The Department of Licenses & Inspection issued a demolition permit on August 12th for Terrace Hall, a former public meeting house, farmers market and livery stable in the Wissahickon neighborhood. Five days later, preservation advocate John Manton submitted a nomination for the building at 3818-32 Terrace Street to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
Under normal circumstances, Manton’s nomination would be too late to save the building–the Historical Commission’s standard practice is to not bring nominations to a vote once a demolition permit has been applied for, let alone issued. However, Manton and attorney Hal Schirmer hope they can pull off something similar to a recent last ditch effort in University City.
In early July, Schirmer successfully argued in Common Pleas Court that the application for demolition permits for 4046-48 Chestnut Street were improperly filed, with Judge Linda Carpenter issuing a temporary injunction. Meanwhile, a nomination to place the buildings on the Historic Register has been reviewed by the Historical Commission staff and tabled until the litigation is sorted out.
In the case of Terrace Hall, Schirmer said in an email that he plans to file a petition for an emergency hearing, citing L&I’s posting of conflicting public permit notices and improper public notification of demolition.
Whether or not Terrace Hall’s nomination ends up being considered by the Historical Commission, its historical credentials are impressive. The building was erected in 1888 and quickly became a hub of commerce and community activity in Wissahickon. It was the first farmer’s market to serve Roxborough and Manayunk, and became a veritable one-stop shopping mall packed with 57 market stalls, a restaurant, and a blacksmith shop and livery stable with carriages and sleighs for rent. A large event hall on the third floor was used for concerts, receptions, dances, local political debates, missionary gatherings, and sporting events. “Terrace Hall was a very public building and truly rivaled the most prominent town halls of the time in Germantown and Roxborough,” said Manton. The hall also served as a social confluence for neighbors in the immediate vicinity with The Wissahickon M. E. Church (1883) and The Wissahickon Baptist Church (1889) situated on opposite ends of the 3800 block of Terrace Street.
But the party didn’t last for long. In the 1920s the hall was converted into a warehouse for cotton and wool waste for textile mills in Manayunk. The building has most recently been used for arts and crafts studio space serving a woodworking shop, a ceramic studio, a glass blowing company, and an antique piano restoration business. In May, all tenants were given notice by the owners to vacate the building by the end of the month.
For now, though, the building could be torn down at any time. Developer Terrace Lofts LP of Jenkintown hoped to begin demolition on August 23rd, but work has been delayed due to flooding in the cellar of a small mill building next door. The company, which purchased the property for $1.2 million in February, plans to construct 32 new town homes on the site.
This isn’t the first time Terrace Hall has been threatened with demolition. In 2013, developer Fred Abrams began feeling out plans to tear down Terrace Hall for 15 townhomes–a mix of four two-bedroom duplexes and twelve three-bedroom single-family residences–with a price tag of roughly $400,000 each. Earlier that year developer Glenn Falso also made a pass at acquiring the building with plans to raze the hall for 14 four-story condominiums. Both received approval for a proposal from the City to demolish the hall and build 50 rental units on the 40,000 square-foot lot, but declined due to the economic conditions of the condominium market at the time and no interest in building a multi-unit rental property. Neither plan materialized, but a demolition permit for the hall remained valid through July 2014.
Whether the nomination application of Terrace Hall will be reviewed by the Historical Commission if an emergency hearing is granted and a temporary injunction issued remains a question. In an email, Jon Farnham, executive director of the Historical Commission, said that Commission staff may elect to place nominations at the top of their list if the building is under immediate threat.
“The Historical Commission staff generally processes nominations in the order that they were received, but occasionally adjusts the order in response to imminent threat,” said Farnham. “The Historical Commission continues to process nominations as expeditiously as is possible in light of its capacity and other obligations.”
Still, some in the preservation community are concerned that the review process itself, impeded by understaffing and the meticulous nature of permit applications for registered building alterations, is bottlenecking submissions and bringing the whole process to a crawl, leaving endangered, historic properties with little legal recourse. With buildings like Terrace Hall where a demolition permit has already been issued, finding new ways to counter the legitimacy of those permits in court is one strategy being pursued by nominators and preservation advocates.