Two contentious preservation debates over Chestnut Street structures defined the February 11 meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. The nomination review segment of the meeting began with an unusual case: a proposal to change the designation of Thrift Park Parking Garage at 727-35 Chestnut Street from “contributing” to “non-contributing” to the Chesnut East Historic District.
In November 2021, the Historical Commission approved the designation of the Chestnut Street East Commercial Historic District, a three-block span including the Public Ledger Building, the Benjamin Franklin Hotel, and the Gimbel Brothers Department Store building. The nominator, Oscar Beisert, originally listed the four-story Art Deco garage as “non-contributing” to the district’s historic character, but during the nomination process the Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation suggested that the garage designation be changed to “contributing.”
An attorney representing the garage owner, Thrift Parking, Inc., objected to the reclassification of the garage, arguing that the owner had not been notified that the Designation Committee had upgraded the structure’s classification from non-contributing to contributing.
The attorney went on to argue that the building classification should not be upgraded because no evidence supports the criteria of “historic,” as defined by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The attorney also emphasized that Silverman and Levy, the influential Philadelphia architecture firm credited with designing the building, were barely involved in the project. They described the 700 block as a “dead zone” and argued that the parking garage “contributes to blight.” The owner plans to apply for a demolition permit and replace the garage with an apartment complex, saying that the 600 potential new tenants would be a “a shot in the arm for the district.”
After the owner’s attorney spoke, a lively debate among the public and Historical Commission members ensued. Several members expressed ambivalence towards protecting a parking structure, especially one so close to public transit. Several members of the public spoke in opposition, sharing memories of using the space and expressing hope that the garage could be modified instead of demolished.
Historical Commission Chair Emily Cooperman spoke in opposition of changing the building to “non-contributing, explaining that when the Designation Committee upgraded the designation it “didn’t think this was an essential Silverman and Levy design or a groundbreaking parking facility.” Cooperman noted instead that the garage expressed an essential part of the city’s evolution. “The automobile has been a crucial and important part of the commercial life of downtown Philadelphia. Whether we want that to continue or not is a different question.”
Beisert, the district’s nominator, also spoke in opposition to the proposed change, saying that when he originally listed the structure as non-contributing he, “didn’t fully consider the garage, or its place in history.” Biesert went on to push back against the blight argument, saying “The owner does not maintain the building, but still wants to fully realize their profits.”
The Historical Commission voted to approve the proposal to change the designation to “non-contributing,” with a lone dissenting vote from Cooperman.
The Steel Heddle Manufacturing Company complex at 2100-20 W Allegheny Avenue was nominated by Heritage Consulting. The complex contains four interconnected industrial buildings (Plant, Main Office, Lumber Storage and Garage, and Chrome Plating) constructed between 1919 and 1951. The concrete and brick structure, with prominent multi-light steel windows, was built by the prominent Philadelphia firm William Steele & Sons Company. The Steel Heddle Manufacturing Company was once one of the largest weaving loom accessory suppliers in the United States and notably developed the first single piece flat steel heddle, which advanced industrial textile manufacturing. The steel heddle was much more durable than the previous wire heddles and provided a significant cost savings, making them extremely popular and widely used. With almost no discussion, the building was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places by unanimous consent.
Next up for designation was the DeLong Building at 1232 Chestnut Street, nominated by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. The seven-story building is a prominent feature of Chestnut Street, with a stack of angled bay windows, a highly-ornamented iron fire escape, and a large overhanging cornice. The building is one of the few Chicago School (also known as Commercial Style) buildings in Philadelphia. It was built by architect and engineer Amos W. Barnes in 1899. The nomination describes the Chicago School as having pioneered a “form of tall building construction [that] prioritized the honest expression of structure over superficial ornamentation, creating a uniquely American look that rejected slavish imitation of historical styles.” The DeLong Building is probably most recognized locally for its handsome wrought and cast iron fire escape on 13th Street. Patrick Grossi, director of advocacy of the Preservation Alliance, described the DeLong building as a “How-was-that-not-nominated-yet nomination.” Historical Commission members agreed, and the DeLong building entered the register with unanimous consent.
The next nomination was a mural, entitled Iron Plantation Near Southwark, 1800, inside of the Southwark Station Post Office at 917 Dickinson Street. Murals are eligible for the local register, but rarely nominated separately from the structures in which they reside. Celeste Morello nominated the New Deal-era painting, which was commissioned by the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts in 1938 and painted by 26-year-old artist Robert E. Larter. In the nomination Morello describes the mural as “pure Americana.” The mural includes depictions of workers shoveling iron ore, a clear reference to Southwark’s past as an important iron producer. The Historical Commission voted unanimously to add the mural to the register. Since it is inside of a post office building, the mural is under the jurisdiction of the United States Postal Service, and the Historical Commission cannot exercise jurisdiction over it. However, the federal government generally takes local designation into account when making decisions, so the nomination is a useful protective measure.
The burial ground of the Campbell A.M.E. Church at 1651 Kinsey Street, in use since at least 1812 and almost certainly earlier, was nominated by Joseph Menkevich. The church itself was added to the Philadelphia Register in 1982. It was the first African-American associated congregation in Frankford. The addition of the burial grounds to the register adds another layer of protection to the church, as well as recognition of the site’s important archeological merit. Buried within the grounds are the remains of enslaved people, Civil War soldiers, and important members of the Black community of Frankford. During the public comment period, many people thanked the Menkevich for his extensive research into those buried at the site, information made publicly available in the text of the nomination. The burial ground was added to the historic registry by unanimous consent.
The Joseph Langer Building at 1031 Shackamaxon Street was nominated by The Keeping Society of Philadelphia. The two-and-one-half story timber frame structure is a unique
“half-house” sometimes called a “flounder,” meaning a detached building with a half-gambrel gable end. The building, constructed around 1852, is in remarkably original condition, although time has taken its toll. It is a rare surviving wooden house, a building type that once defined the local landscape. The vernacular building was originally used as both a dwelling and a small textile manufacturing workshop. While Philadelphia is dotted with large textile manufacturing complexes, much of the industry, especially in the 1800s, occupied small, home workshops.
During the public comment period, many Fishtown residents spoke in favor of the nomination, including a ward leader, a tour guide, and several neighbors. All speakers commented on the seemingly endless demolitions happening in the area and stated their desire for greater protections to save the structures of their neighborhood. Several neighbors mentioned demolitions on this very block, including another wooden frame structure of potentially similar age. After the public comment period, the Historical Commission voted unanimously to add the building to the local register.
Tacony Baptist Church at 6930 Hegerman Street was nominated by Tacony Community Development Corporation. Built in 1883 from discarded industrial grindstones of the nearby Disston Saw Works, the church is a most unique structure. Its sandstone exterior does not immediately make evident that the church is made of recycled industrial waste. The old grindstones were broken into pieces, then squared. Over 2,500 of these repurposed grindstones now enclose the church sanctuary. Tacony Baptist Church exemplifies the centrality of local industry in organizing Philadelphia’s early communities. The current pastor of the church represented the congregation during the designation process and expressed strong support. According to the pastor, the congregation is committed to returning the building to its former glory, even if it is a “herculean task.” The church was added to the Philadelphia Register by unanimous consent.
The final item on the agenda was a contentious discussion of the Colonial Federal Savings and Loan Building at 1206 Chestnut Street, nominated by the Preservation Alliance. The building was originally constructed in 1922 and then renovated in 1963 with a dramatic mid-century modern facade by architect Lee Casaccio. Its nomination is based on the merit of this 1963 exterior. The first floor is articulated by a set of four reinforced concrete arches making a canopy. Casaccio used the arched overhang to delineate the two functions of the building: the retail branch bank on the first floor and the company headquarters on the upper floors. The upper three floors are covered in polished, black stone panels, each with a metal disk, sometimes referred to as “thumbtacks,” at their center. The discs were originally also backlit. The building is an undeniably distinctive and a dwindling, unaltered example of commercial Modern architecture in Center City.
The building’s owner strongly oppose its designation. They bought the building without seeing it in person in 2019, mistaking the reflection in the polished stone facade of the building across the street to be actual windows when looking at a photograph. They argued that it is a “minor building by a minor architect” and one that is difficult, if not impossible, for which to find a code-complaint use. The main use issue is the lack of windows. The building has windows on the right wall of the first floor. However, the building next door is slated for an overbuild which would cover those windows, leaving the upper stories with the code limitation of no usable windows. Another issue for potential use is the lack of fire exits. One of the fire exits is a hinged, polished stone panel that can be pushed outwards, leaving a cavity for a fire ladder to extend upwards. Usable windows and multiple fire exits are code requirements for common, commercial purposes, and the owners argue that if the designation passes, the building would have “virtually no monetary value” since it could not be leased or sold.
Many members of the public spoke in favor of the designation, citing the need to be creative with uses for the space, the ability to seek code variances, and the desire to see the building as more than simply an item on a profit-loss worksheet. Several Historical Commission members spoke to the usability concerns. After more public debate the Commission voted to postpone making a decision on the nomination for at least a month to allow the Preservation Alliance to meet with the building owners to find possible solutions for future use.