Defending Philly History From 3,000 Miles Away

 

The McCaw Mansion at 836 N. Preston Street is distinguished by its three-story turret and conical dome. It is an attractive standout in the Belmont section of West Philadelphia.  | Photo: Josh Bevan

I wrote an article for Hidden City Daily in January 2017 that spotlighted some of Belmont’s architectural gems. Six months earlier I relocated from Philadelphia to the Bay Area where a job as an architectural historian, and less humid summers, beckoned. I quickly learned that in 1970 California established statewide legislation, known as the California Environmental Quality Act, which considers historic buildings part of the environment. Changes to such resources like insensitive alteration or demolition often impact the environment and require mitigation measures in the Golden State. Most alteration projects that go beyond minimal intervention are vetted by planning departments and historic commissions before receiving a stamp of approval. I was deeply impressed by this approach to preservation planning, which seemed far more sensitive and responsible than the unchecked demolition that I have witnessed in Philadelphia. But, even living nearly 3,000 miles away, I could not simply detach from the city I admired as a young kid from Delaware County and truly explored during my time as a graduate student at Penn. This is why I moved to nominate the McGaw Mansion at 836 N. Preston Street. Today, October 17, the first hurdle was cleared, and the nomination was recommended for approval by the Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation for review at an upcoming hearing.

Belmont is a neighborhood that I had read about in required readings at Penn. I had traveled through the neighborhood now and then, but never really spent any time on the street as it is relatively isolated from where I studied in University City. I encountered the McGaw Mansion after hours of skimming through PhilaGeoHistory.org and a few Bromley Atlases from the the 1870s to the 1920s to see where the oldest buildings in Belmont still stood. I began digging through construction contract notices archived at Newspapers.com when I encountered Alexander McGaw, who owned two parcels at opposite corners of Parrish and N. Preston Streets. Both held villa-type dwellings by 1892. I shifted over to Google Earth, zoomed in, and narrowed in on one of the most distinct 19th century mansions I had ever encountered in Philadelphia. Presiding over its corner lot was a brick and brownstone Richardsonian-Queen Anne home with two prominent towers, each capped by conical domes. I thought that the building must have been designated historic years ago, but refused to assume such. Belmont retains many examples of Centennial-era homes that would check off several boxes on any nomination criteria list or seamlessly combine to form a bonafide historic district. As it were, no such protections by the City had been put in place.

Alarmed, I checked zoning maps to see where the property stood. I found that its lot was zoned RM-1, which could allow a building of up to five stories to be constructed on the parcel where the mansion currently stands. Although development pressures had yet to impact Belmont as much as in nearby neighborhoods, the time seemed ripe to get the word out about this building before it was too late.

Former Pennsylvania Rail Road YMCA Branch at North Preston Street and Westminster Avenue. Built 1892 and designed by architect Thomas Lonsdale. Now home to the Belmont Academy Charter School. | Photo: Joshua Bevan

Over the course of the next month or so a clear narrative came together, placing McGaw, a prominent Scottish-born, Philadelphia-based contractor who supervised the construction of the base of the Statue of Liberty, right at home in Philadelphia. I sifted through scholarship pulled from online repositories in my free time and made archival treks during holiday visits to Philadelphia. The article centered on McGaw’s mansion, which was owned and resided in by his sons after McGaw’s death in 1905. The original designer of the building remains unconfirmed. However, given McGaw’s prowess as a master mason, it is highly likely that he had a hand in the construction of the residence, which showcases brownstone water tables, transoms, and beltcourses along its well-pointed, red brick exterior. Even without a well-known architect on the books, the McGaw Mansion remains an exceptional and distinct application of the Richardsonian style with Queen Anne elements to a residence in Philadelphia, particularly one executed in masonry materials. Additional research also found that McGaw was among several shareholders of the Blackwood Improvement Company–later the Park Front Improvement Company–which developed several Parkside residences in the 1890s and brought prominent contractors and mansions into the broader context of West Philadelphia’s growth in the late 19th century.

The McGaw Mansion was sold to the Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia in the mid-1920s. At one point the hospital envisioned the development of a campus, which included demolishing the McGaw Mansion for a larger medical building. The plan was thwarted by the economic devastation of the Great Depression and ultimately resulted in the inclusion of the home within the hospital complex for the next three decades. I also highlighted buildings like the Pennsylvania Railroad’s YMCA Branch (now Belmont Academy Charter School), several villas and semi-detached houses, and parts of the former Woman’s Hospital of Philadelphia complex, including the Elizabeth L. Peck Maternity Ward, designed by architect Walter Smedley. All buildings featured in the piece are important, intact exemplars of significant, historic patterns of the neighborhood’s architectural character. Not one is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. After the article was published the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia encouraged me to draft a nomination for the unlisted property. With the help of Donna M. Rilling, Aaron Wunsch, and the Preservation Alliance, I was able to make the nomination a reality from my adopted home on the West Coast.

Recently, and all too often, Philadelphia has witnessed a dramatic increase in buildings of architectural, cultural, and contextual importance reduced to clouds of dust and rubble. These losses, some of which took decades of neglect to meet the wrecking ball and others merely the time it took to file a demolition permit application, can be seen in new, generic construction and flimsy infill that continues to erode the city’s character. Much of this loss has been greatly aided by the 10-year tax abatement. Proactive efforts by the City to solve Philadelphia’s preservation crisis remain to be seen. For now, the advocates, volunteers, and admirers of historic Philadelphia should continue to scour the archives, piece together narratives, and keep careful eyes on the lookout for the next nominee. Collaborate with fellow advocates, preservation professionals, stakeholders, and neighborhood communities. This is currently the only solution to getting nominations on the table and buildings legally protected by the local register. Nominations don’t just call out exceptional buildings or significant themes. Rather, they provide a growing base for public knowledge of the past that inevitably refines and informs our collective understanding of our great city.

About the author

Josh Bevan is an architectural historian and graduate of Penn’s Graduate Program in Historic Preservation. Bevan, a Springfield, Delaware County native, grew up with stories of his family’s beginnings in Southwest Philadelphia and Juniata Park and further afield in Berks County, spurring an interest in discovering cities neighborhood-by-neighborhood. He worked in residential real estate and for Fairmount Park Conservancy prior to pursuing a full-time career in historic preservation. His interests in roadside architecture, photography, and cycling are currently keeping him busy in and around San Francisco.



7 Comments


  1. Hurrah for you Mr Bevan – this is a wonderful and good thing you have done.

  2. I really like this building! I bike by it on my morning commute. Nice work on the research and nomination.

  3. How about buying a property yourself, and then nominating it for preservation.

    Nominating somebody else’s property may end up being a death knell for that property, as it may make it prohibitively expensive to repair and maintain.

    Have you spoken with the owner of the property, and asked what they thought about the nomination, and how it might impact their finances and ability to remain in their home?

    Things are things, and “saving” things that are old like houses should not come before saving the people who actually own it and live there. You may have given them a significant hardship by nominating their building.

    • “I quickly learned that in 1970 California established statewide legislation, known as the California Environmental Quality Act, which considers historic buildings part of the environment.”

      Joshua, you seemed to have missed the import of this statement specifically. Almost 5 decades ago (!!), California was progressive enough to have realized that the viewshed created by the existence of historic buildings is part of the public realm (a.k.a. the common good).

      Changes to any building impact the viewshed. Historic preservation regulations were created and implemented to protect the viewshed. The problem in Philadelphia isn’t historic preservation regulation; it is the lackluster and haphazard implementation and enforcement of those regulations.

      It’s very simple really – if someone trends libertarian enough to oppose regulation of their building, then they shouldn’t own buildings that are either currently or potentially subject to those regulations. Business models from people like Ken Weinstein demonstrate that hstoric preservation regulation isn’t always the extreme burden that folks like yourself make it out to be.

  4. Randall C Robinson

    A wise use of his time.

  5. Josh, Thanks for tackling Philadelphia’s demolition debacle by nominating this beautiful building from your home on the West Coast. Hopefully you have your eye on some additional nominations !

  6. Hmmm, no mention of the fact that those two buildings were preserved using Historic Tax Credits, which enabled Friends Rehabilitation Program to redevelop them as affordable housing. The kind of success story I’d have thought Hidden City would want to shout from the rooftops, not try to imply that these properties, preserved using historic tax credits, are at risk of demolition. Maybe a little deeper research was needed before putting this story to print (I did underwriting on the financing as a Senior Program Officer at LISC, over 15 years ago)

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
L&I An Overlooked Asset To Historic Preservation Efforts

L&I An Overlooked Asset To Historic Preservation Efforts

November 16, 2018  |  Vantage

Dana Rice looks at "demolition by neglect" and the potential of the Department of Licenses and Inspections as an unlikely ally in the fight to solve Philly's preservation crisis > more

The Making & Breaking Of The Philadelphia Commercial Museum

The Making & Breaking Of The Philadelphia Commercial Museum

November 14, 2018  |  Vantage

Edward Duffy takes us back when industry, commerce, and foreign trade flooded the halls of the Philadelphia Commercial Museum, the first institution of its kind in the United States > more

Rare Books Department At FLP Examines A City In Transition

Rare Books Department At FLP Examines A City In Transition

November 9, 2018  |  News

Affordable housing, displacement and gentrification, demolition for redevelopment--sounds a lot like today's local headlines, but Philly has been dealing with these issues for decades. This and more is addressed in the new exhibition, "Philadelphia: The Changing City," now on view at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Ali Roseberry-Polier has the review. > more

Dispatch From the Dolomites: Lamenting the Loss of Northern Italy's Philly Twin

Dispatch From the Dolomites: Lamenting the Loss of Northern Italy’s Philly Twin

November 7, 2018  |  Vantage

Contributor Ann de Forest dials home from Italy where she visits a little chapel that, until recently, had a sibling on Christian Street > more

Secluded Stone Stairway On Lincoln Drive Revealed

Secluded Stone Stairway On Lincoln Drive Revealed

November 2, 2018  |  Vantage

A mysterious set of stairs next to Monoshone Creek leads Sharon Barr on a path to uncover its origins > more

The Ghastly Tale Of South Philly’s Cult Of The Holy Ghost

The Ghastly Tale Of South Philly’s Cult Of The Holy Ghost

October 30, 2018  |  Vantage

A secretive cult dedicated to the worship of a Swiss woman met a horrific end in 19th century South Philly. Ryan Briggs unearths the grim details > more