Wasting History In A “World Heritage City”

June 8, 2016 | by Oscar Beisert


| Photo: Oscar Beisert

A demolition permit was issued on May 10 for the former home of the Please Touch Museum near 21st and Race Streets. The building will be razed to make way for eight row houses | Photo: Oscar Beisert

The City of Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections has issued close to 168 demolition permits since January 2016, which tops annual totals of roughly 114 in 2006 and 98 in 2009. The 2016 demolition count is almost certain to escalate beyond last year’s total of 260 and even the record number of 276 set in 2014. Philadelphia, the first American city to join the Organization of World Heritage Cities, has administered over 2,000 demolitions in the last ten years. Naturally, many have made way for needed investment and improvement. Many can be justified for reasons of safety or nuisance.

However, Philadelphia operates without a citywide survey of historic buildings. As a city, therefore, we can’t ever be sure what we’re losing. And Philadelphia’s Historical Commission protects approximately 10,000 buildings on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places–barely three percent of the city’s building stock. Without a survey and without strengthened regulatory measures, the city will continue to lose buildings of historic and architectural significance that contribute to the experience of place. (See a map of full demolition permits issued by the City between 2006 and the beginning of June 2016 HERE.)

As I write this article, real estate developers Priderock Capital Group are removing the last pieces of rubble from the demolition site of Whitman’s Chocolates at the head of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. In place of the entirely adaptable world famous chocolatier’s massive, 110-year-old brick and concrete industrial facility, Priderock will build uninspired dreck–right at a grand entrance to the city. Closer to the river in Old City, the final bits of dust settles from the razing of Wetherill Paint’s, a late 19th century complex near Elfreth’s Alley. South of Washington Avenue, developers Concordia Group and partner Greg Hill are still chiseling away at the ruins of Mt. Sinai Hospital, perhaps the finest building ever to grace the skyline in Pennsport. In Kensington and Fishtown, demolition permits are sought and issued ad nauseum for beautiful churches, old brick and stone factories, warehouses, and industrial workshops. 200-year-old wooden houses built of first-cut timber have been cleared away with almost no protest.

In West Philadelphia, which possesses one of the finest collections of late-19th century residential architecture in the nation, and unprotected, developers have no incentive to repair and restore great buildings. Instead, ham-fisted, they throw up vinyl-clad boxes better suited for the suburban strip. Further out, the same type of uncoordinated urban planning allows the removal of key buildings from the Colonial Germantown Avenue National Historic District, a National Historic Landmark. Because the district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and not the Philadelphia Register, there are no regulatory protections in place against demolition. In Sharswood, the Philadelphia Housing Authority has found new and innovative ways to justify mass redevelopment with the acquisition and clearing of 372 structures and more than a thousand vacant lots spread across 40 city blocks. The 10-year, half billion-dollar redevelopment that will produce 1,200 units of mixed-income housing was possible because Philadelphia continually under values its historic neighborhoods. Near the Parkway, the City recently approved the demolition of the former Please Touch Museum. The Pompeian brick and Indiana limestone façade will be destroyed for more low density frame housing.

The Top Five Percent

1533-35 Cherry Street. Recent Demolition at Cherry and Mole, a federal period house near the Race Street Meeting House, a National Historic Landmark, and quaint Mole Street | Photo: Oscar Beisert

Recent demolition at Cherry and Mole of a Federal-style period house right down the street from the Race Street Meeting House, a National Historic Landmark | Photo: Oscar Beisert

According to data revealed at a recent National Trust for Historic Preservation conference, American cities protect an average of five percent of their building stock. Cities like Charleston, New Orleans, New York City, and Washington, D.C. protect much more than this average. In 2015, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission decided to focus preservation efforts on previously ignored sections of the city’s five boroughs. Officials there registered for protection nearly 2,000 buildings–all in one year (Philadelphia registered 30 buildings last year, but only with the substantial effort of advocates, calendaring new nominations at a snail’s pace). More than a quarter of Manhattan is already protected. Washington, D.C. has a swelling list of registered historic properties and a designation hearing schedule with a sizable backlog to boot. Unlike Philadelphia, in that city, building permits expedite designation review. Also, because the municipal government of Washington operates as both a city and a state, all of the properties placed on the National Register of Historic Places are locally protected. In New Orleans, there are roughly 15 local historic districts that encompass most of their NRHP-listed properties. Even Pittsburgh has established an incredible preservation record. In terms of historic preservation, these are progressive preservation practices that Philadelphia can learn from and adopt.

“Demolition delay” or “demolition review,” although a passive solution, is a fairly common procedure that puts a temporary stop to razing an undesignated historic properties and other important buildings and sites in a city for further examination. In Boston, specific areas, including the entire downtown and all buildings over 50 years of age, are subject to demolition review. Cities like Alamo Heights, in Texas, Albany, Boulder, Cambridge, Chicago, Portland (OR), and Denver have controls in place to ensure that undesignated cultural resources are not destroyed without governmental oversight. In Washington, D.C., the Historic Preservation Office reviews all demolition permits, a measure partly taken to ensure that no designated properties are destroyed.

Undermining A World Heritage City

Quaker Jobbing, Formerly the Francis B. Kelley Waste Mills, Hancock Street, is contributing to the Kensington Textile MPDF and a neighborhood favorite is to be demolished for stick houses | Photo: Oscar Beisert

Quaker Jobbing Company, formerly the Francis B. Kelley Waste Mills, on Hancock Street, is an outstanding surviving example of Kensington’s textile history and a neighborhood favorite. The building is slated for demolition and will be replaced with residential new construction | Photo: Oscar Beisert

Over 97 percent of the buildings in Philadelphia may be demolished by-right. Less than three percent of the building stock is legally protected, which explains why 2,000 buildings have been demolished over the last ten years. Concurrently, the Philadelphia Historical Commission has approved the designation of the lowest number of buildings in the department’s entire history. Between 2006 and 2014, 75 individual designations were added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The 30 30 individual properties protected in 2015 was the highest number since the 1985 Philadelphia Historic Preservation Ordinance was passed and double the previous total of 16 in 2013. Although 386 designations were covered by the designation of historic districts during that same period, the majority of those, 320 in all, were from the Parkside and Tudor East Falls historic districts additions to the local register in 2009. No historic districts have been added to the Philadelphia Register since 2010.

The issues surrounding the City’s diminishing commitment to historic preservation is not just a locally recognized concern. The State Historic Preservation Office, known as the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bureau for Historic Preservation, recently conducted a review of Philadelphia’s Certified Local Government Program. The report, addressed to Mayor Jim Kenney, identifies key issues related to the problems facing historic preservation in Philadelphia. The primary conclusion of the study was predictable: the Philadelphia Historical Commission is inadequately staffed and insufficiently funded. The report urged the city to undertake a comprehensive, citywide survey.

One aspect of the problem is that the designation process is dismissive, inconsistent, and tiresome, especially for the layman. The leadership does not allow properties to be immediately calendared upon submission, despite the fact that a demolition permit is effective immediately. Instead, the “complete and correct” process has been used to slow the designation process, often taking months, despite a building being endangered. Grammatical errors and stylistic preference trump the urgency of pending demolition. A great deal of effort is often put into rejection letters by the Commission, which are often sent to individual nominators three and four months after nominations are filed. In my own community work, often performed in underserved communities, time and money spent filing a nomination is a critical factor. I have seen several rejection letters that, while clear and detailed in regards to the procedural faults of the nomination, lacked any helpful guidance or resources from the Commission for individuals trying to protect endangered neighborhood properties.

81-95 Fairmount | Photo: Richard Gonzalez

This emphatic row of early 19th century federal style houses at 81-95 Fairmount Avenue represents Philadelphia’s lost waterfront. The house at the corner was used by the Beach Street Mission in the late 1800s, which eventually became the Guild House on Spring Garden Street. The row, including the mid-19th century wagon house behind it, is likely to be demolished if not added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places | Photo: Richard Gonzalez

There are more than 10,000 Philadelphia properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places, at least three National Historic Landmarks, and scores of NRHP-eligible historic properties that are not on the local register. This is in effect a survey–or at least a start. As for secondary resources, there is a small library of documents that identify historic properties ranging from subject-specific surveys commissioned by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Section 106 reports, and graduate school projects. Most of these resources identify undesignated historic properties, but nominations are rarely filed. Perhaps the most discerning example is a survey of African American houses of worship. This well written document, completed for the Preservation Alliance in 2008 by Emily T. Cooperman, founder of ARCH Historic Preservation Consulting and currently an appointed member of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, identifies important historic buildings related to the religious and social life of African Americans in Philadelphia. Many of these buildings have been demolished since the survey was released. Marion Anderson’s girlhood church—the former Union Baptist Church at 11th and Bainbridge—was razed just last year. At the time of its construction the former Union Baptist Church was the largest African Baptist congregation in America. While I agree that a citywide survey is needed, I would first suggest a survey of the surveys, an audit if you will, of formal research that already exists. Ideally, any future identification efforts of historic properties would also include practicable, actionable plans that lead to the nomination process–data collection driven by a proactive approach to preservation rather than simply compiling information for academic ends. Or, at a minimum, this survey should be linked to a demolition delay.

Keeping Philadelphia

4046-52 Chestnut Street was built by Thomas Powers in the 1870s. The identical buildings at 4042-44 were demolished for new construction shown on the left. 4046-48 and, further down the block, 4050-52 will be demolished next for the same type of modern housing | Photo: Oscar Beisert

In an earlier article in these pages, “To Preserve and Protect: Preservation At A Crossroads in Philadelphia”, I detailed what drives my passion for saving Philadelphia’s built history. Almost a year has passed since that confessional was published and during that time I have further discovered that the problems surrounding historic preservation in the city are stifling and manifold. The best tool to ensure that a property is preserved is local designation, of course. While this is not the only part of the preservation process, it does ensure that important buildings will not be demolished without legal oversight. In the best case scenario, one would then work to find a developer or patron for the preservation and reuse of a building or site. St. Laurentius Church in Fishtown is an example of a building that would have likely been razed had I not filed a nomination, which was enforced by tireless involvement from the community and others not carried it beyond the nomination process. The folks from Save St. Laurentius and developer Leo Voloshin are doing their best to ensure that this neighborhood landmark lives to see another century. Current plans include the residential conversion of this Edwin Durang-designed masterpiece. However, positive outcomes like St. Laurentius, where the community and individual nominators triumph in the face of pending demolition, are few and far between.

Fortunately, community organizations in East Kensington, Fishtown, and South Kensington have taken an active interest in preservation. Local historian and Kensington extraordinaire Ken Milano has pushed several nominations. Andrew Fearon, chief architectural conservator at Materials Conservation and lecturer in Penn’s Historic Preservation program, founded the advocacy group Kensington Olde Richmond Heritage, LLC. Dana Fedeli and her husband Quentin led the effort to save East Montgomery Avenue Methodist Church. Others are currently working on nominations in East and South Kensington. When I started I was largely alone. Now there are people involved all over the city.

Further Action Required

The former site of Wetherill Paint, a mix of 19th and 20th century buildings in Old City. Demolished 2015-2016 | Photo: Oscar Beisert

Demolition nears completion at the former industrial site of Wetherill Paint, a mix of 19th and 20th century buildings in Old City | Photo: Oscar Beisert

Authoring nearly forty-plus nominations in less than two years, primarily as an individual, I have most recently worked with CultureTrust Greater Philadelphia to establish a new preservation organization, the Keeping Society of Philadelphia. As project director, my primary mission is protecting undesignated historic properties in Philadelphia from demolition. The goal is simple: “Keeping Philadelphia.”

However, preservation should not just be limited to our rag tag efforts. The City of Philadelphia must take some responsibility for protecting historic properties in a larger sense, as part of the new Office of Planning and Development. While the office oversees intensive municipal and neighborhood planning, preservation strategies are rarely executed. Recently completed surveys broken down by planning districts identify a few historic buildings, several of which have already been demolished.

Make no mistake, there is a preservation crisis in Philadelphia. If we do not protect our historic properties now and foster a culture of retaining and reuse rather than demolition we will lose the character of our city. Unchecked demolition and poor quality new construction in Northern Liberties is a living example. Nearly every building–including breweries, factories, and lumber mills–related to the Industrial Revolution there has been unceremoniously razed. North Third Street now echoes the haunting sentiment in Gertrude Stein’s famous line, “There was no there there.”

| Photo: Oscar Beisert

The Germantown Boys’ Club was determined to be beyond repair and future plans may involve its demolition. Starting life as the Boys’ Parlors Association, the building was constructed in two phases at the turn of the 20th century. It was designed by the eminent Revivalist architect, Mantle Fielding | Photo: Oscar Beisert

Philadelphia first grew north and south along the river in the 18th century before it spread west. The last vestiges of Philadelphia’s old waterfront neighborhoods stand among largely vacant lots east of Interstate 95, north of Arch Street and south of Aramingo Avenue. Richmond and Allen Streets comprise the last intact, closed-in residential section adjacent to the river, an important array of modest old houses. Just above Richmond Street on Frankford Avenue stands the Frederick J. Rapp House built in 1787. It is the oldest house in Fishtown, which J.M. Duffin and I successfully nominated to the Philadelphia Register last year. In 2014, nine frame dwellings constructed between 1790s and 1830s stood in this neighborhood. There are now five, one of which is pending demolition. The last building related to the Cramp Shipyard, one of the largest maritime enterprises of its kind in American history, has recently been destroyed. And not so long ago an old longshoreman’s hotel was razed on Beach Street near Penn Treaty Park.

Slightly south in Northern Liberties, an emphatic row of Federal-style brick homes that date back to the 1820s command attention at 81-95 Fairmount Avenue. Slated for parcel development, this is one historic property that might be preserved. A nomination of the block will be reviewed by the Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation next Wednesday, June 15, 2016. The area is dotted with an interesting timeline of old residential, commercial, and industrial buildings that could be thoughtfully woven into future development. Just last year a one-story municipal warehouse with three Belgian block driveways was demolished. Since none of these buildings are protected, the last of the historic waterfront will no doubt be lost.


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About the Author

Oscar Beisert is an architectural historian of Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. One of the most active local historic preservationists, he has worked with communities and fellow volunteers to designate more than 100 historic buildings. Beisert leads the Keeping Society of Philadelphia, a non-profit engaged in the protection of local historic resources. Professionally, he is a Unified Federal Review Coordinator with FEMA Region III. Putting his money where his mouth is, Beisert has adaptively reused an 1886 carriage repository in Germantown, and is currently renovating the Sally Watson House, designed by Wilson Eyre, as his residence.


  1. Bill Perez says:

    This is so sad, why can’t they just restore the old strong,beautiful buildings?these new buildings won’t stand 100 yrs

  2. HowardBHaas says:

    Philadelphia’s historic preservation process has been broken for years! Mayor Kenney, please help! Read the PHMC report, fund the Philadelphia Historical Commission, and issue mandates and procedural changes to the Historical Commission as to more it should do. And, Mayor Kenney, please consider other policies like replacing the Center City tax abatement for new construction, no longer needed in this hot economy, with tax credits for historic restoration! Don’t allow Philadelphia to be destroyed!

    1. Jayfar says:

      Right. This is exactly how Baltimore focuses their property tax abatements.

      “The city’s historic tax credit program locks in property taxes for 10 years at the structure’s pre-improved value for projects worth less than $3.5 million.”

  3. Stephen Perzan says:

    Informative but sad article. Thank you for your personal work and passion. Why can’t developers build on the already many vacant lots and areas without knocking down old historic buildings? Maybe there should be a limit of allowing new construction in any census track where there is already a certain percent of vacant area available for new construction before there can be any further demolition (other than that which is deemed dangerous.)

  4. Davis says:

    A superb article and call to arms. Thank you Mr Beisert.

  5. Jim Clark says:

    Great article. Thank you. I hope Independence Hall survives!

  6. Rick Nestor says:

    As a former Philly resident now living in Las Vegas, it’s a shame to see this happen to one of the first cities and our first capital for several years. I hope it doesn’t become like out here, if something is more than 40 years old here the tear it down and build a mega casino.

  7. AA says:

    Missing from this article is also the demise of the stately Victorians in Roxborough only to be replaced with modern and ugly monstrosities, or even a hotly debated Wendy’s. The neighborhood still has some beautiful pieces reminiscent of its Victorian style, but it, too, is falling into the hands of careless developers who want to rip down everything that is old (and beautiful) and replace it with cheap, fast, and ugly modern townhomes.

  8. Raven says:

    Sadly, Philadelphia with its many (world class) firms of architects, designers & historians will always lose to the ‘developer class’…Historic restoration, renovation and adaptive re-use are expensive undertakings (it’s cheaper to start over than to update) and (most) developers are looking for maximum return on investment. 🙁

  9. Lonnie Hovey says:

    Fantastic job in saying what’s wrong with the struggle for preservation in Philadelphia. Thanks for writing this and congrats on your award from the Preservation Alliance.

  10. Jesse J. Gardner says:

    Great article! As someone who has been involved in saving the Victory Building and the superb 19th century textile banks at Front & Norris Streets, I am very much aware that preserving our historic city for future generations, is very much a task that falls to the citizens of Philadelphia, with very little support from the City.

    Regarding your comments on St. Laurentius Church, I don’t agree that the developer’s plan is a win for the community, as it will destroy the interiors. Please allow me to quote from Jeanne Murphy Curtis of the group “Faithful Laurentians,” who was instrumental in winning landmark status for the exterior of this beautiful structure:

    “We achieved the unthinkable with the designation of St. Laurentius’ exterior and efforts are ongoing for the designation for the interior. The community is not content with the developer’s current plans to gut this glorious space and convert it into apartments. They [the community] have developed a business plan to adaptively reuse this church as a community events center for weddings, performance arts, and corporate functions. The business plan has been drafted and has good support. It will sustain the space and its restoration and maintenance long term and will bring economic opportunities to small businesses in the area who, in turn, will have a vested interest in St. Laurentius’ future. The space will also have a sponsoring non-profit which will host open houses during the day so that those who so passionately wanted their church reopened by the Archdiocese can still come inside to pray, reflect or just be. It’s not what the parishioners had hoped and prayed for, but their heartache is real and because of that it is important to continue that legacy of prayer in this sacred space.”

    Thank you again for all of your efforts, and for writing this detailed and informative article.

  11. Vori Kriaris says:

    I sat eating at Johnny Hots as the frame row was razed on Allen St…still can’t believe it…right across from Penn Treaty park….such a shame..

    1. Oscar Beisert says:

      This row has grown more and more near and dear to my heart as I realize it was my all to action.

      1. Janet Reitano says:

        Many thanks for your dedication. As a new volunteer to the Phila. School District, I was amazed when I entered The Mitchell School at 56th and Woodland Ave. to find it relatively intact and on the list of the Historic Register along with many other Phila. Schools. On further reading, it seems that membership on the list does NOT ensure preservation. I was hoping to start a school program whereby the students could take part in the nomination process not only for their school but for other buildings in their neighborhood. For example, right across the street from Mitchell is a beautiful old Catholic School now vacant.
        Would you be kind enough to direct me to the proper link for the application process. Do you have a mailing list or a newsletter to which I could subscribe ?

        All the best,


  12. AK says:

    This likely applies to a few on this list but particularly in the case of those buildings on 40th and Chestnut, I have a hard time believing the demolition is for any reason BUT taking advantage of the current tax abatement program.

    Also, is the Boys Club Building in Gtown the proposed site of the Ed Snider Hockey center? I’ve heard talk of something like that in that area.

  13. Celine Childs says:

    I am a keen preservationist and support restoration of older buildings. Their type will never be replaced with anything that will stand for 200 years. The idiotic ideas of 10 or 20 years use of cheaper products is bizarre to me. The 15 inch thick stone structures found throughout Pennsylvania are standing because they are well made but poorly maintained. I think there should be a stricter penalty enforced when a property starts to decay due to the present owner’s lack of interest in keeping up the property. There should be some kind of architectural “police force” in place. How to accomplish this is beyond my ability but we will not recognize our world if the blatant disregard of the antique or unique is obliterated by “progress”. So many beautiful homes and structures are all around me in Whitemarsh Township but the developers are like wolf-packs aiming to destroy things that have stood the test of time. I am very much involved in wanting to restore a keen interest in the OLD! There is a whole section of Plymouth Meeting, PA that is in danger of 2016 development. This area goes back into the 1600’s when out state was forming and now TOWNHOUSES are considered to be IMPROVEMENT! I think people today just will tear down and re-
    place structures with fabrication that will never be as good as what was done in 1600’s.

    A very important part of Plymouth Meeting is the history of the Corson and other Quaker founding people. The Underground Railroad which a structure called “Abolition Hall” stands near the intersection of Germantown and Butler Pikes It is considered by the Pennsylvania Historic Museum Commission to be a SHRINE by their narrative on line. However, many current people who live in Whitemarsh are opposed to the future plans surrounding this property. Also this area was seriously connected with Germantown and other important parts of our state in the freeing of people fleeing to FREEDOM. We cannot let modern ideas intrude on these places. I feel that the people need to show their POWER in some way but I am just one person and I really feel alone when history is being overlooked and destroyed! What to do?

  14. pete hart says:

    the “Chosen One” has finally arrived…I have been waiting 30 years for someone like Oscar…if developers get their way Old City and Northern Liberties will be part of the Northeast..Even though 8th and Lehigh was Northeast high school

  15. Marius says:

    Oscar, could you or someone else author (or point to) a step-by-step guide to successfully nominating a property? Something the average Philadelphia citizen could easily follow.

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