Editor’s Note: In June 2019, Mayor Jim Kenney was elected to serve as a vice president of the Organization of World Heritage Cities’ board of directors, the first American mayor to be selected for the position and a global honor in marketing and tourism circles. Five months later, after four years of public protest and vigorous advocacy, the demolition of five historic buildings began within the heart of historic Jewelers’ Row, the oldest diamond district in the nation and one of the most identifiable destinations in Philadelphia. Mayor Kenney accepted such an honor while his city watched in confusion and horror as a suburban real estate developer sought to irreparably exploit of one of Philly’s most recognizable historic assets. Through inaction and empty rhetoric, the mayor, prone to paying lip service on preserving Philly history for optics alone, has continued to ignore the destruction of buildings that have cultural value to our urban community. Philadelphia’s systemic preservation crisis is Mayor Kenney’s top dereliction of duty and we all should be up in arms.
Three preservation bills were passed at the end of 2019 by City Council, a result of recommendations made by Mayor Kenney’s questionable Historic Preservation Task Force. Parking requirements were reduced, accessory dwellings were permitted, and strict zoning laws were eased. All three bills sound good in theory, but they only apply to buildings already listed for protection on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Mayor Kenney called the legislation a “milestone” and it was lauded a success by some in the preservation community. Many others found the legislation to be a tiny band-aid on a gaping wound. The Philadelphia Historical Commission, still shamefully understaffed and underfunded, remains backlogged with nominations for the foreseeable future. No demolition delay policy is in place to aid in assessing threatened historic buildings in lieu of a desperately needed citywide survey. The new 10-year tax abatement reduction doesn’t go into effect until 2021, meaning there will be a dramatic surge in demolition permits, more unsafe construction, and an increase in row house tear downs that dangerously jeopardize the structural integrity of connected, adjacent homes.
It’s been said here before that cities are living organisms that must be allowed to change and evolve on their own accord. Like trimming the dead branches of a tree, demolition can be a necessary tool to stimulate new growth. For instance, at Temple University sacrificing one outdated building for the construction of Charles Library has helped energize a stifled campus to connect and bloom. But projects like this that have a tangible, positive impact on deliberate urban planning are few and far between in Philadelphia. For a year that saw approximately 543 demolition permits issued to private developers by the City, we are losing more of our preexisting built fabric for new construction than can be accounted for.
The demolition of everyday cultural assets, be it a 100-year-old factory, a 200-year-old carriage house, or an endearing public park pavilion built 60 years ago, isn’t just about historic preservation as a pursuit of academics and the architectural merits of a structure. This is an issue that inherently impacts the “psychological merits” of civic pride, cultural identity, mental and economic well being, and feeling safe from worrying about the house next door collapsing in on you. It’s also about public health, the effects of demolition sites on water and air quality, and the ecological concerns of wasting the embodied energy of an old building by creating more CO2 through demolition and new construction. Indeed, Philadelphia’s preservation crisis is a public safety crisis and the sooner we address it for what it is the quicker we can pass meaningful legislation to end this charade. What will ultimately happen in 2020 is anyone’s guess, but one thing is for certain: Mayor Kenney, this is no way to run a “World Heritage City.”
Name: Jewelers’ Row Five
Address: 702, 704, 706, 708, and 710 Sansom Street
Date: Originally part of Carstairs Row (1803). Demolished and rebuilt circa 1865-1924.
The Story: It’s been more than four years since suburban real estate developers Toll Brothers first announced its plan to demolish five contiguous historic buildings in the heart of Jewelers’ Row. The buildings were razed in December and the 700 block of Sansom Street has now gained its big, muddy hole in the ground. Early efforts to stall the development, led by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and citizen activists, began almost immediately after the plan was announced. Since then, the Jewelers’ Row debacle has laid bare our municipal government’s deeply flawed and outdated approach to historic preservation and the absence of meaningful, action-driven leadership from the mayor. From the shortsighted lack of protection, to the sweeping and aggressive underlying zoning of the area, to the 10-year tax abatement’s role incentivizing tear downs for luxury housing, to the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s reluctance to assert their authority and designate the five buildings–the whole drawn-out saga was a perfect confluence of regulatory blind spots and unintended consequences.
One sliver of a silver lining–aside from the fact that the formerly photogenic streetscape is nicely documented in the Bradley Cooper movie Silver Linings Playbook, in addition to dozens of tourism brochures and websites–is that Mayor Kenney’s Historic Preservation Task Force seems to have actually responded with some positive policy reforms and revisions, although even the boldest developments would never be mistaken for progressive.
In the future, perhaps, rather than showcasing the history of Philadelphia’s jewelry and publishing districts, Jewelers’ Row will come to represent this new era of urban renewal—a merging of affluent forces abundantly embodied by the new tic-tac townhouses and flimsy condominiums wedging their way into every modicum of desirable urban space. Despite some early grumbling and performative foot-dragging, the City doubled down in 2019 on its mission to pursue nothing but the bottom line, welcoming through its policies and inaction self-serving real estate developers like Toll Brothers to destroy the historic and cultural fabric of our “World Heritage City” for their own private capital gain.
Name: Columbus Square Pavilion
Address: 1200 Wharton Street
Architect: Gabriel Roth and Elizabeth Fleisher
The Story: Columbus Square Pavilion at 12th and Wharton Streets opened in 1960 and was designed by the architecture firm of Gabriel Roth and Elizabeth Fleisher, Philadelphia’s first licensed female architect. The crown-like, folded plate roof pavilion was originally built for a senior center in the South Philadelphia park formerly named Passyunk Square. It was later used for classes, weightlifting, a home base for little league teams, a concession stand, and a variety of other community programming. It was last used as a storage shed.
In 2015, the Columbus Square Advisory Council (CSAC) was awarded a grant for design services to develop a master plan for park renovations. The three-year public input and planning effort, led by a community task force and the CSAC, ruled in favor of demolishing the park’s pavilion rather than include it in the proposal for adaptive reuse. Despite months of spirited, citywide advocacy for saving the building, including a petition with over 2,750 signatures, the endearing building was razed by the Department of Parks and Recreation on December 16. The $2.8 million plan for the square was designed by Community Design Collaborative, and construction is currently underway. The mid-century modern pavilion was a unique neighborhood landmark from Philadelphia’s reform era and one of the city’s last surviving examples of Googie architecture.
Name: Girard Avenue Theater
Address: 625 W. Girard Avenue
Architect: John Bailey McElfatrick
The Story: The Girard Avenue Theater, located on the north side of Girard Avenue and between 7th and Marshall Streets, opened on March 30, 1891. At its height, the neighborhood contained the city’s greatest concentration of German institutions, including businesses, fraternal organization clubhouses, and houses of worship. Although not a German-speaking theater, the Girard referenced German architectural forms on the Marshall Street facade of the auditorium, which was graced with a series of rounded brick arches.
Designed by New York-based theater architect John Bailey McElfatrick, the theater could accommodate up to 900 patrons on three levels. McElfatrick had designed other theaters in Philadelphia prior to this one, but the Girard was the last remaining in the city.
Despite its location far from Philadelphia’s core theater district, the Girard was the city’s leading stock and repertory theater, which housed a resident theater company that presented productions from a discrete, rotating repertoire, for three decades. In 1927, the theater shifted to showing motion pictures and with this shift came moderne style alterations by the Philadelphia firm of Ballinger & Company.
Since 1960, the intact, but crumbling theater housed a succession of grocery stores. It was most recently occupied by Fine Fare Supermarket. Demolition of the theater began in November 2019 and is still underway.
Name: Jacob Deal Frame Dwelling
Address: 227 E. Allen Street
Dates: Between 1830-1838
The Story: Timber frame dwellings were once abundant along the historic waterfront sections of Fishtown and Kensington during the area’s maritime industry days. According to a nomination prepared by Kensington & Olde Richmond Heritage, wooden houses made up 70 percent of the homes in the neighborhoods by 1810. Due to urban renewal, the construction of I-95, the expansion of Delaware Avenue, and recent real estate redevelopment pressures in the river wards, only 50 or so of these wooden structures are still standing in Fishtown today. This particular Georgian vernacular home at Allen and Shackamaxon Streets was one of only five such homes left between Aramingo and Washington Avenues east of I-95 before it was demolished in the summer of 2019.
The Deal family, descendants of German immigrants, purchased a one-and-a-half acre tract of land in 1803 that stretched from Richmond Street to the Delaware River. Between 1830 and 1838, the Deals and their relations subdivided the lot and built brick and wooden-framed homes to accommodate a dramatic population increase in the area. Jacob Deal, a native of Kensington and a ship carpenter, built the home at 227 E. Allen Street.
The Philadelphia Historical Commission declined to approve the nearly 200-year-old home for placement on the local register in 2017. It is now an empty lot.
Name: Norman Rice Studio
Address: 2400 Pine Street
Architect: Norman Rice
The Story: The former home and studio of modernist Philadelphia architect Norman Rice was an oddity among the charming Victorian homes that surround Fitler Square. The squat, bunker-like building shut itself out from its distinguished neighbors with defensive isolation leading many to dislike the place. However, modernism isn’t for everyone, and Rice’s studio was certainly not without merit. Behind the stylishly standoffish exterior was an Atomic Age interior filled with wood paneling, skylights, and clerestories that made the home radiate with welcome and calm.
Rice, a lifelong friend and high school classmate of Louis Kahn, built 2400 Pine Street in 1963 and used it for his studio for 22 years. It was acquired by Kippy Stroud, founder of the Fabric Workshop, after Rice died in 1985. The corner property most recently served as an apartment for visiting artists of the workshop and museum until it was sold in 2016. The unique building and its beautiful interior was deemed non-contributing to the surrounding historic fabric in a 1995 National Register of Historic Places survey of Rittenhouse and Fitler Squares. That assessment went curiously unchallenged in 2018, which led the way for the building being destroyed for a new residential construction project in the spring of 2019. The demolition of Rice’s studio went largely unnoticed, yet it remains a significant loss to Philadelphia’s mid-century modern architectural history.
Name: Peter Woll & Sons
Address: 152-78 W. Berks Street
Architect: William Steele & Sons
The Story: Philadelphia is full of great ghost signs that serve as important, contextual reminders of our industrial and commercial heritage. One of the best and biggest of such signs in the city advertised “Curled Hair” and spanned nearly a block on the exterior of a two-story brick warehouse along Berks Street in Kensington. Built by Peter Woll & Sons Manufacturing Company in several phases between 1904 and 1921, the low-rise warehouse was used to recycle hair waste from tanneries and other animal processing plants into stuffing for mattresses, sofas, chairs, and seat cushions in rails cars and carriages.
Woll, a native of Bavaria, Germany, began his business of repurposing bristles for brush makers in Philadelphia in 1858. His company rose to prominence as one of the biggest curled hair manufacturers in the country and processed animal hair in the building at 152-78 W. Berks Street from 1904 until it was sold in 1939 to the Matthias Paper Corporation.
173 and 152-78 W. Berks Street, the last two of five buildings used by Peter Woll & Sons, were nominated for historic designation by The Keeping Society of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation recommended protecting the fading sign and facade of 152-78 W. Berks Street. However, the full Commission declined to vote in favor of designating the building due to the fact that a demolition permit had previously been filed by the property owner, West Berks Community Development LLC, in April 2018, a year before the property was nominated by the Keeping Society. By August 2019, the warehouse had been demolished and cleared.
Name: First Mennonite Church
Address: 513 Diamond Street
The Story: The former home of the First Mennonite Church of Philadelphia was constructed in 1881-82 on a corner in North Philadelphia occupied since 1867 by Mennonites drawn to the city by growth and industrialization. Unlike their more conservative country cousins, Philadelphia Mennonites became known as progressive practitioners of their faith. The large, box-like Italianate structure dominated a neighborhood of row houses and came to symbolize the growth of the first Mennonite church in Philadelphia and the home of the first woman pastor in the faith. According to a nomination to the local historic register, under the early leadership of Nathanial Grubb the church grew to be the largest Mennonite congregation in all of southeast Pennsylvania, where most Mennonites were located, with a legacy of interfaith outreach and ecumenical cooperation.
The brick building with heavy corbeling details on its gabled facade had been a fixture in the neighborhood for nearly 140 years. In 1963, as with many other white congregations in North Philadelphia, the changing demographics of the neighborhood prompted the church to find a new building in the suburbs. Most recently, the building had been home to the Pentecostal Lewis Temple Church of God, named for the 19th century slave who eventually became a blacksmith to the whaling industry. Unfortunately, historic designation couldn’t help the current church owners with maintenance issues. Not long after a roof truss collapsed the building was deemed an “unstable structure” by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. Since the congregation was not able to address the repairs to save the building, the church was demolished last summer.
Name: Philadelphia Hilton Inn
Address: 900 Packer Avenue
The Story: The old Philadelphia Hilton Inn came down last March to make way for the 1.5-million-square-foot Live! Hotel and Casino Philadelphia, a project in the making since 2012. The late modernist hotel, a Holiday Inn since Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski bought the building in 1993, was a go-to for savvy sports fans looking for cheap drink specials, an empty barstool, and air conditioning before a Phillies game.
Built in 1974, the hotel’s most notable claim to fame was playing host to Elvis Presley in his rhinestone jumpsuit and barbiturate days when he was in town to perform. The King often booked out multiple rooms there and famously played a Bicentennial show at the Spectrum on June 28, 1976, where, after walking out on stage to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, he stumbled through a drug-addled 22-song set in just one hour.
Plans for the new $700 million sports and entertainment resort originally included retaining and renovating the 240-room tower. However, the building stood right in the middle of the project site, and reusing the old hotel clashed with developer Stadium Casino, LLC’s vision for a sprawling gaming floor stretching from one end of the parcel to the other. The Hilton Inn was instead demolished and a new 200-room hotel is currently being built on Packer Avenue.
Name: West Philadelphia Twin
Address: 111 N. 50th Street
Dates: Between 1895-1910
The Story: 111 North 50th Street was nothing out of the ordinary in a neighborhood filled with stunning Victorian architecture. The three-story twin was built during one of West Philadelphia’s largest real estate booms at the turn of the 20th century. Old maps and atlases, particularly the George Bromley atlases of 1895 and 1910, illustrate an explosion of development, almost all residential, for the growing middle class who could now take streetcars from their new suburban homes to offices and workplaces in Center City. Larger tracts of land were developed in half-block or block chunks, establishing a pattern of twins and row houses repeated on block after block throughout the neighborhood.
The second half of the 20th century and first decade of the 2000s brings a story with which we are all too familiar. The once-grand neighborhood suffers disinvestment through a combination of changes in industry and work, racism and redlining, and a societal push to get out of the city and into the suburbs. Now, these grand old houses, with their gorgeous materials–iron spot brick laid in thin butter joints, stone copings and trim, heavy wood columns supporting front porch structures, slate roofs–are often prohibitively expensive to maintain.
As a result, at some point maintenance stops. Perhaps an owner has died and heirs cannot be found. Or financial resources are so limited that even basic maintenance is too much. In some cases, an owner decides to be purposely neglectful and absent. The building sits vacant and starts to deteriorate. The roof fails and water starts to infiltrate. After five or 10 years (or sometimes longer), the conditions become severe enough attract attention through L&I violations, where the more minor citations of weeds and a vacant building license problem escalate to unsafe conditions and eventually to a declaration of an “imminently dangerous” structure. And although these citations clearly state “…repair or demolish…,” the unfortunate result of many of these cases is demolition.
This building individually, and thousands like it, was not significant enough to warrant individual designation on the local historic register. There are no longer any drawings and often not even any old photographs to show this building in its prime. There are no protests, no GoFundMe pages, nothing except the shrug of regret that another great old building has been torn down.
Name: The Yachtsman aka Dyer’s Bar
Address: 1444 Frankford Avenue
Date: Between 1860-75
The Story: When The Yachtsman tiki bar closed in 2017 longtime Fishtown residents worried that the curvy, formstone-covered building wouldn’t be able to keep the neighborhood’s ferocious appetite for new construction at bay for very long. Known as Dyer’s Bar since the 1970s, the classic working class watering hole at Frankford Avenue and Jefferson Street gave way to gentrification in 2014 when the former owners called it quits and sold the building to S&L Real Estate. Controversial restaurant entrepreneur Tommy Up, the former owner of defunct Northern Liberties burger joint PYT, retooled the bar with a Polynesian-themed drink menu and a Katsushika Hokusai-inspired crashing wave mural on the facade to cater to the neighborhood’s surging upwardly mobile clientele. Up filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy after a series of grave business fumbles and the bar was closed for good by the landlord in May of 2017.
According to an article by Inga Saffron at The Inquirer, 1444 Frankford Avenue was built as a single-family, red brick row house sometime between the 1865 and 1875 and converted into a rooming house and corner bar in the 1970s. A plan to open a new bar circulated in May 2017, but nothing materialized and it remained empty. The little corner building was demolished to little fanfare in October 2019.
Name: Schuylkill View Carriage House
Address: 3811 Main Street
The Story: The Schuylkill View carriage house has long piqued the curiosity of motorists and cyclists as they enter Manayunk from Ridge Avenue and the Schuylkill River Trail onto Main Street. The nearly 200-year-old building, last used as Steve Forster Auto Repair, was made of Wissahickon schist with a spiky cornice of upturned stone and brick arches crowning the windows. Quaint and crumbling, the small industrial landmark was an immediate reminder of the neighborhood’s bygone textile glory. The carriage house was the last remaining building of the Schuylkill View estate, built by Richard Hey, owner of Progress Mill. The outbuilding was tightly placed on Main Street against the schist bluff with a set of stone stairs leading up to Hey’s long-gone Victorian mansion above.
In 2016, the Zoning Board of Adjustment rejected a request for variances for a proposal by the property owner to demolish the two story carriage house and build a 65-unit apartment complex on the nearly one acre lot. The project was unanimously opposed by Wissahickon Neighbors Civic Association and Manayunk Neighborhood Council. In January 2019, the building was cited with unsafe structure violations and deemed imminently dangerous by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. The owner was granted a demolition permit that March and the carriage house was razed in September.
Name: Grace Community Christian Center
Address: 29 W. Johnson Street
Date: Late 1880s
The Story: On its face, the demolition of a stand-alone Victorian twin on a Germantown corner isn’t necessarily news. The historic northwest Philadelphia neighborhood has been experiencing a steady rise in construction and redevelopment in the last few years. The three-story twin itself, while a graceful stalwart at the corner of West Johnson and Emlen Streets since the 1880s, wasn’t particularly unique architecturally, although its Italianate massing and Second Empire details certainly stood in charming contrast to the 1966 sanctuary next door that was designed by the Philadelphia firm of Mansell, McGettigan & Fugate. Yet its demise continues the unfortunate trend of the architectural erasure of the social and cultural history of the neighborhood.
The building was named for one of the church’s more legendary pastors, Jeremiah A. Wright, Sr., who presided over the church for over 40 years. Wright led the congregation over a period of the church’s history marked by growth and the strengthening of its outreach ministry, including the purchase of the corner house for their community center. He was not the only star in the family. Wright’s wife broke barriers as the first black teacher at the Philadelphia High School for Girls and Germantown High School. However, his son and namesake has gained more notoriety as the pastor of the Obama family while they lived in Chicago. His brief spell in the 2004 news cycle overshadowed the fact that Reverend Wright was a respected theologian and, during his stint in the Navy, a surgical attendant to President Johnson.
The demolition of the Wright Community Center was organized by the building’s owner Grace Baptist Church as part of the congregation’s Vision 2020 campaign to build a new 15,000 square foot building for enhanced community services. According to the Philadelphia Tribune, the congregation began a search for an architect last summer to design the new center and they hope for completion in December 2020.
Name: Manayunk Mill House
Address: 4680 Canton Street
Dates: Early-to-mid 1800s
The Story: This old stone mill worker house was built in the early-to-mid 1800s on unique Manayunk Street. It was sold in 2018 for $83,000 and remodeled into red hot real estate oblivion in 2019 with a brick veneer and stucco facade, a three-story addition, and a roof deck. It is currently listed on the market for $555,000.