Preservation

A New Life for a Towering Figure in Germantown

August 24, 2022 | by Kimberly Haas

The former C. A. Rowell department store at Germantown and Chelten Avenues is currently being converted into apartments. | Photo: Michael Bixler

By Germantown standards, the eight-story building at 5627-33 Germantown Avenue is a high rise. “The views from the upper floors are uncommon for the neighborhood,” acknowledged Scott Woodruff, director of architecture at Designblendz. It was constructed in 1898 as a two-story building for the Germantown Trust Company, which expanded the building with a vertical addition in 1929. The architect was Arthur Brockie, a Germantown native whose projects included homes, a banks, and the Sedgeley Club Boathouse on Kelly Drive. 20 years later the building became the home of the C. A. Rowell Department Store. Architect Herbert Beidler gave it the Georgian Revival facade it still has today, with a chiseled “C. A. Rowell” over the entrance.

During the middle of the 20th century, Rowell’s was a symbol of Germantown’s status as Philadelphia’s second largest commercial district after Center City. Although the neighborhood was home to a number of department stores, including Woolworth’s, Cherry’s, Allen’s and S.S. Kresge’s, Rowell’s stood out as larger and more upscale than the others.

In 1974, when Curtis Sisco Sr. purchased the company. According to a historic nomination written by Noah Yoder, it became the first African American-owned department store in the United States. Sisco also kept the name. A photograph from that same year in the Germantowne Crier shows large three-dimensional cursive “C.A. Rowell” signatures on both the Chelten and Germantown Avenue sides of the building.

C. A. Rowell department store in 1953. | Photos courtesy of The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

Unfortunately, the once-thriving shopping district was in decline at that time, and Sisco’s efforts succumbed after only a few years. More recently, it has housed a Walgreen’s drugstore on the street level and offices on the floors above.

Now, a new life is looming for the old building as an apartment block. Woodruff describes it as a mix of 47 one, two, and three bedroom market-rate units.

“All the floors two through seven were vacant. Just a shell,” he noted. “The back side of the building doesn’t have lots of windows, so we’re tucking amenities back there. The layout of the building allowed us to design amenities, including a gym, lounge, work-from-home flex space, and a large bicycle parking room.” The footprint of the building completely covers the lot, so there will not be any car parking.

Interior views of the department store’s lamp, shoe, beauty salon, and teenager departments in 1950. | Photos courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

The site is zoned CMX-3, which stands for “community commercial mixed-use.” It allows for multi-family housing and retail and service businesses serving local and regional clientele, so the plans call for commercial space to still be located on the ground floor.

By choosing adaptive reuse, the plans won’t utilize any of the height bonuses available under CMX-3 zoning that often raise concerns among residents, particularly in the more residential areas of the northwest.

It’s a contributing building to the Colonial Germantown Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2020 received its own designation on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The developer, Chelten Lofts, LLC, intends to utilize historic tax credits and will not be altering the facade. “The only exterior work we are planning is to reopen some windows that had been covered over,” said Woodruff. However, he did note that they will not be keeping a banded rectangle painted white with the name “C. A. Rowell” inscribed in black near the top of the rear elevation of the eight-story section, which was likely a much later addition.

“We’re starting to do more adaptive reuse,” he noted, citing 19th and early 20th century warehouses in Kensington they’ve converted to loft living. “The majority are well built and in good shape. They generally have high ceilings and lots of light.” And, he pointed out, the 10-year tax abatement still applies to renovated properties.

Curtis Sisco Sr. purchased the business in 1974. It was the first department store owned by an African American and is believed to be the largest Black-owned business in the United States at the time. | Photo courtesy of Noah Yoder

Adaptive reuse of old buildings is not without some challenges. Even buildings that are only 50 years old or so are outdated when it comes to today’s standards for insulation and fire suppression, for example. On the upside, Woodruff said, “So much of Philadelphia’s building stock is masonry, so the big difference is these buildings are waterproof.”

Another issue is how to attach and integrate today’s building materials into an older building’s materials, taking both structural factors and aesthetics into consideration.

The addition of market rate apartments with lots of amenities could raise concerns about gentrification in a neighborhood of more modest means. On the other hand, the project puts a now-vacant building back in use and won’t displace any current residents. Once the renovations are completed, the former C. A. Rowell building could once again serve as an anchor at a major intersection in Germantown.



Tags:    

About the Author

Kimberly Haas is a staff writer for Hidden City Daily. She is a long time radio journalist, both nationally and locally with WHYY and WXPN. In particular, she enjoys covering Philadelphia’s neighborhoods, culture and history, as well as urban sustainability and public policy, in both print and audio.

9 Comments:

  1. Daniel Conner says:

    Except for college and law School I lived most of my life in Germantown and live there today. I bought my mother a Bolivar white gold watch from CA Rowell. I think it was 1973 when I was in high school. Market rate apartments are a good thing. Germantown needs more people with discretionary income. Also it could bring a night life to that area.

  2. Yvonne Haskins says:

    Great article,

  3. Vince Capone says:

    It would be a welcome addition to a neighborhood that can use the help.

  4. Raymond H Rabold says:

    My mother worked there when her children were grown.

  5. Edward Quinn says:

    This is great news; for decades I’ve looked up at the building wishing someone was able to put lofts above the Walgreens. It would be nice to have more affordable housing but honestly I’m thrilled someone is finally making moves at this corner

  6. John dellaporte says:

    More help for middle class lolo no help for poor working class igrew up in Germantown now in Eastern plains Colorado homeless people r treated like criminals we need more love per the Beatles

  7. James says:

    I have to wonder how a drug store could survive when Walgreens moved out due to shoplifting and DA Larry Krasner refused to take shoplifting cases under $500. This problem exists in many areas of the city with the exception of the suburbs who enforce their laws.

    I hope they will fill the apartments with people who have good jobs and mass transportation will be safe for them to commute to jobs in center city.

  8. Logan says:

    Great news I grew up in Germantown still live here 77years old with the exception of military and college West Germantown has been and is my
    Home

  9. Robert Kapusta says:

    I have such a clear mental image of West Chelten Avenue, growing up in East Fallsin the 70s, 80s, and 90s. There was a Koelle-Greenwood Ford dealer, where my father bought his 69 Galaxy 500. Allen’s Dept store, a model railroad hobby shop! Sears and JC Penney , it was a shoppers mecca! CA Rowells was on Germantown and Chelten, Those were the best days of anyone’s life.

Leave a Reply to Yvonne Haskins Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *