The Philadelphia Historical Commission at its May 13 meeting added the Sun Ra House in Germantown and an extensive new historic district in Roxborough to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Also on the agenda were two more historic structures, one historic interior, a historic district, a historic paving district, and a parking lot.
In a widely celebrated move, the staff of the Historical Commission nominated the Sun Ra House (aka the Arkestral Institute) at 5626 Morton Street and the full Commission voted in favor of adding the home to the local register for legal protection. Sun Ra was the visionary founder of Afrofuturism, an artistic movement of music, art, poetry, philosophies, and performances that linked the Black experience with mythologies of space and ancient Egypt. Sun Ra lived and worked at 5626 Morton Street in Germantown from 1968 until the end of his life in 1993. Surviving members of the Sun Ra Arkestra still live in there. The unassuming Second Empire rowhouse clad in schist has had a profound and widely recognized cultural impact.
Sun Ra, born Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914 in Birmingham, Alabama, was a child prodigy pianist who was able to hear and then play back from memory the music of many influential groups who toured Birmingham. By his mid-teens, Blount was playing music semi-professionally and eventually joined the band of his former high school biology teacher.
Blount was also influenced by Birmingham’s Black Masonic Lodge, where he had unfettered access to their collection of books and esoteric works that made a lasting impression on him.
By 1934, Blount joined a musicians’ union and toured the Southeast and Midwest as a full-time musician. Blount attended Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University for one year in 1936. He left school after having a visionary experience in which he claimed he was transported to Saturn and spoke with aliens who convinced him that his destiny was to speak through his music. He then formed his first successful band, the Sonny Blount Orchestra.
When Blount received a draft notice from the U.S. Army in 1942 he vehemently objected, citing his religious beliefs, familial and financial obligations, and his health. After refusing alternative civilian service, he was arrested for draft evasion, imprisoned, and then transferred to a Pennsylvania public service camp. He was released in March of 1943. The experience deepened his embitterment toward the white establishment.
Blount moved to Chicago in 1945 where he found steady work as pianist and musical arranger. There he was exposed to radical African American political organizing and began longtime collaborations with people like Alton Abrahams, Sun Ra’s eventual de-facto business manager, and musicians in Chicago’s avant-garde jazz scene. Blount legally changed his name in 1952 to Le Sony’R Ra and began performing as the Sun Ra Band, one of the first jazz groups to use synthesizers and electronic instruments.
Sun Ra and the Arkestra moved to New York City in 1961 where they lived communally, played regularly, and broke through to new audiences. After seven years, the cost of living in New York drove them, like many before and after, to relocate to Philadelphia.
The house on Morton Street was owned by Nathan and Henrietta Allen, parents of Marshall Allen, an integral member and current bandleader of the Sun Ra Arkestra. The home became Sun Ra’s base of operations for the rest of his days. In the nomination, Allen described life at Morton Street. “It’s a commune. All the musicians living here would have other skills as well. One could fix doors, another could cook, others were good painters. We were doing everything ourselves. We sewed our own costumes. We even had a vinyl press for some years and we glued the label on the LP’s ourselves. Over the decades we eventually manufactured some 500,000 records in this house.”
While the band toured the United States regularly, and often commuted to New York weekly, Sun Ra quickly became a fixture in Philadelphia, performing in Vernon Park, appearing on WXPN regularly, and playing shows at Philadelphia venues.
The public comments in favor of the nomination were overwhelmingly positive, with many people speaking to Philadelphia’s rich, yet overlooked musical history.
The Victorian Roxborough Historic District was nominated by the Central Roxborough Civic Association in an effort to stem the tide of demolition in the area. The district covers 343 properties in the primarily residential neighborhood and was nominated on the basis of its long and distinct history: first as a thriving “linear village” along Ridge Road (now Avenue), which served as an agricultural and milling center, next as a way station for travelers on their way to central Philadelphia, and later as a streetcar suburb for middle class Philadelphians.
The development of Roxborough is contemporaneous with advancements and shifts in transportation in the Philadelphia area, most notably Ridge Avenue, Schoolhouse Lane, Walnut Lane Bridge, and Flat Rock Bridge.
The district contains diverse collection of architectural styles including early Greek Revival, Second Empire, and Queen Anne. The nomination highlights the low iron fences, porches, and stone retaining walls popular across the district.
The community organizing undertaken by the Roxborough Civic Association is particularly noteworthy. It first lobbied successfully for a demolition moratorium in the area. This allowed the group to then create and advocate for the establishment of a historic district, which legally protects the neighborhood’s built character. A lengthy comment period heard home owners and members of the public express overwhelming support for the nomination. With some small adjustments to its boundaries, the district was added to the local register by unanimous consent.
A small historic district on the 4200 block of Chester Avenue in West Philly was nominated by Oscar Beisert of The Keeping Society of Philadelphia. The row of twin Second Empire homes was built between 1870 and 1872 and was one of the earliest development projects for middle class homeowners moving to the emerging suburb of West Philadelphia after the Civil War. Suburbanization was facilitated by the expansion of the Philadelphia & Darby Passenger Railway Company.
Four structures on the east corner of the district, including a mini-mart and the former Millcreek Tavern, became the focus of the conversation. A lengthy comment, entered by architectural historian Gideon Fink Shapiro on behalf of a building owner, argued that these four structures have been altered far beyond what could be considered historic or contributing.
Much of the debate centered on the Commission’s staff’s finite capacity for ongoing regulation of designated properties. Director John Farnham spoke on behalf of the staff, which recommended against nominating the four properties, stating that the Commission has limited time and funds, As nominations are happening at a much higher rate than previously, Farnham stated that the staff wants to focus on nominating, adding, and ultimately regulating only buildings with high “integrity” and avoiding designations that will lead to long appeal processes.
Commissioner Emily Cooperman cited several concerns, saying that it sets a slippery precedent since “integrity” is mentioned in the Secretary of the Interior’s criteria, but is not mentioned at all in the guidelines of the Philadelphia Register. Cooperman also pointed out that integrity-based arguments tend to leave structures owned or used by low income people off of the local register, since those with limited economic means often make additions or alterations in ways not often considered “historically appropriate” due to cost. Cooperman offered a motion, ultimately passed by unanimous consent, that the the 4200-4300 Chester Avenue Historic District be designated without the four structures on the east side of the block, noting that the Commission found them to be worth of designation, but didn’t not choose to designate them at this time due to limited staff capacity.
Tioga Mills at 3475 Collins Street was nominated to the Philadelphia Register by Kevin McMahon of Powers & Co. The industrial complex includes the original mill built in 1886, a secondary mill built in 1892, an office building built in 1900, a garage built in 1900, and a warehouse built in 1919. The nomination listed the infill construction, built in 1950 and beyond, as non-contributing.
The mill was originally built for Thomas Henry and Sons, a producer of cotton yarns whose business typified Philadelphia’s vast hosiery production. The nomination states that “By 1860 Philadelphia was producing upwards of $2,000,000 worth of hosiery annually. As the product grew in popularity and the number of hosiery mills increased, hosiery (in both cotton and wool) became the second largest sector of Philadelphia’s textile industry, producing over $14,000,000 worth of product in 1883.”
Thomas Henry and Sons successfully shifted to more diversified cotton yarns for bathing suits, towels, and other consumer items when silk hosiery drove cotton hosiery out of fashion.
In 1926, Thomas Henry and Sons operations moved to Nashville, Tennessee and the building was next occupied by a stove company. The mill retains a high degree of historic integrity, with few alterations to the buildings’ envelope. The Commission added the site to the local register by unanimous consent.
The first floor interior of the historic Jacob Reed Sons store at 1424-26 Chestnut Street was nominated by the Preservation Alliance for Philadelphia. The exterior of the building has been on the local register for several decades. Its first floor became the fifth public interior to be listed on the local register. The first floor, built between 1904 and 1905, was one of the first commercial buildings to use reinforced concrete and is one of the few major Arts and Crafts style interiors left in Philadelphia. The store is remarkably intact, featuring Moravian tile work by Henry Chapman Mercer and a series of murals by Gertrude Monaghan, who later became an important member of a 1920s artists’ colony in Nantucket.
The nomination reports that, “On its completion in 1905, the architectural and decorative achievements of the new Reed store were widely reported by the American architectural press as well as leading concrete and apparel industry publications. In its May 6, 1905 edition, The American Architect and Building News published a number of plates with reproductions of the plans, sections, and elevations that Price drew for building, drawings which today are found in the collection of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia.”
Commission chair Bob Thomas shared a personal memory of watching his father buy suits at Jacob Reed Sons and members of the public spoke in support. The interior was added to the local register by unanimous vote.
The Reser–Royal House, also referred to as the Baltes Reser House, at 5008-10 Germantown Avenue was nominated by Oscar Beisert of The Keeping Society of Philadelphia. Built between 1727 and 1745, the Colonial-era structure on the west side of Germantown Avenue is constructed of rubble schist and designed with a classic side-gable roof, symmetrical fenestrations, and dormer windows. Beisert writes in the nomination that “While suffering from neglect and insensitive alterations, the subject building continues to exemplify the basic form and features of a ubiquitous Germantown house.”
The home was once part of a large estate built by German-born colonist Bernhard Reser. The use of this particular building is not certain. It was possibly a tenant house or a home for Reser’s son and daughter-in-law.
Reser was an important Germantown settler, establishing a burial ground which accepted, “All strangers, negros and mulattoes” as well as helping to establish Germantown Academy, the oldest non-sectarian day school in the United States.
Reser was also a slave owner. Beisert writes, “While long associated with the first protest against slavery in 1688, Germantown was still home to wealthy enslavers such as Benjamin Chew, among others. However, there were also prosperous local enslavers whose enslaved Africans and/or African Americans who lived and worked in Germantown. While primarily represented by the American South, it is critical to recognize the economic and social impact and significance of urban slavery in places like Germantown, 18th century towns that existed within and served larger cities like Philadelphia.”
Several members of the public spoke in favor of the nomination, with many speaking to the importance of being able to point to a physical location when talking about history and enslavement in Philadelphia and in Germantown. The site was added to the local register by unanimous consent.
In a narrowly focused and somewhat unconventional motion, the Commission voted to amend the Historic Street Paving Thematic District to remove a private dead end alley at 1400 Rodman Street. The alley was originally assumed to be part of the public right of way, which it is not. The area in question was laid out in 1869 as a private alley and is 170 feet long. It is currently used for parking and is in poor condition. The Streets Department has not been maintaining this small strip. Paul Steinke of the Preservation Alliance spoke during public comment to suggest that the Belgian blocks still present on the site be preserved and handed over to the Streets Department for use on another historic block. The Commission voted unanimously to remove the site from the historic district.
In an odd parking-related agenda item, the parking lot at 1613 to 1627 W. Norris Street and 1610 to 1616 Page Street was nominated by Mary McNatt. The lot is owned by the Philadelphia Land Bank. The nomination argues that the parking lot is a staple of the neighborhood and explains why parking is both difficult and necessary for neighborhood residents.
Prior to the meeting the staff of the Historical Commission recommended denying the nomination and noted that a large section of the parking lot is already committed for redevelopment as low-income housing under permits that are not reviewable by its agency. The Commission voted unanimously to deny designation, but stated their sympathy for difficulties regarding parking and planning in the area.
2204 Walnut Street is listed in the Rittenhouse/Fitler Residential Historic District. At last month’s meeting the building was reclassified from “contributing” to “non-continuing.” In May it came before the Commission again. This time, the owner Flamingo Bay Investments and their contracted architects at Coscia Moos Architecture have applied for a demolition permit and to build its its place a 10-story building, which would rise five floors higher than its immediate neighbors. The proposed structure would be clad in white brick for the first five floors, with white-gray concrete panels covering the exterior from floors six through 10. The mixed-use development would include commercial space on the ground floor, 29 residential units, and a roof deck.
Commission member Dan Mcuebry stated that the Commission’s Architectural Committee agreed with the Historical Commission staff’s prior recommendation that the building is “fundamentally too big” and intrudes on the immediate architectural scale. Public comments were overwhelmingly negative, with specific concerns about the color and massing, as well as some debate about the party wall. The full Commission voted against the design proposal for the 10-story building.