Photo: Michael Bixler

The Philadelphia General Post Office keeping it classy at 30th Street | Photo: Michael Bixler

Another early Shadow Knows story features the old Philadelphia General Post Office, a Rankin and Kellogg design built between 1931 and 1935. In 2007, the building was purchased by the University of Pennsylvania and immediately flipped to Brandywine Realty, who engaged in a three-year renovation and restoration project and then penned a log tear lease with IRS for office space.

At the tail end of 2015, Brandywine sold what they now call Cira Square to the Seoul-based Korea Investment Management Company for $354 million. This, along with selling off other properties in Brandywine’s portfolio, fueled speculation that the company was preparing for something big. On March 2nd, they officially announced the biggest and most game-changing project in University City since Penn Center, dubbed Schuylkill Yards.

Mount Sinai Hospital


Down comes Mt Sinai Hospital at 5th and Reed | Photo: Michael Bixler

Mount Sinai Hospital, the great mountain of South Philly, is now coming down. After years as a blighted and empty hulk, all hopes of its redevelopment are now squashed. It is set to be replaced with a project by Concordia Partners, injecting 95 single-family houses on the lot. While this is somewhat of a disappointment considering the potential of the old hospital, its still positive that the land parcel will see some use.

The 1924 Nurse’s Home, which pre-dated the rest of the complex, will remain as an apartment building. Our own Michael Bixler recently toured around what is left of the hospital–see his photo essay HERE.

Frankford Chocolate Factory

| Photo: Michael Bixler

Hoping for a sweet factory conversion for Frankford Chocolate Company, but expecting demolition for redevelopment | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Frankford Chocolate Factory, built as the Howell & Brothers wallpaper mill in 1865 (with several additions built in the following decades) was just purchased in November by a consortium of buyers out of Kennett Square, PA for $7.8 million. Long vacant, many are looking forward to forthcoming plans for the building, whether it be reused and preserved or redeveloped for new construction.

223-227 Chestnut

| Photo: Michael Bixler

The stunning renovations near 3rd and Chestnut transformed a ragged-looking row into a block fit for Old City | Photo: Michael Bixler

At last! After all these years, 223-227 Chestnut Street, the blighted former textile import, German Consulate, stock certificate printer, U.S. Public Health Service hospital, and Native American Museum has finally been rehabbed after being sold at a Sheriff’s Sale at the end of 2013 to Posel Management. Now leased with office tenants, the cluster of  19th century buildings is back in active use, despite having lost the lovely wrought iron façade pieces that were too far gone to restore. This is one of many positive development steps that Old City has made in the last couple of years– many long-term lots and blighted buildings are now in use, being built on, or being rehabbed. Still, plenty of long-vacant building and surface parking lots pockmark the neighborhood.

(Note: the original story about 223-227 Chestnut Street was written by Ryan Briggs. The finished rehab job brought such joy to my heart that I had to include it on this follow-up list.)

De La Salle in Towne

| Photo: Michael Bixler

The fate of De La Salle in Town is still uncertain. Despite being on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places since 1995,  owner JLL Realty is marketing the building as an “infill opportunity” | Photo: Michael Bixler

The 1895-built Evening Home and Library Association, most recently used as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s De La Salle In Towne, an education center for disenfranchised and troubled boys, is now for sale. A local firm, JLL Realty, is representing the seller and is marketing the parcel as an “infill opportunity,” loosely implying that the property could be demolished and be a site for new construction. Of course, the building was placed on the Philadelphia Historical Register in 1995, meaning the owner can’t legally demolish the building. The price is undisclosed and efforts to get a price from JLL Realty have gone unanswered.

Lacey & Phillips Building

| Photo: Michael Bixler

The Lacey & Phillips Building has been exquisitely remodeled and is ready for business | Photo: Michael Bixler

The mid-19th century Lacey & Phillips Building at 30-32 South 7th Street has found new life. The storefront has been vacant for eight years; the upper floors longer. Now, the building has been restored is ready for tenants.

The upper floors have been remodeled for full-floor luxury apartments. The apartments feature distinctive interior details like the beautiful, large wooden sliding doors built by one of the new owners. This owner, who chooses to remain anonymous, is a history buff who was happy to see my original article about the building and, due to the history revealed, named his development Lacey & Phillips, after the building’s original use.

The bi-level store front is still vacant, but is being marketed by James Elliott at Kurfiss Sotheby’s International Realty. The target tenant is a restaurant, and the new owners have installed an air-handling system for a future kitchen. The street level of the space has 36 feet of frontage, hardwood floors, cast iron corinthian columns, and 15-foot ceilings. The basement area under-sidewalk storage, a feature of commercial buildings in the oldest areas of the city.

One of the owners of the building recently completed the handsome restoration of 1300 South Street, a 19th century commercial space that now houses the Sansom Street Kabob House. He is also involved in the future rehab of a warehouse at Moyamensing & Moore Streets in Pennsport with plans for a large retail and restaurant complex.

Front and Thompson Public Bath

| Photo: Michael Bixler

New life for an old pool. Thompson Street Bathhouse is currently being converted into a play-based child enrichment center | Photo: Michael Bixler

Opened in 1907, the Front and Thompson Public Bath was enjoyed by thousands of Philadelphians over the course of five decades as a public swimming pool. Readers who grew up in the neighborhood in the 1970s say that the public pool’s nickname was “Fronties.” After decades of use as a brush manufacturing shop, along with the former owner’s myriad of creative endeavors, the space will soon reopen as PlayArts, a play-based arts and enrichment space under the designs of architectural firm Bright Common. Renovations lean heavy on sustainable design, with a goal of making the building as close to zero-energy use a possible.

13th and Sansom

| Photo: Michael Bixler

The green paint on the bay windows of this stunner at 13th and Sansom was kind of fun, but the new slate hue lends to a more refined presence | Photo: Michael Bixler

Legendary developer Felix Isman’s 111-year-old speculative building at the northwest corner of 13th and Sansom is finally seeing the end of a decade of incremental renovations to the exterior, including the building’s distinctive bay windows. William Proud Masonry Restoration, the company that first helped repair and restore the façade years ago, is wrapping up the work this month.

The 13th Street corridor has been through a lot of changes in the last decade and there’s even more to come: a pedestrianized and dumpsterless Drury Lane, renovation of the nearby Hale Building, and new murals by Shepard Fairey and James Burns.

West Philadelphia Title & Trust Company

Rendering of the addition

Not a bad pairing. Rendering of West Philadelphia Title & Trust Company’s glassy addition | Source: KPMB Architects

Site prep is well underway on the new addition to the old West Philadelphia Title & Trust Company building, built between 1925 and 1926 under the designs of Paul Philippe Crêt proteges Davis, Dunlap, & Barley. When completed, the 90-year-old building and its glassy new addition will be re-named the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science & Economics. The new addition was designed by Toronto-based architecture firm KPMB Architects.

Miles Building

| Photo: Michael Bixler

Subtle architecture with a wild history. The story behind the Miles Building doesn’t disappoint | Photo: Michael Bixler

About a year ago I told you all about one of the more overlooked buildings in the city, the Miles Building. In that story I lamented on how the street level retail saw no signs of being filled. Well, all that has changed. The large retail space has been leased by by the Michael Salove Company and will be converted into a new restaurant. Jacob Cooper from MSC tells me that the details are still under wraps, but that the new tenant is “an upgrade for sure” over its previous use as a Saladworks chain restaurant.

Finnegan’s Wake

| Photo: Michael Bixler

Someone please buy the bro bar and remove Finnegan’s unsightly, faux exterior | Photo: Michael Bixler

Shortly after the publication of my story about the Finnegan’s Wake building, built as a box factory in 1905, plans were proposed by Stockton Real Estate Advisors for a complete conversion of the building into a mixed-use office space with ground-floor retail under the designs of local firm Atkin Olshen Schade Architects. A few months later, the plan was changed, reducing the height of the project from 74 to 60 feet.

The new development requires a zoning change–Councilman Mark Squilla introduced a bill, which re-zoned the building from CMX-2 to CMX-3. It was passed by City Council and signed by former Mayor Michael Nutter in June. Since then, nothing has happened. Neither the sale, nor the zoning change, have been recorded with the Office of Property Assessment. Efforts to contact both the owners of the building and Stockton Real Estate Advisors has gone unanswered.

9th Street Derelict Row

| Photo: Michael Bixler

This pretty, but long-vacant block will yield to the wrecking ball when owners Willis Eye Hospital level it for a medical annex | Photo: Michael Bixler

Just a few weeks ago, I told you about long-derelict properties that should have been repaired/restored/re-developed long ago. In the story I identified the row of derelict buildings at the northeast corner of 9th and Locust. The future of the two properties were unknown until now. The Wills Eye Hospital, which has been slowly acquiring each lot on that block over the course of 20 years, plans to demolish the historically certified row and replace it with an annex to its existing hospital. There is no set date for when this work will begin, and $30 million still needs to be raised to get the project started. After decades of sitting fallow, one of the last beat-up sections of Washington Square West is set for redevelopment. If so, it will result in the loss of buildings long on their way to demolition by neglect.


About the Author

GroJ Lart Dennis Carlisle (AKA GroJLart) is a former Hidden City contributor and the anonymous foulmouthed blogger of Philaphilia, where he critiques Philadelphia architecture, history, and design. He resides in Washington Square West. Carlisle has contributed to Naked Philly, the Philadelphia City Paper's Naked City Blog, and Philadelphia Magazine's Property Blog. He is currently an employee of developer Ori Feibush, owner of OCF Realty.


  1. Jim Clark says:

    So someone buys a building, an expensive building but they can’t change it the way they want to change it! This getting somebody else’s approval for a building that you are PAYING for just irritates me. I know it’s done everywhere, so what, it still irritates me that’s all!

    1. Lawrence says:

      It seems likely that anyone buying these buildings knows what they are getting into. But you have a point… zoning’s only been around for a hundred years… maybe some developers haven’t heard of it yet.

    2. streetcar says:

      I’m not sure I get what you are saying, is it that ownership should over rule any other concerns? Are you saying that you don’t believe in zoning?
      If so, how’d you like a 24 hour a day gas station to move next to you? Or how about a nice after hours night club?

      1. Jim Clark says:

        I believe in zoning sport what does that have to do with what I said?!?

        What I don’t like I thought was pretty clear, I guess I have to spell it out clearer for some people.

        Zoning would keep a 24 hour gas station away from a building like this. What I don’t like is someone telling me, the person PAYING for the property what I will be allowed to do with it. If I want to change the brick work, it is my money paying for it. If you feel that strongly about a property and don’t want to see it changed then buy it yourself. What do I have to do, get an opinion poll before I can do anything with the property I am PAYING for.

        1. Rob M says:

          But it is alright for zoning to keep the me, the person PAYING for the property next to your house, from developing it into a 24 hour gas station/strip club, outdoor firearms range? If I want to change the property purpose it is m money paying for it. If you feel strongly about the property next to your house and don’t want it changed buy it yourself. Right?

          I am at a loss, you feel like it makes sense to tell property owners what they can and cannot do with zoning, but not with any other sort of regulation? Why not? What makes zoning different?

          1. Jim Clark says:

            Yea you certainly are at a loss, do most obvious things go flying by you? I am paying for the property… is mine to do with (within reason and common sense and let’s not forget good taste) as I wish, after all I am paying for it is my POINT! If you don’t get it then you sure do not get much do you?

            Did you know if you purchased a house on Nantucket Island you have to get approval before you do ANY thing with the very expensive house you are PAYing for. Main reason I would not be moving to Nantucket anytime soon. I suppose you would be very happy there!

    3. SomeGuy says:

      It’s a demon of doing business in any major city. Developers and homeowners are made well aware of these rules before they purchase historically designated properties, and some home owners will reject new historic designations because it can actually lower their property value because, like you said, people want to be able to do what they want with their property.

      But urban buildings aren’t like swaths of land in Montana, they’re more like condo units in a big building. You can’t just tear off a stone balcony or rip off a roof, because the appearance of that building has an immediate impact on neighboring properties and the city. Additionally, those architectural elements are part of what make historic buildings historic: no craftsman will ever build something like that again.

      Some cities don’t have the same restrictions or any at all. Many older southern cities are full of even more surface lots than Philadelphia, suburban strip-malls sidle up to urban apartment buildings, and should-be historic sites get demolished for Wal-Marts because they insist on guaranteeing pure property rights. It doesn’t make for a very desirable city.

    4. Bill Teft says:

      You know what irritates me? Greedy developers and foolish carpet baggers. Developers identify hot areas, and locate within it the prime locations, which in a city this old usually comes with an iconic building that, in many cases, has stood for more than 70 years. Aiming to take advantage of an easy tax break and grab as much money as possible, they decide to tear it down and build a cheap high-rise designed to pack in as many people or businesses or both as possible in a 10-year period at the lowest-possible cost. They then leave after 10 years with a sack full of money, and the people who live and work here are stuck with a crappy building that won’t be worth spit in 10 more years. So instead of keeping the historic structure that adds texture and depth and character to our historical city, they leave us with bland crap that won’t last another decade. This city cannot be a doormat. We need to fight for what makes us unique. If you want to buy land you can easily clear and build your shoddy building, go to New Jersey. They will tear down anything, which is why it’s nothing more than a giant suburb for New York and Philly.

  2. Dexter Pie says:

    Not really. If I sell my historically or architecturally significant house to you, with the restriction that you cannot tear it down or change its features, you are buying it pursuant to that restriction.

    And everything does not have to be knocked down, nor does everything have to be saved just because its old. But why are Americans so hell bent on knocking down everything?

    Perfectly good house standing on corner. Why do you have to buy it to knock it down to build some crap?

  3. pete hart says:

    thanks for keeping the conversation going if not the actual buildings..223-to 227 old city is what makes philly philly…desalle building should be saved…bath building tile work one of a kind

  4. Lou says:

    We had friends, who in 1978, lived there, when there were other 3 story storefront rows in that area. It was once of the best apartments that I ever visited- high ceilings and so much lead paint. It’s so disappointing that, just like when all of those fantastic yet derelict properties east of Front Street, south of Chestnut, were razed for I-95, it was in the name of progress. Every time a viable piece of our past is taken, we become less for the future.

  5. Chance Cook says:

    I love how some of those old buildings have been restored and now accept tenants. I think restoring historic buildings is a great idea. Mainly because they bring in a ton of attention from people who like history and mysteries.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.