Preservation

Germantown Cottage and Mount Airy Bank Added to the Philadelphia Register

June 16, 2022 | by Celia Jailer

International House at 3701-15 Chestnut Street was recently converted into an apartment building by CSC and developer Alterra, the property’s new owner. | Photo: Michael Bixler

At the meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission on June 10 Taws Cottage in Germantown and the Pelham Trust building in Mount Airy, were added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. A retail space was also approved “in concept” for International House’s plaza in University City.

International House, designed in 1965 by prominent local firm Bower & Fradley (now BLTa) is one of Philadelphia’s most distinctive Brutalist buildings. Sculptural in form, the cast-in-place construction succinctly expresses the internal functions through the exposed formwork of the concrete surface. International House also had a monumental cultural impact in West Philadelphia, hosting popular programming as well as housing foreign students attending Penn, Drexel, and other local universities.

Alterra’s current plan is to eliminate International House’s signature plaza with a retail addition. | Rendering: ALMA architecture

International House was added to the local register in 2019 after being nominated by the University City Historical Society and  Docomomo US/Greater Philadelphia, but the plaza leading to the entrance of the building is not included in the protections. The plan, proposed by local developer Alterra, the building’s owner, would keep the concrete walls surrounding the plaza, while cutting into the returns. The new building would be a glass and composite-panel structure, with a slightly tiered silhouette, made for a retail chain.

Historical Commission chair Bob Thomas described the plan as an exciting project and Paul Steinke of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia voiced his general support, but some members of the public were critical. Mason Carter commented that the addition was “clearly designed to be a Target,” in a way where he felt that a Target was simply “superimposed on the site” and fundamentally “incompatible” with the distinctive design of International House as it currently stands. The Commission voted to approve the plan with unanimous consent.

The gardener’s cottage of the Lewis and Martha Taws Estate at 224 W. Washington Lane. | Image courtesy of West Central Germantown Neighbors

224 W. Washington Lane, known as Taws Cottage, returned for review by the Commission. The nomination was first submitted by the West Central Germantown Neighbors in 2021. The property owners had already received permits to do a massive development project, which would have destroyed almost all of the historical site. As such, the Commission postponed its review. However, last month the permits expired, and Commission staff was told that the development project had been abandoned, leading them to review the nomination in full.

Built in 1860-61, the home is a one-and-one-half-story Gothic Revival building that originally served as a gardeners cottage. It was part of a much larger suburban estate owned by Lewis and Martha Taws, who were wealthy Philadelphians looking to develop Germantown. The nomination describes the cottage as “nestled within a distinctive nineteenth-century vignette of ancillary suburban, estate buildings and features that conform to a Romantic ideal in architecture and the Picturesque in landscape.”

Gardener’s Cottage or Tenant House by J.C. Sidney. From The Gardener’s Monthly, July 1860. | Image courtesy of  West Central Germantown Neighbors

Gothic Revival, which is often characterized by gable front dormers, distinctive eves, a cross-gabled roof, and an overall “low slung” form, was a popular style to build worker dwellings, both internationally and in Philadelphia, with other examples including the North Cedar Hill Cemetery and the Awbury Arboretum. Gardener cottages were a common feature on mid-sized estates and provided homes for not only the worker, but for their family as well.

After a period of positive public comment, most of which celebrated the Commission’s decision to table this nomination and not reject it outright in 2021. The Commission voted unanimously to add Taws Cottage to the local register.

Pelham Trust at 6740 Germantown Avenue. | Image: Google Street View

Pelham Trust, nominated by Oscar Beisert of The Keeping Society of Philadelphia, is a distinctive Colonial Revival bank building at 6740 Germantown Avenue. The nomination describes the bank as “laden with Classical Revival/Neoclassical detailing such as dentils, Ionic column capitals, round-top window openings, symmetry, and a mix of brick with limestone trim, the subject property conveys the seriousness and civic-mindedness of a neighborhood financial institution at an accessible, yet still imposing scale.”

Built in 1907, the bank was a key component of the planned suburban development, Pelham, in Mount Airy. The financiers of the development were Anthony J. Drexel and Edward T. Stotesbury, who financed other early, large-scale real estate projects including Overbrook Farms. The goal was to blend town and country. Many Pelham buildings were constructed of local Wissahickon schist and in a wide variety of architectural styles. The development included over 300 homes.

The entrance of Pelham Trust Company in 1909. | Photo courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

Attorney Niel Sklaroff, representing the property owners, clarified that while the owners supported the nomination, they asked that the Commission amend the scope of the nomination and not include the parking lot in the designation.

There was a strong outpouring of public support for the nomination, with several people who own properties on Germantown Avenue speaking in support of the efforts to preserve the Pelham neighborhood. After amending the nomination to exclude the parking lot parcel, the Commission added the Pelham Trust building to the register by unanimous consent.



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About the Author

Celia Jailer is a contributing writer and project coordinator for Hidden City Philadelphia. A graduate of University of Massachusetts, Amherst, she has a deep interest in architectural history and preservation. Jailer also keeps an active art practice.

2 Comments:

  1. Also Davis says:

    Steinke must be removed.

  2. Lynne Bloom says:

    How sad that the retail space was approved for International House. It is like painting a red stripe down the center of the Mona Lisa. That plaza adds beauty to the building. It gives it street presence. What was that committee thinking?

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