On March 27, the Department of Licenses & Inspections issued a demolition permit to La Salle University to raze 2103 W. Clarkson Avenue, the home next door to the Mary & Frances Wister Studio at 2101 W. Clarkson Avenue. The Wister Studio, La Salle’s mothballed fine arts facility, was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in February. The 131-year-old home at 2103 W. Clarkson Avenue, also owned by La Salle, is not listed on the local register and, therefore, not legally protected from being torn down. According to the university’s online campus map, the building currently operates as the Building Blocks Child Development Center, a daycare facility for the La Salle community. However, calls made to the daycare have gone unanswered, and the facility’s website is no longer in service.
The home was built in 1886 on a lot adjacent to William Rotch Wister’s family compound in Germantown. Wister’s mother, Sarah Logan Fisher Wister, lived in Charles Willson Peale’s former homestead, “Belfield.” She sold land from the Belfield estate to Amos Wakelin in 1873, on which the home at 2103 W. Clarkson Avenue was built. Wakelin, a partner of the life insurance company, Marston & Wakelin, lived in the home throughout the first decades of the 20th century and owned the property until 1920. He was active in Germantown affairs as a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the Advocate. La Salle purchased Wakelin’s home in 1968 for $26,000.
While the architect of 2103 W. Clarkson Avenue is not recorded in any written document, visual evidence alone suggests that renowned residential architect George T. Pearson designed it, according to Aaron Wunsch, assistant professor of Historic Preservation and Landscape Architecture at PennDesign. Pearson designed a number of commissions in Germantown, including the Happy Hollow Recreation Center on Wayne Avenue, West Market Square Presbyterian Church on Germantown Avenue, and the Mutual Fire Insurance Company Building on Germantown Avenue (demolished).
Despite La Salle’s propensity for razing historic resources on their campus for parking lots and dormitories–with or without official Historical Commission designation or demolition permits–a growing number of faculty are opposed to the university’s unyielding expansion tactics. In particular, a group of faculty and staff have created the group “Urban Alchemy,” which seeks to emulate placemaking and urban renewal strategies based on Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove’s book of the same title. Fullilove, a public health psychiatrist, held a day-long workshop and lecture at La Salle in November 2016, where staff, faculty, and students were encouraged to think creatively about the use and interpretation of campus-owned historic structures.
Prior to the Historical Commission designating 2101 W. Clarkson Avenue on February 10, faculty and staff members wrote letters of support to the Historical Commission and later testified in person during a public meeting. George Boudreau, a professor in La Salle’s public history department, spoke on behalf of La Salle’s Faculty Senate. According to the meeting minutes, Boudreau explained that “the faculty uses these buildings as teaching tools and research opportunities, and, more importantly, as La Salle enters a renaissance, for ways to connect to the community and serve the community and students.”
Bob Thomas, chair of the Philadelphia Historical Commission and its appointed architectural historian, told Hidden City that universities like La Salle are engines that drive the economy and their surrounding community. “I don’t have a sense of their plan, and I don’t have a sense of the community’s plan,” said Thomas. “This would be a really good time [for La Salle] to be surrounded by a neighborhood that they are proud of, rather than one that they are related to.”
Thomas noted that the University of Pennsylvania put themselves in a similar position as La Salle in the 1960s and 1970s after razing large tracts of West Philadelphia neighborhoods for parking lots and general campus expansion, ultimately creating a “dead zone” that rendered the campus unappealing. Eventually, Penn “started valuing historic buildings, walkability, and community,” said Thomas, as a way to attract students to their campus again.
“This is a perfect example of how a demolition review ordinance could be helpful,” said Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. “This building clearly is more than 50 years old, it’s actually more than 100 years old, and under a typical demolition review ordinance structure it would qualify for, at least, a look under demolition review.”
“Something the Preservation Alliance has made in their suggestions for improving the preservation infrastructure in Philadelphia, for situations just like this, is to be able to evaluate historic significance before we issue a demolition permit. [Demolition review] is not only potentially helpful in saving a building like this, but would also stop the bleeding citywide,” explained Steinke.
In an email, Kevin Dolan, Esq., La Salle University’s vice president and general counsel, stated that he would “make sure that all here are aware” of the building’s history.