2020 was a hell of a year. Two whole months after COVID-19 began creeping its way across the globe the United States finally took action in mid-March. For a few brief weeks business activity considered non-essential, including construction and demolition, slammed to a halt. The pause was negligible, however. When building resumed in April more permits were being pulled than before the pandemic had begun. Philadelphia’s real estate market has remained hyper-competitive throughout it all, too, as people with financial means from the city and elsewhere continue to swoop in to purchase homes with the kind of space and amenities that pandemic life has made even more desirable.
Ultimately, the pandemic became a mirror. It reflected back at us the economic disparity and systemic injustices embedded in our American way of life. People working lower-paying jobs in the service industry and communities of color were disproportionately impacted by the fallout from the shutdown. It showed us that life in the United States boils down to access. Access to health care, to worker protections, to savings, to secure housing, and how much access is and always has been deeply intertwined with race, class, and privilege. While some of us tinkered with sourdough bread starters and continued to collect our salaries from home, others couldn’t skip a beat, bravely showing up to work each day and facing the danger and uncertainty of the crisis head-on while bagging our groceries, picking up our trash, delivering our packages, caring for our elderly, and keeping our transit systems up and running.
In late May the world was upended again. Global protests for racial justice over the repeated killing of African Americans by police further clarified one of the ugliest sides of the United States rooted in our national heritage and our fundamentally racist systems. The killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Walter Wallace, Jr., and countless others before them brought millions of peaceful protestors to the streets where they were met with even more police violence, brutally beaten and gassed with military-level force, all across the country and in the streets of Philadelphia.
For many who have lived relatively privileged lives, this year has made it impossible to ignore how biased and imbalanced American society is, how fundamentally oppressive and unfair it always always been. Exposing these inequalities on a large, national scale has challenged historic preservationists to think more critically about how their practice has been shaped by racist systems and how it might be adapted or expanded to push back against them.
We are seeing renewed and urgent discussion and action around expanding the narratives we generally lend credibility and recognition to, primarily through efforts to identify, advocate for, and protect sites associated with Black history and other historically underrepresented groups. But there is much more work that needs to be done beyond nominating culturally important buildings to the local historic register. Increased support and advocacy for home owners through programs that fund building repair and maintenance, like the pilot program currently being rolled out in Strawberry Mansion, or through city programs like the Restore, Repair Renew program, should be part of our response as well. So should supporting renters and city residents of varying income levels by advocating for affordable density through the addition of accessory dwelling units (ADU’s) and encouraging community-driven preservation efforts like the campaigns to save the Philadelphia Sun building in Mt. Airy and the Dox Thrash House in Sharswood.
2020’s demolition list may not include high profile cases of years past, but it is important to remember that the built environment, like the pandemic, is also a mirror. Through the distribution of care and resources, or lack thereof, it reflects back to us who, what, and which places are valued. What is the impact, at the neighborhood level, when regular row houses are routinely destroyed to build slightly larger and much more expensive versions catering to the privileged, professional class? What tools do we need to advocate for that will provide established communities with the resources they need to protect places of cultural value and allow longtime residents a stronger voice in how the environments around them are shaped? How can we honor and truly internalize some of the lessons learned in 2020 and use them to inform our efforts as preservationists?
Indeed, there is so much crucial work to be done to fill the void left by our mayor and our municipal government. Political posturing and empty promises will not save the architectural and cultural heritage of this city.
Let’s get to it, Philadelphia.
Name: Chestnut Street garage
Address: Chestnut Street between 11th and 12th Streets
Architect: Ballinger & Co.
The Story: It is rare that we lament the loss of a parking garage, but this tasteful and well-camouflaged Art Deco beauty was something special. While some might not share the architectural appreciation for the monolithic structure, it is fair to say that if you are going to have parking garages in an urban downtown one would hope it would be tastefully designed, have some historical flair, and contribute to commercial activity as this one did. Architecture Critic Inga Saffron praised the structure in her column back in 2016, noting its “three public facades fully clothed in limestone panels, and richly detailed with ribbon windows, chrome fins, glass block, and glossy tilework.” The garage’s ground floor was also home to retail space, lending presence and activity at the street level, which might otherwise feel dead given its massive scale. Saffron’s column explained that the garage, originally proposed in 1921 by the Chestnut Street Association, was designed by Ballinger & Co., and ended on a hopeful note, suggesting that the garage’s owners might “cherish it as a stylish, early example of mixed use-development.”
Alas, cherish it they did not. A demolition permit was granted to National Real Estate Development, the long-time overseers of the property, in October of 2018 and the garage was razed in 2020.
Name: Josephine Eisenlohr Annex
Address: 3808-3810 Walnut Street
Architect: W. Frisbey Smith
The Story: In keeping with their tradition of doing absurdly expensive and tragically unnecessary things to wonderful historic buildings a la Perry World House, the University of Pennsylvania largely demolished and gutted a glorious pair of Victorian twins to build a $26 million dollar VIP guest house. Preservationists watched in horror as machinery chipped away at the buildings from the rear, stopping mere feet from the front facades. Despite the fact that Penn boasts a historic campus and several of its buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this has become another disappointing example of their inability to set a good, local precedent for creative adaptive reuse.
The building’s price tag comes to more than two-and-a-half times the $10 million the university pledged to pay annually in PILOTS (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) to fund Philly schools, already a mere fraction of what they should owe. The $26 million that funded this abomination would be far better spent updating and remediating Philadelphia’s schools. For a “sustainable” rehab project–the new guesthouse is rated LEED silver–not only does this set a terrible example, but it is a lot harder to look at than the stately twins that once graced the corner of 38th and Walnut Streets.
The partial demolition of Josephine Eisenlohr Annex was last used by the Marks Family Writing Center and famed sociolinguist Bill Labov’s Linguistics Lab. The mahogany interior in the front half of the buildings was incredible.
Name: The Foreign Mission Board, National Baptist Convention, U.S.A.
Address: 701 South 19th Street
The Story: Hidden City staff writer Kimberly Haas dug into the history of this modest three-story corner row in Graduate Hospital, demolished at the beginning of the year for new construction. The building was long home to The Foreign Mission Board, National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. The organization was started circa 1800 by a group of Black Baptist ministers. The FMB operated in the space for more than 100 years. Although the organization was headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, it had paired locally with the oldest Black Baptist church in Pennsylvania, the First African Baptist Church.
According to Haas, “Publications were a central part of the FMB’s activities, both for their mission work and for donors and church members at home. This past summer, the demolition of the FMB building uncovered evidence of that when, in the exposed basement, two antique printing presses were revealed. A 1916 street map of the city that identifies the FMB building notes the presence of a printing room at the rear.” Unfortunately, the 1914 Chandler & Price letterpresses were too rusted to salvage and repair. The building will replaced by Southbridge Condos.
Name: Academy of Social Dance
Address: 2009-11 Sansom Street
Date: Circa 1900
The Story: The funky little combined building at 2009-11 Sansom Street fit right in among the eclectic mix that defines that quaint, human-scale stretch of Center City. Long home to the Danza Academy of Social Dance, the property sold for $2.1 million in March 2019, with the dance studio relocating down the street to 2103 Sansom Street. Given that it is zoned CMX4, it would be possible to build something slightly larger on the site, but indications are that a similar sized three story structure will take its place. While its blank stuccoed facade didn’t really do the underlying structure justice, the building added visual interest to the street thanks to a massive projecting sign, its 1980s-style asymmetrical door surround, and the simple arched windows and jaunty parapet of its better half. Fortunately, Philly Mag reported that Brett Naylor, the former executive chef at Oyster House, will be opening a restaurant at the location with his wife Nicole Barrick. They plan to give a nod to the site’s history, and half of the facade is being retained and incorporated into the new design. They also have plans to incorporate the iconic sign.
Name: Bluebird Theater
Address: 2209-2211 North Broad Street
Architect: Mahlon H. Dickinson
The Story: File under “Everything was horrible in 2020.” The Bluebird Theater next to Temple University was by far the cutest commercial building on North Broad Street. The adorable movie house was built in 1914 and designed by Mahlon H. Dickinson. It was remodeled a few years later by Hoffman-Henon, the architecture firm behind Mastbaum and Boyd theaters. It closed in 1957 and was last occupied by Shiloh Temple Community Church. The theater was demolished in October 2020 for new residential construction.
Name: Skylink Aerial Tramway Tower Foundation
Address: Penn’s Landing
Architect: Simon Property Group
The Story: A monument to the never-realized Philly-to-Camden sky tram came down this year. The giant concrete arch, jokingly called “Philly’s Stonehenge,” was erected in the early 2000s as part of a push by Mayor Ed Rendell to turn the waterfront into a family entertainment destination. The tram, built by Simon Property Group, was envisioned to transport thousands of visitors per hour in five minute trips across the Delaware River in gondolas. The plan was an expensive series of bureaucratic blunders and doomed from the get-go. Learn more about the evolution of proposals for the Delaware River waterfront from Hidden City’s Harry Kyriakodis.
Name: First United Presbyterian Church/Word Tabernacle Baptist Church
Address: 5200 Chester Avenue
Architect: Joseph M. Huston
The Story: The former First United Presbyterian Church/Word Tabernacle Baptist Church at 52nd Street and Chester Avenue in West Philadelphia, along with its adjacent Sunday school and parish house, was demolished in the spring of 2020. The church had suffered from years of neglect, with gaping holes in its roof and walls covered in vines. Constructed in 1910, the Gothic stone church was attributed to Joseph M. Huston, architect of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg. The property was acquired by a local development group in 2018 and was demolished last year in May.
Name: The Peanut Gallery
Address: 1801 Fairmount Avenue
Story: The former gallery of artist Robert Woodward (aka Peanut Butter) on Fairmout Avenue was one of the most talked about corners in the city. The origins of the Streamline Moderne building, with its stainless steel cornice and trim, remained an entertaining mystery up until the very end. It looked like it could have been an old diner and the gallery with the brilliant name was never open. Originally three stories, the building was constructed in the 1930-40s and was originally occupied by Newman’s Automotive, an engine repair company. It was later used as a day care facility until Woodward bought the place in 2001.
In 2019, word began circulating online that the building was being sold with zoning permits allowing for the construction of a two-story overbuild, indicating that the original ground floor would be retained. Architecture enthusiasts rejoiced. Yet, at the same time, there was also a permit that paved the way for complete demolition of the structure. In the end, the wrecking ball prevailed and the city lost another charming Philly corner. For what, you ask? More condos, of course. The new mid-rise building will feature 10 residential units, a restaurant on the ground floor, and a penthouse that will cost you $1,450,000.
Name: The Levering-Smick-Arbuckle House
Address: 4649 Umbria Street
The Story: While appreciating the large three story stone residence in the Mount Vernon section of Manayunk required peeling back a few layers, the Levering-Smith Arbuckle house was one of the oldest homes in the area. According to a historic designation nomination submitted by The Keeping Society of Philadelphia, it was built before 1770 and significantly expanded in the 19th century. While the home had seen substantial additions and modifications over time, its gradual evolution and connection to the Levering family and others central to the development of the neighborhood offered a tangible link to a distant era.
The nomination for the home was submitted days before its current owner applied for a permit to demolish the structure. However, the processing of both the demolition and new construction permits to build a 30-unit apartment building were delayed due to the pandemic. The nomination was reviewed by the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation and recommended for designation under two of the criteria outlined in the ordinance, including for the site’s archaeological significance. Although the demolition permit was processed two days after the nomination was submitted, it was actually submitted nearly a month prior. The Department of Licenses and Inspections therefore determined that the Historical Commission did not have jurisdiction over the new development, meaning there would be no oversight over demolition and the new construction, work that will inevitably disturb archaeological resources.
Name: Geo. M. Sachenheimer’s Hotel and Dazley’s Saloon and Liquor Store
Address: 2401 Frankford Avenue
Architect: Charles Weir
The Story: This lovable flatiron building at 2401 Frankford Avenue was a neighborhood landmark with a fascinating, little-known, history. According to a historic designation nomination for the property, prepared by Oscar Beisert of the Keeping Society of Philadelphia, Geo M. Sachenheimer, a German immigrant, purchased the building in 1848 and began to run it as a small hotel for a short time. It later became a liquor store and saloon after it was sold to James Dazley, an Irish “liquor dealer.”
The vernacular flatiron building typology itself is also interesting, and charming, being common in areas where diagonal avenues bisect William Penn’s city grid plan. While it is a small consolation to know that the site is getting a sleek, new flatiron designed by architecture firm Ambit, similar to their project at 5th Street and Passyunk Avenue, it would have been pretty amazing to see the original rehabbed and repurposed–preferably as a saloon! Ultimately, the property was demolished after an attempt to save it by the East Kensington Neighbors Association, who commissioned the nomination, fell short. After a cursory review, the Historical Commission staff advised against nomination on the basis that the building was not historically significant enough and it was withdrawn.
Name: Building 121 at the Navy Yard
Address: 1631 Kitty Hawk Avenue
Story: Building 121 was a sharp, modern affair that contrasted nicely with the industrial Victorian chic of its neighbors Buildings 17 and 19 as well as the converted Urban Outfitter complex across the street. It served as a quality assurance office for the machine shops that once hummed with activity at the Navy Yard. While appearing in decent, reusable shape, the building was torn down in November 2020 to make way for a $59 million P-106 submarine propulsor manufacturing support facility for the United States Navy.