Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Fall 2018 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
Jennifer Loustau and Wick Williams bought their home on the 4500 block of Regent Street in West Philadelphia three years ago, attracted to the one-block street’s tranquilty and proximity to Clark Park. They Had no inkling that the picturesque cluster of Victorian row houses and twins, extending to the southern side of Chester Avenue, was designed as an ensemble by noted architect Willis G. Hale. “The architect of the Divine Lorraine!” says Loustau, still awed by the connection.
At first glance, little has changed since the neighborhood was first built in 1890. Most of the homes retain their original gingerbread porches, slate roofs, rooftop finials, and decorative brickwork, while the blocks showcase Hale’s playful rhythms of of sloped rooflines, jutting gables, and rounded turrets.
Architectural distinction aside, the group of 41 homes also represents a groundbreaking model of socioeconomic diversity. “Hale designed four different price points, four different sizes of house,” Loustau learned as she researched the history of the blocks. “That’s what makes it unusual. It’s not something developers did back then, or even do much now.”
Deciding her new neighborhood merited historic designation, Loustau, a Philadelphia newcomer, conferred with the University City Historical Society (UCHS) about the city’s process for nominating historic buildings. At first, she thought UCHS would have to prepare and submit 41 individual nominations. Instead, she discovered, the Philadelphia Historical Commission had a provision tailor-made for historically significant blocks like hers–local historic districts.
What Is a Historic District?
Just as the Philadelphia Historic Commission (PHC) can designate individual properties as historic, protecting them from unnecessary demolition or inappropriate alteration, the Commission is also empowered to designate and protect whole areas that demonstrate outstanding architectural, historical, or cultural significance. Districts can be large or small, high style or vernacular, architecturally uniform or diverse. Each individual property need not be exceptional in its own right to merit designation. Historical, cultural, or artistic significance is based on each building’s relationship–sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle–to a greater whole.
Historic districts do not, as is sometimes assumed, “freeze” a neighborhood in time or use. A short stroll through Old City, which gained local historic district status in 2003, reveals a vibrant mix of historic and contemporary architecture, a dynamic commercial life, and numerous examples of creative adaptation and reuse. In Old City, as in Philadelphia’s 18 other local districts, PHC oversight has prevented needless demolition, while ensuring that alterations retain existing, character-defining features and that new construction is appropriately located and sensitively designed.
Historic districts are not the exclusive domains of the well-to-do either. A trip down Diamond Street in North Philadelphia, which was designated in 1986, highlights the perseverance of a neighborhood through decades of disinvestment and systemic inequality. South Philadelphia’s Girard Estate, designated in 1999, remains a model of charming middle-class stability. In all these cases, strong neighborhood identities are rooted in architecture that tells a collective story, one that is protected from erasure by unnecessary demolition or invasive development.
In theory, a local historic district provides the strongest protection against loss of neighborhood character. But for a city whose identity is so embedded in both its historic architecture and its distinctive neighborhoods, local historic districts are surprisingly few and far between. The Philadelphia Historical Commission has designated just 19 local districts since 1985, when the current historic preservation ordinance was adopted. That figure stands in stark contrast to the more than 65 historic districts in Philadelphia listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the West Philadelphia National Streetcar Suburb District, which encompasses the 4500 blocks of Regent and Chester. But the National Register, a separate designation administered by the National Park Service, has no power to protect against demolition or regulate new construction. So for every neighborhood that benefits from the protections of local district designation, at least two or three equally worthy groups of buildings or neighborhoods currently stand vulnerable.
Why the disparity? A chronically understaffed and underfunded PHC office is a factor. A political climate often hostile to preservation interests hasn’t helped. Property owners’ misconceptions about the impacts of designation, along with lack of local designation incentives, such as historic tax credits, have also hindered district nominations. And, when development pressures are low, as has been the case for much of the past few decades, the perception (or illusion) of stability can make district protection seem unnecessary.
But now development pressures are fierce, and much of the city’s historic fabric is endangered, as University City residents can attest.
When two dozen of Jennifer Loustau’s neighbors gather on a leafy backyard patio on Chester Avenue to discuss the pending Willis Hale District nomination, genial conversation quickly turns to lamentations for buildings lost. 42nd and Regent. 45th and Woodland. A mounting litany of perfectly intact homes torn down for new multi-unit student housing. “Styrofoam monstrosities,” one neighbor bemoaned.
Roy Harker, 4500 Chester Block Captain, who hosted the neighborhood meetings to help neighbors come to consensus, said, “In my morning walks, I see what’s happening literally feet away from us. The University of the Sciences has a newly founded and voracious appetite for expansion … and no apparent interest in investment in the historic fabric. People are concerned. All it would take is one building in this block of buildings to succumb to a developer, and there goes the integrity of the block.”
From University City to Roxborogh, Point Breeze to Tacony, similar conversations are reverberating in every corner of the city. Neighbors wonder what will happen to their neighborhood, their quality of life, and even their property values, as developers move in. Can anything be done to protect themselves against unwanted changes?
Until recently, as concerned residents of Overbrook Farms know all too well, the answer was no. The biggest building boom in more than a generation happened to coincide with an unprecedented moratorium on new districts in Philadelphia. In 2011, then-Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger and Fourth District Councilperson Curtis Jones requested PHC suspend its review of a proposed Overbrook Farms historic district. Though the classic turn-of-the-20th-century planned development in West Philadelphia clearly met at least seven of the Commission’s 10 criteria of eligibility for historic status (a property or district need only meet one to be recognized as historic), some stakeholders challenged the proposed district’s boundaries. The PHC, though designed to operate independently of mayoral or City Council prerogative, not only obliged this particular request, but also suspended all other historic district reviews while Overbrook Farms was tabled. The self-imposed moratorium stranded at least five other pending nominations–Washington Square West and French Village in Mt. Airy among them.
The consequences of district inertia have been devastating, effectively crippling comprehensive preservation efforts citywide for almost a decade. Patrick Grossi, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s advocacy director, measures the moratorium’s impact in terms of lost opportunities: “When you consider districts that were being pursued, the largest being Washington Square West and Spruce Hill, and then consider the churn of development in those neighborhoods, [think about] what buildings and blocks might have been saved.”
Instead, imagine an alternate Philadelphia, with “a growing groundswell of historic districts,” Grossi speculated. “What would it have looked like if there had been historic districts in Northern Liberties, Fishtown, even Frankford?” With district enthusiasm, “the opportunity might have presented itself to protect Jewelers Row.”
Those opportunities never arose. “At this point,” Grossi lamented, “the losses are not reversible.”
Now, however, new thinking is beginning to put historic districts back on the map. In 2017, the PHC added two new staff members–its first department expansion in three decades–and signalled a newfound flexibility in addressing its seven-year backlog. While a number of large district proposals remain moribund, support for smaller districts is on the rise, with proponents thinking strategically about new, streamlined approaches to designation. Among the most effective of these new strategies are so-called “minidistricts” or “microdistricts” of a block or less, highly targeted to protect the most significant and/or vulnerable parts of their surrounding neighborhoods.
The 400 block of South 42nd Street, the first district approved by the Commission since 2010, exemplifies this targeted approach. Rather than waiting indefinitely for a larger local district to defend an increasingly vulnerable Spruce Hill neighborhood, Justin McDaniel and his neighbors focused on their own block, recognizing that its cohesive design, impressive pedigree, and high integrity merited protection as a stand-alone district within a district. Officially christened the 420 Row Historic District, the designation comprises four pairs of ornate Victorian twins designed in the 1880s by noted architects G.W. and W.D. Hewitt. In approving the 420 Row’s nomination in January 2017, the Commission reopened a long-closed door for other motivated homeowners, community organizations, and preservation advocates to pursue microdistricting elsewhere.
While traditional districts can include hundreds or even thousands of properties (Rittenhouse-Fitler Historic District, the city’s largest, contains 2,207), a microdistrict might contain 10 or fewer. “Eight buildings might not sound like a lot,” Laura Spina, director of community planning at the Philadelphia City Planning Commission admitted. “But the right eight buildings can be extremely impactful. With historic districts, figuring out the right boundaries can be really hard. When you can make a very strong case for a smaller number of buildings, its usually an easier sell.”
More have followed. In May 2018, the Commission next approved a nine-property district on the 1400 block of West Girard. Like 420 Row, the designation protects an intact, contiguous row designed by a single architect (again, the celebrated Willis G. Hale). In July, UCHS and The Keeping Society of Philadelphia’s nomination of the new Saterlee Heights local historic district protected the distinctive 4300 block of Osage Avenue, a group of four matching Second Empire twins located within the National Register-listed West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb district.
In July, the PHC also finally approved the Wayne Junction Historic District, a nomination first sponsored by the Philadelphia City Planning Commission in 2010 and completed by Historical Commission staff this year. Unlike the three other recent districts, all of which are made up of residential properties designed and built at one time, Wayne Junction protects a cluster of eight industrial buildings of widely varying sizes, styles, and ages that developed around a strategic rail depot at the foot of Germantown. Emblematic of the city’s rich manufacturing heritage, it is the first local district established primarily for its industrial character.
Discovering New Themes
Preservationists have also turned to an often-overlooked clause of the historic preservation ordinance for new, creative strategies. Historic districts, the ordinance states, can include “individual elements separated geographically, but linked by association, plan, design, or history.” Transcending the confines of geography, thematic districts present exciting potential for protecting historic assets scattered across the city.
Currently, the only thematic district on the Philadelphia Register is Philadelphia’s Historic Street Paving Thematic District, which catalogs the city’s hundreds of historic street surfaces (brick, cobblestone, Belgian block, etc.). Passed in 1998, the Street Paving District is something of an outlier, administered by the Streets Department, with the PHC serving only an advisory role.
Now, the Commission has begun preparing another thematic district with full regulatory power: the Ridge Avenue Roxborough Thematic Historic District. Last year, the City Council delighted preservationists by approving a temporary demolition moratorium covering five miles of rapidly-developing Ridge Avenue. The Commission responded by nominating the district, and, by the end of the year, hopes to be designating up to 188 historic resources along the corridor, running from the Wissahickon Creek to the Montgomery County line. The thematic district will be tailored to protect the most important significant buildings located across an area too large and too altered to qualify as a traditional historic district.
The Philadelphia City Planning Commission has also envisioned a number of thematic districts as part of their Philadelphia 2035 plans–mid-century modern commercial corridors in the Northeast, for example. It’s about “connecting the dots,” says Spina. “With thematic districts, you’re taking places that an average Philadelphian might not immediately recognize as historic. But when you step back and see how they connect to a bigger context, their importance starts to come through.”
Grossi would love to see historic thematic districts focused on public or civic buildings. “That could include anything from public school buildings to libraries, police and fire stations to post offices. Many of those were built in the 1930s, funded by the Works Progress Administration. There’s a building like that in almost every neighborhood in the city.”
While geographically defined districts inevitably privilege certain neighborhoods over others, the thematic approach, Grossi said, “democratizes historic districts in a way that a downtown historic district does not.”
Back on Chester Avenue, neighbors considering whether to approve nomination of a Willis Hale Historic District to protect their blocks have practical questions to consider. Would historic protection be a boon or a burden? The PHC’s Laura DiPasquale fields neighbors’ questions at the meeting and, later, via email. “Would I need to restore my house to its original appearance?” (No–properties are designated “as-is” and no restoration work mandatory.) “Would my taxes increase?” (No–property assessments and rates are not unaffected by historic status.) “Could I build a rear addition?” (Most likely–far more latitude is typically granted for alterations to rear elevations and other portions of a property less visible from the street).
“Pursuing a historic district can be so challenging because of property owners’ legitimate concerns,” Grossi said. For historic districts to become a truly effective tool, more creative strategies for benefitting homeowners are essential. Grossi ticks off a list of possibilities: “Tangible economic incentives to repair and maintain buildings over time; a newer kind of district that would regulate demolition or improvements to streetscapes; more flexibility on repairs.” While the neighbors who live on the 4500 blocks of Regent and Chester work toward a consensus, Grossi and others in the preservation community envision ways to make historic designation “more palatable for the owners and residents of the property.” Also key is “laying out a clearer path for how the districts might change over time.” Some cities, said Grossi, have conservation districts that offer property owners more flexibility, along with providing design guidelines for new construction. “Until both those things are implemented, it’s going to be hard to implement a district of the type that was created in Philadelphia in the late 90s and early 2000s–Rittenhouse, Old City, Society Hill.” And while, “microdistricts are a fine approach … a way to recognize properties that wouldn’t otherwise be recognized … there are parts of the city that should be recognized as a larger district,” according to Grossi.
For now, though, the trend toward smaller districts, like the 41 homes encompassed in the proposed Willis Hale District nomination, is a positive sign. The most significant question for these neighbors–Is the path to a historic district even open to us?—thankfully no longer needs asking.