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.
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.”