On March 11 the Philadelphia Historical Commission held its monthly public meeting to review proposals for alterations to protected buildings and vote on historic designation nominations. The high points of last Friday’s meeting were the addition of the homes of a Black abolitionist and a gay right leader to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
The first discussion on the meeting’s agenda concerned the proposed renovation of the Paschalville Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia at 6942 Woodland Avenue in Elmwood Park. The building is one of 25 Carnegie libraries in the Free Library system which, as a thematic historic district, is listed on the local register. Paschalville Branch is a remarkably intact structure, but it does not currently meet the Free Library’s accessibility requirements. The building is also in need of general maintenance and modernization. The Free Library has been working through several rounds of public feedback with neighborhood residents to set the priorities of this modernization campaign.
The main issue debated before the Historical Commission was a proposed ramp leading into the library. In order to create universal access to the building, which currently has a rear ramp and front stairs, the architects propose raising the entrance level several feet to the height of the main floor. This would mean changing the stair height, shortening the door, and raising the lobby/vestibule floor. The proposed ramp would be made of limestone matching the building’s water table, with iron railings. Members of the Architectural Committee of the Historical Commission had already reviewed the proposal and expressed a desire to see a ramp lead into the side of the entrance vestibule, leaving the current entrance undisturbed. Commissioners Dan McCoubrey and Emily Cooperman, who sit on the Architectural Committee, argued that the ornate entrance and its direct relationship to the street are character defining features and therefore must be preserved.
Representatives of the Free Library spoke at length about why having two entrances, even side by side, does not constitute universal access. For social concerns, as well as safety and operational concerns, they argued that two entrances are unacceptable. Regarding the Historical Commission’s recommendation to considering lifts, Free Library officials countered that lifts are not only alienating, but they are also difficult for staff to manage and hard to maintain. Additionally, they asserted that this particular building could not support an external elevator and instead proposed a LULA (Limited Use Limited Access) lift inside the lobby/vestibule.
Several public comments raised possible alternatives to the ramp and railing–glass being one suggested alternative–but representatives of the Free Library expressed operational and maintenance rationale for their materials preferences.
After extensive discussion and a lengthy public comment period, the Historical Commission approved the ramp plan with the caveat that the window framing color, shown in the architects’ renderings as black, be an historically appropriate and light color.
Several more of the Carnegie-era library buildings will be appearing for review in the coming months, and this conversation and the subsequent decision will certainly have bearing on future Historical Commission decisions.
The first nomination up for consideration was 138 W. Walnut Lane in Germantown. Nominated by the staff of the Historical Commission, led by director Jon Farnham, the property was home to Dr. John E. Fryer for over 30 years. A Philadelphia psychiatrist and leader of the gay rights movement, his anonymous speech made wearing a mask at the American Psychiatric Association meeting in 1972, was instrumental in the removal of homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder from the influential Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known commonly as the DSM.
The Fryer house is a striking 2-story, three-bay, cross-gabled wooden home built around 1860. Significant alterations made in 1893 by architect Mantle Fielding. The property also contains a rear carriage house of unknown origin.
Dr. Fryer purchased the home in 1972 while working as a teaching psychiatrist at Temple University. Previously, Dr. Fryer had been forced to leave several residency programs–first at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas and later at the University of Pennsylvania–due to homophobic discrimination.
Psychiatry in the United States was once deeply hostile to the LGBTQ community. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) listed homosexuality as a “sociopathic personality disturbance” in the original DSM published in 1952. The classification pathologized homosexuals as “emotional deviants” and medically justified the criminalization of homosexuals.
In 1972, Fryer spoke on a panel at the APA’s annual convention, “Psychiatry: Friend or Foe to the Homosexual? A Dialogue,” organized by Barbara Gittings, a celebrated lesbian activist from Philadelphia. Since he did not have tenure at Temple University, Dr. Fryer only agreed to speak on the panel as “Dr. Anonymous,” appearing in a mask and wig, and speaking through a device that disguised his voice. According to the nomination, “Dr. Fryer told the audience that more than 100 gay psychiatrists were attending the convention and ‘several of us feel that it is time that real flesh and blood stand up before you and ask to be listened to and understood, insofar as that is possible.’” Dr. Fryer’s speech helped galvanize the APA, and homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973. Fryer lived at 138 W. Walnut Lane until his death in 2003.
The current owner of the home also spoke in support of the nomination, stating that she loves “supporting the building” and hopes to continue as long as she is able.
Public comment was very positive. Oscar Beisert, preservation activist and stalwart at tHistorical Commission meetings, voiced his deep appreciation of the work of Dr. Fryer. “When people call me crazy, it’s just because of me, not because I’m gay.” By unanimous consent, 138 W. Walnut Lane was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.
Next up for consideration was the Smith-Whipper Houses at 919-21 Lombard Street. The buildings were was nominated by Michael Clemmons, docent of the African American Museum and Donna J. Rilling, associate professor in the Department of History at SUNY, Stony Brook.
These two four-story, two-bay, brick row houses, built in the Federal Style and with Flemish bond, were the homes of influential abolitionist and Black business leaders during the Civil War era, who, among other important actions, hosted a fundraiser for John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.
Stephen Smith was born into slavery in 1795 in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. Due to Pennsylvania’s singular and gradual abolition law, any child born to those enslaved after March 1, 1780 served as an “indentured servant” before being freed at the age of 28. In 1801, Smith was sold to Thomas Boude of Columbia, Pennsylvania. Smith’s mother, Nancy, tried to follow him to the new location, but was captured by her owner. The Boudes, and many Quaker residents of the area, were able to stop Nancy’s removal, and she remained in Columbia. According to the nomination, this event had a deep impact and was “the event that incited the community of Columbia to form a spontaneous, marginally organized, religiously-driven movement to thwart all efforts to hold humans in any kind of bondage, i.e., what has become known as the Underground Railroad.”
Smith purchased his freedom from servitude around the age of 21 and married Harriet Lee. He went on to become an important civic and anti-slavery leader, as well as a highly successful businessman in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania area. The nomination states, “Smith’s commercial prominence rose alongside his civic antislavery activities,” and by 1840, he was clearly regarded as an active agent for escapees on the Underground Railroad.
Through business dealings, Smith became associated with William Whipper, another African American businessman and abolitionist, based in Philadelphia. Eventually Whipper married the adopted daughter of Stephen and Harriet Smith, and the two became full business partners. Among his many activities, Whipper was a founder of the Philadelphia Library of Colored Persons, a literary society with great influence in the African American community.
One of Smith and Whipper many endeavors involved transporting runaways to safety via trains. According to the nomination, the pair owned “22 railcars that they used to transport lumber between Columbia and Philadelphia. Beginning in the late 1830s, they installed secret compartments in the cars that they used to hide escaped slaves and transport them from central Pennsylvania to Philadelphia. Freedom seekers left the trains at the inclined plane near Belmont Mansion on the west side of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.”
Smith purchased 921 Lombard Street in May 1840 from African American antislavery activist Robert Purvis. At the time, the neighborhood was seen as an ideal destination for Black Philadelphia elites, as the residents were both multiracial and bourgeois. In Philadelphia, Smith’s business thrived, as did his abolition work. By 1864, Smith was the richest Black man in the United States, with a net worth of $500,000.
While living on Lombard Street, the Smiths and Whippers were deeply involved in the struggle for civil rights as well as other issues surrounding Black life in Philadelphia. Their home became a locus for abolitionist activity. Most notably, the Smiths hosted John Brown, William Still, Frederick Douglass, and Henry Highland Garnet in March 1858 for a fundraiser for John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.
The properties on Lombard Street stayed in the Whipper/Smith families until 1906. The buildings remain in remarkably intact condition.
Several Historical Commission members and the public commented in support of the nomination, with several of the speakers discussing the nomination as a helpful first step in finally reviewing and voting on the Washington Square West Historic District nomination. Others stated their support, underscoring how vibrant the Black community along Lombard street once was. By unanimous consent, 919-21 Lombard Street was added to the local register.
The final agenda item discussed was an overbuild at 838 1/2 N. 42nd Street as part of a project to turn a historic, but now empty church into multi-family residential housing. The former St. Petri Evangelical German Lutheran Church, built in 1871 and nominated for historic designation in 2013 by the Historical Commission director Jon Farnham, consists of two connected church buildings. The original, one-story building sits next to a much larger, ornate church that was built in 1893 for the growing congregation. Both buildings are highly attractive and in sound condition.
At the January 25th meeting of the Architectural Committee, members suggested denial for the proposed overbuild, which would add a two-story structure on top of the 1872 chapel. However, since that meeting, the site’s architects and developers created new plans taking the Architectural Committee’s comments into consideration. Dan McCoubrey, chair of the committee, summed up the issues with the original proposal as “fundamentally about its mass and its articulation.”
The new plan sets the overbuild further back from the front facade of the church building, creating more visual demarcation of the buildings. The facade material was also adjusted to be less “visually jarring,” and the windows altered to be in conversation with the windows of the larger, neighboring church structure.
Members of the Historical Commission were pleased with how their comments had been reflected in the new plans and were supportive of the project as a whole, expressing encouragement for the church renovation several times. There was some debate as to the facade material–brick being generally agreed upon by both Historical Commission members and the public as ideal–and the weight that the wooden chapel structure could bear. McCoubrey suggested stucco as a potential alternative. Paul Steinke, director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, voiced his support of the changes and stated that this “was a case where we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” By unanimous agreement the proposal was approved.