Preservation

Whistleblower Accuses Mayor of Manipulating Preservation Process

October 12, 2021 | by Kimberly Haas

Meetings of the Philadelphia Historical Commission are usually tense only to those preservationists who attend with a passion for the city’s history. Nominations for properties to be included on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places often are painstakingly researched, extensively written, and earnestly presented to the Historical Commission by individuals motivated by a love of Philadelphia and its physical history. “There are these diligent residents who take the time to draft these nominations,” said Josh Lippert, who served as an ex officio on the Historical Commission on behalf of the Commissioner of the Department of License and Inspection (L&I). “I’m so thankful for them.”

It can be a disappointing and saddening experience, then, to have all of that heartfelt work dismissed and the nomination voted down, often in a seemingly perfunctory way, leaving some to wonder if there were other forces at play.

The curtain was pulled back on that hunch at last week’s Historical Commission meeting where Lippert publicly described his experience of “being directed by the Kenney Administration as a designee of the Commission for L&I to vote against designation for specific projects for what I can only tell were for development and political reasons.”

His does not appear to be an isolated experience. Historian David Brownlee served on the Historical Commission for over a decade. “It was the case that City appointees were not uncommonly asked to support the interests of the Mayor,” he recalled. “When you’d go into a meeting and see that all the commissioners were there, you knew that someone had made a call.”


Josh Lippert’s statement at the October 8, 2021 public meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission.


In a conversation with Hidden City, Lippert cited a particular instance, in April 2019, with the nomination of three parcels on South 12th Street that included the Camac Baths and the Minton Residence. The former was a bathhouse that first catered to a Jewish clientele and later to a gay and bisexual clientele as 12th Street Gym, which played a significant role in the establishment of the Gayborhood. The latter was noteworthy for its association with Henry Minton, a prominent African-American caterer who owned the property from 1853 to his death in 1883, operating a restaurant and catering business out of the building.

Lippert described how the L&I Commissioner at the time, David Perri, directed him to vote against the designations, per instructions from the Mayor’s Office. “His relationship with the mayor is very close,” he said. “It seemed to be politically motivated because of development.”

This particular nomination, submitted by The Keeping Society of Philadelphia, was not an obscure, old building. According to the Historical Commission meeting minutes from April 2019, the presentations and discussion spanned over two and a half hours with concerns about preserving both Black and LGBTQ history being raised.

In the end, the Historical Commission voted to reject designation of two of the buildings and approve a portion of Camac Baths. “This happened at the same time we were sitting on the Mayor’s Task Force for Preservation,” Lippert noted. “We were publicly speaking in favor of preservation, but taking actions like these.”

“I see so many advocates come and fight, while development interests prevail. Even once was too much. This should never happen again,” said Lippert.

The three parcels that once consisted of Camac Baths, the Minton Residence, and 12th Street Gym were demolished in late 2020 after the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted against a nomination to place the African American and LGBTQ-related sites on the local register of historic places. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Some of the fault lies in the representation on the Historical Commission. “There is an overrepresentation of city government representatives. If the Mayor wants something, they’re not placed there to express their own opinions,” Brownlee noted. “And then just one historian, one architect, one architectural historian, and one community organization representative.” And those professional representatives, as well as the chair, are all mayoral appointees.

Preparing to move on to a new position outside of City government, Lippert chose to speak out, and also filed a whistleblower complaint with the Inspector General’s office last week. “Many people think those just go into a vacuum. There may or may not be a followup.”

Josh Lippert did not speak vindictively, but out of a sincere concern for the city and its history. “Things happen all the time in Philadelphia that aren’t ethical. Ultimately, you want to see action because you care about the city.”

Even as he steps away, Lippert tried to inject a positive note as he concluded his remarks to the Historical Commission: “For Philadelphia, and for future generations, I truly hope that preservation prevails. I will always be an advocate for preservation.”

In response to a request for comment, Kevin Lessard, Acting Communications Director in the Office of the Mayor, said in an email, “We expect to be able to react on Tuesday after we have more specific information about the meeting.” A representative of the Historical Commission replied similarly, while L&I did not respond.


Editor’s Note: Paul Chrystie, Deputy Director of Communications for the Philadelphia Department of Planning and Development, issued a statement following the publication of this article.

“Josh Lippert never had a seat on the Historical Commission (HC). The Department of Licenses and Inspections is one of five City departments that have seats on HC as ex officio members. Josh attended HC meetings as L&I’s designee. Obviously designees are expected to reflect the position of the member–in this case L&I –and not any individually held view. There is in fact nothing untoward about a Commissioner instructing his representative about how to represent him.

Similarly, the five City departments that serve on HC all report up to the Mayor. Accordingly, in those cases in which the Administration has a position on a case before HC, it is entirely appropriate that those departments are receptive to that position. Note that the Administration appoints only five of the 12 HC members; no motion can carry without support from public members.

Moreover, then-Commissioner Perri did not direct Josh on how to vote on any designation. Nor did Josh ever raise a concern to his higher-ups at L&I about being under pressure from Administration officials to vote in a given way. That Josh voted on the 12th Street case contrary to how he alleges he was directed and yet suffered no consequences should put to rest any notions of undue pressure.”



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About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

10 Comments:

  1. Why didn’t Lippert (and others on the board) obey his conscience, instead of taking orders like a hack?

  2. I stand corrected; it appears the Lippert has voted for preservation in the past. But still, the silence till now has cost so many buildings. Who will speak truth to power when it can make a difference?

  3. Kimberly—Can you kindly call me on the Columbus Statue matter, which was heard in front of the Historical Commission, and which resulted in a bogus decision based on undue Mayoral influence? Thank you. George Bochetto, Esquire

  4. Conrad fuller says:

    How was the royal theater changed? From one of the oldest black theaters and apart our history to a parking garage?? Who’s finger prints are on that deal

  5. Yolanda says:

    The CORRUPTNESS Has TO STOP!!! There is a higher power seeing all the evil doings & it can mo longer set PRESCEDENT!

    1. Gayle Morrow says:

      Just wondering if this is what happened with Jewelry Row?

  6. Also Davis says:

    This comes as no surprise. It was most evident in hearings about the Boyd Theater, which resulted in its destruction. The question is why the members don’t ignore their “instructions.” The very idea of having to serve as a mere representative, in secret, is completely dishonest, as the the Commission is always presented to the public as if it were a truly independent board. And for “progressive” Kenney’s office to respond as it did is utterly disgusting. I hope the Inquirer will pick up on this story. But, so far, despite being asked, Saffron has said nothing about the plans for a betting parlor on Chestnut Street, so why would she report on this? It seems her story subjects now require approval. And, most of all, change your dang font color to black; grey is almost impossible to read, a terrible design choice.

  7. Ron Avery says:

    I covered a few Historical Commission meetings as a news reporter when Ed Rendell was mayor, and it was the same pro-development situation.
    A big real estate developer was the chairman and Rendell could care less about preservation.

  8. John Gilbert Amero says:

    Fascinating. I wonder, between this article and the article about Our Lady of the Rosary what are we preserving and is the juice worth the squeeze?
    My family is a South Philadelphia Irish family. They owned at least 3 homes on the east side of the 1800 block of South Front Street.
    The homes no longer exist because I-95 took them all away. To this day I struggle with finding any pictures of that block where they shared in happiness and tragedies.
    But would I want those houses there today? I do not think I would. I’m not a fan of I-95, and what that implementation did. I do know though by looking at South West Philly, where I did grow up for a time period, that the 1800 block of South Front Street would be inhabitable. Everyday residents, me included, do what we can to maintain a house and nothing more.
    South West Philly is a hot mess because the residents of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s really did not put enough money into their homes, they didn’t have the money.
    What I would like to see is developers pay for those blue and yellow letter signs, their creation and installation. Philadelphia history, human history is not about the building but about the people who were in the building.
    Let me be clear the developer who’s knocked down the 12th Street properties is despicable because by white wash painting the building and then knocking it down they pretty much said “F*%$ all of you.”
    So now we’ll apply for those blue and yellow signs to designate what was there and why, which is just as important if not more.
    Please don’t hate the writer. This is just an opinion.

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