On Friday, October 13, the Philadelphia Historical Commission approved five buildings for placement on the local register–the District #1 Health Center at Broad and Lombard Streets, the White Residence in Chestnut Hill, the original Southwark Branch Library at 1108 South 5th Street, St. Michael’s Lutheran Church on Germantown Avenue, and the loading facility and the boiler house of the old Weisbrod & Hess Brewery in Kensington. The approvals were praised by preservationists in attendance, yet the meeting was not without protest. Three properties on the meeting’s agenda struck controversial chords–the Trinity Church Oxford Parish House in Lawndale, the Christian Street Baptist Church on the 1000 block of Christian Street, and the Weisbrod & Hess Brewery buildings at York and Martha Streets.
God’s House or Gas Station?
Trinity Oxford Church Parish House in Lawndale was built in three sections between 1928 and 1963. Current plans for the site call for the building complex to be demolished and a Royal Farms gas station to be built on the parcel. The Historical Commission proposed a postponement on making a decision on the property until their next meeting on November 10. A group of near neighbors protested the continuance. “We must act to make sure that this property does not fall into the wrong hands. The developer and the company that wants to move in is contrary to the church’s values,” said Trinity Oxford Church parish member Matthew Jackson to Commission members.
Church representative Laurie Henry requested the continuance to be granted. She explained that there were protests at the church every Sunday morning and that she was developing a plan for communicating with the community about what the church was planning for the site.
The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia submitted the nomination for designation of the parish house. However, given that negotiations between the church and other stakeholders are still ongoing, Paul Steinke, executive director of the Alliance, vocalized support for the continuance, while sympathizing with the community’s desire for immediate designation. The Commission ultimately voted to postpone the decision until November.
Italian American Landmark in Limbo
The Christian Street Baptist Church was built in 1890 for the congregation of the Protestant Episcopal Italian Mission & Church of L’Emmanuello. The church is an Italian Market landmark and a reminder of the wave of Italian immigration in South Philadelphia during the late 19th and early 20th century. Church leaders spoke in opposition of historical designation, citing the poor condition of the structure and the prohibitive costs to repair. The congregation has the church under a sales agreement with a local developer. Church leaders plan to use the funds from the sale to relocate worship services as most members of the congregation do not live in the area.
In an impassioned plea to Commission members, church representative Jeffrey Hill and Pastor Clayton Hicks explained that placement and protection of the church on the local register would be detrimental to the congregation. Hill and Pastor Hicks said that the designation could render their current sales agreement voidable, which would stall plans to move the congregation to another church. Pastor Hill said gentrification and the lack of parking has made maintaining the church and congregation members a logistical and financial challenge.
Pastor Hicks explained that, through the historic nomination process, his congregants “are being told that after they’ve been gentrified out of the neighborhood so they can’t exist, that not only can they not exist there, they cannot exist anywhere else, and essentially that their ministry will be stifled.” Hicks continued, “It seems as though we are very concerned with the architecture of this place, but she was built to do ministry. We are so concerned with the mortar and stone that we are forgetting what the church is about. You [the Commission] are effectively cutting us off at the knees.”
Members of the congregation shook their heads in disagreement when Oscar Biesert, architectural historian, Hidden City Daily contributor, and author of the church’s nomination, spoke in support of the building’s designation. He gave an example of another church building in poor condition that was saved and preserved by adaptive reuse. Biesert later told Hidden City Daily, “The Historical Commission has a responsibility to protect properties like that. With as many nonprofits and church congregations as their are in the city, they could erase half the city [if they wanted their buildings demolished]. All of their missions could take precedent over the community that they’re leaving, and that’s a problem.”
A prolonged discussion between Commission members followed on whether to vote on the designation, issue a continuance, or let the nominator withdraw the nomination to perhaps consult with both the church and the buyer of the property about preserving the facade of the structure. The church leaders were asked what they preferred, and, after conferring among themselves, decided that they wanted to publicly discuss the issue more. After further discourse, the Commission voted that the church met the criteria for historic designation, but decided not to place it on the register just yet and instead issued a continuance until November.
The situation presents a common conflict among historic preservationists and financially-strained congregations. Stakeholders are presented with a quandary: preserve built history through the protection and preservation of a building or preserve an active congregation whose members wish to sell their church and continue services elsewhere. Each situation is unique, however, and the best course of action is never cut-and-dried.
Pastor Hicks told Hidden City Daily, “If Mr. Biesert talked to us earlier in the game, we could have worked together to work toward another solution.” Hicks said the congregation is still very attached to the building from which it originated, but needs to sell it to the highest buyer in order to survive. The pastor says that the church is in such disrepair that the congregation is using a space in Germantown until December and wants to stay within city limits. “It is not turning our back, it’s a necessity,” said Pastor Hicks. “I hope we can work together and find a best-case scenario that works for everyone. The sale of the building will help us move someplace and grow.”
A Brewing Dilemma
The final item of contention on the meeting’s agenda was the loading facility and the boiler house of the old Weisbrod & Hess Brewery in Kensington. Designed by Adam C. Wagner, the buildings stand in a deteriorated state across the street from a fully restored section of the old brewery that is currently being used by the Philadelphia Brewing Company. Given the expanding real estate market in Kensington, the buildings have been in danger of demolition and redevelopment for over a decade.
Chris Isaacson and Anton Michel, owners of the property since 2004, made a plea that designation would be detrimental. “It would create issues that would compound those that already exist. We’re not developers,” explained Bret Peanasky, legal counsel for the owners, to the Commission. Peanasky and the owners requested that the Commission consider designating the distinctive facade instead of the entire property, limiting future owners and preservation requirements to a facadectomy similar to the Royal Theater on South Street. Patrick Grossi, advocacy director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, pointed out that the situation with Royal Theater was unique (the Alliance has held an easement on the facade of the Royal since 2000), and that the only option for historic designation would be including the whole property. The statement was confirmed by the legal advisor for the Commission, who remarked that the future owner may elect to apply for the retention of the facade in a building permitting process that would have to go through the Historical Commission once designated anyway.
In the end, the Commission chose to designate the Weisbrod & Hess boiler house and loading facility. The fates of the Trinity Parish House and Christian Street Baptist Church are scheduled to be determined at next month’s meeting.