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.
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.