Two new historic districts and a well-known Center City interior were added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places during today’s monthly meeting of the Historical Commission. A unanimous vote of approval by the Historical Commission makes the Wanamaker’s Grand Court, nominated by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, the third interior added to the city’s list of protected properties, joining the City Hall Council Chambers and the Family Court Building.
The Historical Commission also voted unanimously to add Satterlee Heights, a set of four handsome twins set on expansive lots in Spruce Hill, to the local register. The nomination was written by Oscar Beisert, local preservation activist and founder of the Keeping Society, and was supported by the University City Historical Society. The Wayne Junction Historic District, a collection of large-scale industrial buildings surrounding the Wayne Junction Station, was nominated by the Historical Commission staff. The official vote among commissioners was unanimous. Both Satterlee Heights and the blocks surrounding Wayne Junction fall within existing National Register Historic Districts.
Community members and stakeholders spoke in support of the proposed Wayne Junction Historic District, including developer Ken Weinstein, president of PhillyOfficeRetail, who owns several buildings both within and surrounding the proposed district. Weinstein has been actively working to develop mixed-use transit-oriented projects in the area.
Sole opposition to the nomination came from an architect representing The Original Church of God in Christ Inc., the owner of a one-story contributing property at 149 W. Berkley Street, which asked that the property be omitted from the Wayne Junction District on the premise that it was a hazard to the public. The compact brick structure, formerly the Arguto Oilless Bearing Company factory, is owned by the church which occupies the adjacent building at 147 W. Berkley Street. The church is pursuing demolition of the structure.
Jon Farnham, executive director of the Historical Commission, stated that the agency was aware that the old bearing factory had been issued a violation by L&I, but that it was only deemed “dangerous” and not “imminently dangerous,” which would not be adequate to justify demolition. Weinstein later added that he has approached the church seeking a conservatorship of the property, but that the owners had not been receptive to the proposition. In the end the district was accepted with no new modifications.
Commission members also voted against a proposed amendment to the Diamond Street Historic District boundaries, which was submitted by Historical Commission staff. The proposed change would have eliminated two vacant parcels at the edge of the district, thus removing the agency’s jurisdiction over the lots and any subsequent new construction. The lots were left when L&I demolished a number of vacant properties decades ago that had fallen into disrepair.
Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, spoke in support of maintaining the existing Diamond Street district boundaries, which he branded the “do no harm” approach. Pointing out that the City is exploring plans to build a police station on the site, Steinke made the case that it would be in the City’s best interest for the Historical Commission to retain the right to review any future development to ensure that any new construction is compatible with neighboring properties and those across the street, which are included in the district.
Farnham confirmed the plans for a police station on the block and clarified that the City had not approached the Commission to reconsider the boundaries. He also pointed out that a municipal building would have to undergo public review whether the vacant lots remained under the Commission’s jurisdiction or not, and that in the past the Commission has eliminated non-contributing buildings from historic districts in similar cases.
Farnham also mentioned that a similar proposal to reduce the size of the district, though one that would have also eliminated buildings from the boundaries, had been put forth nearly 20 years ago, but was never approved. Commissioner Emily Cooperman suggested that best practice would be to eliminate any noncontributing parcels from the boundaries of districts. Members voted eight in favor and three opposed to modifying the district boundaries to exclude the lots.
A hearing to consider a nomination to add the Painted Bride building at 230 Vine Street, dressed in Magic Gardens artist Isaiah Zagar’s signature mosaic work, was postponed until September.