Editor’s Note: “You can’t save everything” is a shallow catchphrase repeated often these days. The glib retort, parroted by pro-development personalities on social media, usually succeeds in derailing any meaningful civil discourse surrounding the preservation of our existing built environment and the city’s hunger, and need, for new construction. “NIMBY” (Not In My Backyard) is also thrown around aggressively and with excessive zealotry similar to MAGA supporters attacking anything that doesn’t align with their ideological convictions as “fake news.” Similar disruptive fervor can be found in the actions of some preservationists. If it wasn’t for a certain neighborhood group in Fishtown, that fought against a zoning variance (see: parking) and a solid adaptive reuse plan, St. Laurentius Church may have already been converted into a lively 23-unit apartment building instead of hanging in the early stages of demolition. Fanatical faith in the real estate market and community-based bully tactics will get us nowhere. The manufactured division between those in the development and preservation communities has created a dead zone for productive public discussion over our present urban needs and the future of Philadelphia. For the health and sanity of our beloved city, it really needs to stop.
Every year we repeat ourselves in the opening essay of Hidden City’s Lost Buildings survey. Firstly, this is not a comprehensive list. An attempt to catalogue every building demolished annually would take even longer than it has to complete 2021’s late installment. Secondly, not every building we feature on this list could have or should have been saved, although one could naturally make a strong case for both points to the contrary. There are many buildings, of course, that we lament losing last year, like the Minton Residence in the Gayborhood, Spring Garden Station in Callowhill, and Mustin Field Seaplane Hanger at the Navy Yard, etc. Yet, where there is plenty of emotional will to save a building doesn’t mean there is always a clear and feasible way. That said, we present our Lost Buildings survey every year as just that: a mostly neutral public record of Philadelphia’s built environment destroyed over the last 12 months by real estate pressures, fire, and decay. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it, backlash and bad vibes be damned.
There is inherent social and ecological value in preserving and recycling old buildings. When adaptive reuse is chosen over demolition we retain our cultural and architectural identity, while dramatically reducing carbon emissions from every stage of new construction. However, cities are indeed living organisms, and it is imperative to allow them to evolve, densify, and grow on their own accord. Profit-maximizing land grabbing for building fast-buck residential units often sidelines equitable investments in affordable housing and quality of life community resources. As bleak as it may appear to many, this is currently the nature of the market. More poorly constructed condominiums this way comes.
Demolition for new construction is a wasteful, backwards 20th century solution to dire 21st century problems. Philadelphia is a dense patchwork of empty parcels, sprawling parking lots, and squatty, non-contributing commercial buildings begging for residential infill. We can all agree that as a city we need to do much better with saving the old while making plenty of room for the new. Philadelphians have a common hope for a better city. Let’s stop squabbling online and get it done in real life.
Name: Minton Residence/Camac Baths/12th Street Gym
Address: 210 S. 12th Street
Date: Circa 1818-36
The Story: The three buildings that once consisted of Camac Baths, the Minton Residence and Restaurant, and 12th Street Gym were demolished after the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted in 2019 against a nomination by The Keeping Society of Philadelphia to place the African American, Jewish, and LGBTQ-related sites on the local register of historic places.
Henry Minton, a prominent 19th century African-American caterer, owned the property from 1853 until his death in 1883. He operated his catering business and a restaurant there. A New York Globe article from 1883 states that staunch abolitionist John Brown stayed at Minton’s home shortly before his raid on Harper’s Ferry in October 1859.
Camac Baths, an Eastern European-style bathhouse, was in operation there from 1929 to the mid-1980s. The popular Jewish establishment was affectionally known as “the Shvitz.”
The buildings next became the home of 12th Street Gym, which originally catered to gay clientele and played a significant role in establishing the Gayborhood. In 2015, a mural dedicated to LGBTQ activist and civil rights activist Gloria Casarez was painted on the building’s facade by Mural Arts. 12th Street Gym closed in 2018 after three decades of service.
In October 2021, Hidden City broke the news about allegations against the Kenney administration of manipulating the historic preservation process. A former ex officio on the Historical Commission on behalf of the Commissioner of the Department of License and Inspection (L&I) publicly claimed that he was directed to vote against the designation of 12th Street Gym, among other building nominations, for what he alleged as real estate development and political reasons.
New York-based Midwood Investment & Development bought 210 S. 12th Street for $7.5 million in 2017 and plans to build a $200 million high-rise apartment tower on the site.
Name: Our Lady of Rosary Church
Address: 339 N. 63rd Street
Architect: Frank Rushmore Watson
The Story: This West Philadelphia landmark was demolished during the summer of 2021 following the Historical Commission’s decision to deny the building historic designation. Despite public outcry and opposition from longtime residents, the building’s owner, Boy’s Latin Middle School of Philadelphia, destroyed the 132-year-old church to construct a new gymnasium rather than adapting the existing building for reuse.
The Historical Commission denied designation of the building after Boys Latin argued against the nomination and told Commission members that it would remodel the church for a gym rather than demolish it.
Name: Spring Garden Station
Address: 9th and Spring Garden Streets
The Story: Reading Railroad’s old Spring Garden Station was demolished after decades of neglect and abandonment by its absentee owner, Reading International. Real estate firm Arts + Crafts and Scioli Turco, an anti-blight nonprofit, petitioned state courts earlier last year for conservatorship of the building through Pennsylvania’s Act 135 statute. Had the petition been granted it would have given the two parties the authority to make improvements and repairs to the building and relocate a homeless encampment there at Reading International’s expense. As the legal battle made its way through the courts Reading International rushed to secure a demolition permit from the City. Because there is no Demolition Review ordinance in Philadelphia, Reading International was able to legally proceed with destroying the historic structure.
Name: Late 19th Century Buildings in Rittenhouse Square
Addresses: 1706, 1708, and 1710 Walnut Street
Dates: 1870, 1873, 1870
Architects: Addison Hutton Savery, Furness & Hewitt, N/A
The Story: On May 30, 2020 riots broke out in Center City and West Philadelphia following peaceful protests in the days after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer. In Rittenhouse Square, windows were smashed, stores were looted, and a row of three 19th buildings on Walnut Street were set on fire. 1706, 1708, and 1710 Walnut Street were occupied by a McDonald’s restaurant, a Vans shoe store, Jacques Ferber furs (in business on Walnut Street since 1911), and a Doc Martens boot store. The three buildings were ransacked during the riots and the interiors were destroyed by arson.
In October 2020, officials at L&I recommended the buildings for demolition for safety reasons, which proceeded as planned in early 2021. Laser scans were made of the facades. The owners of the buildings are required to recreate the exteriors upon rebuilding using the scans and salvaged materials since all three structures are on the local register and listed as contributing to the Rittenhouse/Fitler Residential Historic District.
Name: Beth Israel Temple
Address: 3135-49 W. Montgomery Avenue
The Story: Beth Israel Temple, a striking Moorish Revival synagogue in Strawberry Mansion, was built at the turn of the century. The congregation was active here until the 1950s when it merged with the Neziner and Beth Zion congregations at 18th and Spruce Streets. The building was next used by Christian Love Baptist Church and then the Embracing Truth Ministries Worship Center. The synagogue was listed on the local register of historic places for legal protection in 1993. It was put on the market in 2016 for $475,000. A demolition permit was filed in November 2020 following a destructive roof collapse in 2019. Due to unsafe conditions, L&I requested the issuance of a demolition permit from the Historical Commission, which was granted, rather than require the landmarked building to be stabilized or repaired. Demolition work began in March 2021 with little notification to the public or historic preservation community.
Name: Richmond Theater
Address: 3037 Richmond Street
Architect: E. Wilson Allen
The Story: The Richmond Theater, Port Richmond’s first theater and also its last, was demolished earlier this year to make room for a large residential complex. The theater originally held over 1,000 seats, arranged in the typical sloped stadium-style seating. The theater was designed for silent films. Although it eventually transitioned into a “talkie,” the former theater still housed the original organ in the basement. The Richmond was one of many Port Richmond movie theaters including The Allegheny, The Iris, The Clearfield, The Belgrade, The Midway, and The Wishart.
After the theater closed in 1953 the building housed several commercial storage ventures before being purchased by Greg Gillespie in 2003. Gillespie, a retired city health inspector, operated a sprawling 200,000 volume bookstore in the former theater’s high ceiling auditorium. The shop was a beloved fixture in the neighborhood, enlivening the block by providing a spirited meeting place for neighbors, while also drawing in outside visitors. Gillespie sold the building to the Metropolitan Group after struggling to financially maintain the bookstore and building.
Richmond Street was once a lively commercial district, but has been gutted twice by I-95–first during its construction in the 1980s, which leveled several streets and cut off access to the Delaware River and again during the recent I-95 Revive project, which closed much of Richmond Street to local traffic, transforming the street into an active construction site and severely curtailing pedestrian traffic. Gillespie expressed the importance of the building and its history to the buyers, but, while still in negotiations, Metropolitan Group applied for demolition permits. In its place a 31-unit housing complex has been constructed.
Name: St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum
Address: 7101 Milnor Street
The Story: St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum in Tacony was founded in 1855 specifically for German Catholic children. The Colonial Revival dormitory seen here was built in 1901 and designed by George G. Dietrich. The 15-acre campus was home to 280 children by 1914 and included a school, a cemetery, an administration building, a chapel, and a grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes. The original main building was razed after a fire broke out in 1980. The orphanage closed for good in 2008. The City approved demolition permits for all existing structures on the campus in 2020. The site was cleared in 2021, and new construction for a charter school is in the works.
Name: Joseph T. Pearson House
Address: 5139 Wayne Avenue
Date: 1852 and 1882 (additions)
The Story: The Joseph T. Pearson House was one of the oldest structures on historic Wayne Avenue in Germantown before its demolition in the fall of 2021. The three-story masonry detached home was a classic antebellum structure, with Queen Ann Revival details on the second and third levels, including a dynamic, corbeled brick chimney.
The building was once the home of Impressionist painter and educator Joseph T. Pearson. The artist exhibited his contemplative paintings of natural and domestic life widely, as both a student and a longtime educator at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. Pearson’s life and career were demonstrative of the cultural and social conditions in Germantown at the time, which supported a large number of working artists, many of whom drew heavy artistic inspiration from the natural and architectural characteristics of the neighborhood.
Although the home was nominated to the local register by Oscar Beisert and The Keeping Society of Philadelphia and added to the local historic register, the home was ultimately demolished almost immediately after receiving its designation. The City of Philadelphia honors demolition and other permits that are submitted before notice of nomination has been sent to the owners. This is a common loophole that owners and developers use to bypass oversight by the Historical Commission.
What makes this demolition even more distressing is that, as reported by Extant magazine, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, “The permit in question appears to have merely been initiated online via the city’s eCLIPSE permitting system and not made complete until March of 2021, well after notice had been sent.”
Name: Levine Funeral Home
Address: 1512-16 North Broad Street
Architect: Edwin Leo Rothschild
The Story: This Art Deco gem sat vacant and open to the elements after a three-alarm fire broke out in 2018. Despite efforts by preservationist to save the building, which was listed for legal protection on the local register of historic places in 1985, L&I demolished the 88-year-old building in July 2021 after deeming it imminently dangerous.
The funeral home of Joseph Levine & Sons was built in 1933 and designed by Edwin Leo Rothschild, an architect who was involved in a number of buildings related to Philadelphia’s Jewish community during the early 20th century. His work includes the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity house at the University of Pennsylvania, the Talmud Torah Association at 508 Moore Street, and the Adath Jeshurum synagogue that was once at Broad and Diamond Streets. Joseph Levine & Sons operated the funeral home for over 40 years.
Bishop Ernest Tookes and the congregation of The Original Apostolic Faith Church of the Lord Jesus Christ purchased the building in 1980 and used it for worship and community gatherings. After the fire in 2018 Tookes told Temple News that he planned to restore the building rather than allow it to be demolished. The building’s interior was largely destroyed, but the facade and bones appeared to be structurally sound. However, the old funeral home remained in a state of neglect for over roughly two years until it was razed by L&I in the spring of 2021.
Name: Mustin Field Seaplane Hanger
Address: Kitty Hawk Avenue at the Philadelphia Navy Yard
Architect: Anton Tedesco
The Story: The Mustin Field Seaplane Hangar (aka Building 653) at the Philadelphia Navy Yard opened in 1943. It was designed by German structural engineer Anton Tedesko, who was a defining figure in reinforced concrete innovation and is considered to be the father of thin-shell concrete construction in America. Tedesko worked as a consultant for the Air Force from 1955 to 1970 and once collaborated with famed Modernist architect I.M. Pei.
The Henry C. Mustin Naval Aircraft Factory, which began production of seaplanes in 1918, ceased operations due to pressure from private manufacturers in 1945, just three years after the hangar opened. It was next used by the Navy as a aviation testing facility until 1963, then a gymnasium, and lastly as a commissary store until the Navy Yard officially closed in 1995. In 2009, director M. Night Shyamalan filmed the interior shots of his film The Last Airbender underneath the hangar’s concrete dome.
The 302-foot long building is listed as a contributing structure within the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard Historic District and was on the National Register of Historic Places before it was demolished by PhilaPort. It was the last remaining building of the old Mustin Field complex. The parcel is now part of a sprawling parking lot used for storing imported Hyundai and Kia vehicles coming in to the Port of Philadelphia.
Name: St. Leo the Great Roman Catholic Church
Address: 6658 Keystone Street
Architect: Frank R. Watson
The Story: St. Leo the Great Catholic Church was built at the end of the 19th century to serve a growing population of Irish immigrants in Northeast Philadelphia. Designed by Frankford resident Frank R. Watson, it was the first “standard” Catholic church in Tacony. At the time the area was largely a company town populated by employees of Disston Saw Works. For roughly 120 years congregants used the church and auxiliary buildings for community events and religious celebration. In 2013, the congregation merged with the nearby parish of Our Lady of Consolation. St. Leo was used thereafter for worship until the church officially closed in January 2019 and its sacred status removed by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
In 2014, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed parts of Tacony, including St. Leo, as a national historic district. In spring 2019, the Tacony Community Development Corporation and historian Celeste Morello submitted a nomination to the Historical Commission to place the church on the the local register.
At the same time, the Archdiocese had a pending agreement of sale with a congregation connected to the Seventh Day Adventists. A spokesperson for the Archdiocese stated that the agreement was put on hold due to the possibility of historic designation, which, they alleged, would place a financial hardship on the potential buyer to meet the legal preservation requirements should the nomination be approved. In the end the Historical Commission approved the church for inclusion on the local register of historic places.
Sadly, St. Leo was demolished last summer after a two-alarm fire broke out in the building on May 9, 2021 and gutted the Tacony landmark. Four neighborhood teenagers were arrested and charged with arson three months later.
Name: Mission Center of the American Baptist Churches
Address: 588 North Gulph Road, King of Prussia
Architect: Vincent Kling
The Story: In 2018, the American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) relocated from its national headquarters in King of Prussia after 56 years. The organization’s campus was made up of a 145,000-square-foot curvy building, nicknamed the “Holy Donut,” and a 126,000-square-foot crescent structure. Both were designed by Philadelphia architect Vincent Kling, who, working with midcentury city planner Edmund Bacon, designed a number of urban renewal projects in Center City including Dilworth Plaza, John F. Kennedy Plaza (LOVE Park), the Municipal Services Building, and Penn Center among other buildings.
The buildings on Gulph Road provided office space for roughly 700 employees in the 1960s. By 2017, only 150 workers occupied the campus, some of which were external tenants not affiliated with ABHMS. The organization sold the buildings and property to Provco Group in 2019 due to the mounting cost of ongoing repair and maintenance. The set of modernist buildings were demolished in the fall of 2021 to make way for a 68,000-square-foot Topgolf sports entertainment center.
Name:Keystone Dye Works
Address: 2400 E. Huntingdon Street
The Story: Before it was torn down, this property on the corner of Huntingdon Avenue and Cedar Street in Port Richmond had seen nearly 150 years of industrial activity. The site was typical of many smaller mills associated with the neighborhood’s textile industry that often saw companies and products come and go in quick succession. Here, production switched from dyeing to hand-loomed carpets to silk hosiery, while the physical plant grew incrementally and wood structures were replaced by brick.
In 1875, the location was home to the Keystone Dye Works, followed by Getty & Spratt Carpet in the 1880s, Elijah G. Chester Hosiery circa 1905, and Taubel Bros. Hosiery from 1912 to 1922. The historical record picks up again 1962 with The Lehigh Press, followed by the Diamond Printing and Label Co. in the mid-1960s through the 1970s and most recently Baranyai Woodworking in the 2010s.
Although nearly free of decoration, the assemblage of buildings possessed a good deal of visual interest thanks to the varying heights, masses, and rooflines of the buildings, along with the exclamation mark of a smokestack to punctuate its presence. A seven-story, 150-unit apartment building with a first floor grocery store is permitted for the parcel.
Name: T.M. Peirce Elementary School
Address: 2300 W. Cambria Street
The Story: T. M. Peirce Elementary School in Strawberry Mansion was closed in 2019 after teachers and parents raised concerns over asbestos contamination and lead paint. The four-story brick building was constructed in 1909 during a bustling period of public school construction and citywide expansion. A new 77,000-square-foot LEED Gold building designed by Blackney Hayes Architects will replace the old school. Construction of the building is projected to cost the School District of Philadelphia $30 million.
Name: The Views at Penn Treaty
Address: 1143-51 North Delaware Avenue
Architect: Abitare Design Studio
The Story: When it comes to failed real estate development projects, The Views at Penn Treaty is one of the biggest fiascos in recent memory. The 18 half-built luxury townhomes, constructed between Penn Treaty Park and the parking lot of Rivers Casino, were demolished in November 2021 after a number of setbacks cursed the project, including construction mismanagement, financial woes, and fire. Problems began when it was discovered that the complex would require a much more robust, and expensive, foundation given its proximity to the marshy banks of the Delaware River. As the project continued in fits and starts multiple contractors were fired and the project hemorrhaged money. The developer eventually filed for bankruptcy and the townhomes, half-finished and open to the elements, sat abandoned for over a year. In October 2021 the development was further damaged by a two-alarm fire. L&I razed the blighted buildings the following month.
Name: Lawsonia Building
Address: 1106-14 Spring Garden Street
The Story: Woodward-Wanger, a plumbing supplies company, built its new facility at 1106-14 Spring Garden Street in 1929 after a fire ravaged its original headquarters–a combination of five rowhouses–on the same parcel of land. The Colonial Revival factory was in operation until 1949 when the company had outgrown the building and moved to East Falls. Lawsonia Manufacturing Company, a maker of high-quality furniture, bought the building that same year and occupied it for the next 50 years. The building was vacated by the furniture maker in 2002.
A 2004 plan to convert the former factory into six residential units never came to fruition and the building sat empty for almost two decades. In 2013, another plan surfaced that included a three story addition, 40 apartments, 9,000 square feet of commercial space, and parking. Demolition of the rear of the building began in 2015, essentially rendering the structure a shell. The project was eventually abandoned after Chosen 300 Ministry next door filed an appeal with the Court of Common Pleas to overturn a zoning variance that had cleared the way for the mixed-use plan. The Christian outreach organization argued that the project would impede its ability to serve the homeless there. The Court ruled in favor of the charity and the variance was overturned.
In 2018, the Lawsonia Building was nominated by The Keeping Society of Philadelphia and approved for placement on the local historic register. In 2020, the Historical Commission voted to rescinded the designation after the property owner claimed that they were not properly notified of the nomination and did not have an opportunity to participate in deliberations when the case was publicly reviewed. In the interim, the property was reclassified as CMX-2.5 which allows for by-right mixed-use development. The building’s facade was demolished late last fall and a new mid-rise apartment complex, designed by Varenhorst Architects, with 79 units and commercial space on the ground floor is in the works.
Name: Southwark House aka United Communities
Address: 101-109 Ellsworth Street
The Story: Southwark House was a settlement house established by middle-class reformers during the Progressive era in the late 19th century. It served an influx of immigrants and low income neighbors by providing adult education classes, healthcare, and child care. Southwark House was absorbed by United Communities Southeast Philadelphia (UCSP) in 1969 through a merger of three historic settlement houses in South Philadelphia. UCSP continued to further the settlement mission of economic and educational advancement for individuals and families in Southeast Philadelphia. Along with Houston House at 8th Street and Snyder Avenue, Southwark House also provided daycare and onsite afterschool programs at five area schools.
In 2018, the collection of buildings were put on the market and sold for $1 million. Last summer Southwark House was demolished. Five large condominiums are currently planned for the parcel.
Name: 19th Century Rowhouse
Address: 650 South Street
The Story: On September 13, 2020 a fire consumed this corner building at 7th and South Streets. At the time it was home to Nourish Cafe, a vegan restaurant, and apartments upstairs. The building dates back to at least 1862 and is part of the patchwork of historic, architectural fabric that makes up South Street, one of Philly’s most traveled commercial corridors. Rather than repair the building, the owner had the building demolished and a new three story structure, with retail space on the ground floor and two residential units above, is being built in its place.
Name: Corner Buildings
Address: 4200-02 Lancaster Avenue
Date: Circa 1895
The Story: By the time it was razed last year, the first floor of this modest building on the southwest corner of 42nd and Lancaster had been disfigured to the point where it was pretty much impossible to determine what it once looked like. With a prime corner location on one of Philadelphia’s great diagonal avenues, the property probably boasted an ornate commercial storefront when it was built in the mid-1890s, but we were unable to unearth a single image showing its original appearance. The building first housed the West Philadelphia Germania Building and Loan Association from around 1895 to 1910. The second and third floors were home to McKelvey’s Hall, which hosted a variety of Irish organizations and union locals, starting around 1905 and lasting until about 1920. In the early 1920s the Famous Cafe occupied the spot. A variety of small businesses were located at the adjoining property, 4202 Lancaster, including a pharmacy, insurance company and a tailor shop. After the 1920s the trail went cold; perhaps the building was converted entirely to residential (there had been apartments upstairs) however on such a busy strip this seems unlikely. A four story, 15 unit building is permitted for the parcel.
Name: William Bryant Coal Co.
Address: 10th Street and Washington Avenue
Date: Circa 1905
The Story: Even a utilitarian brick structure that once housed a coal dealer and most recently was home to a mattress dealer can tell us plenty about Philadelphia history. The former William Bryant Coal building had stood on the northeast corner of 10th Street and Washington Avenue for more than a hundred years, and the property had been a coal yard as far back as the 1870s.
It was one of 30 coal yards between 25th Street and the Delaware River that were serviced by the Baltimore Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Trains ran along those tracks down the middle of Washington Avenue until the early 1980s. If you think traffic there is chaotic now, imagine what it must have been like then. A single railroad siding ran directly into the building, but Bryant’s main facility was on the southwest corner of 9th Street and Washington Avenue, where there was a two track siding.
Especially frigid temperatures in January, 1918 led to a severe coal shortage, which Ken Finkel details in an article for PhillyHistory.org. The situation grew so desperate that men, women, and children swarmed coal trains bound primarily for Bryant and tossed 150 tons—not a misprint—of coal out of the cars as police stood by and watched. In 1922, Bryant, described as perhaps the largest independent retail coal dealer in the city sold the company to J.W. Mathers & Son.
A five story, 24 unit apartment building is under construction at the site.
Name: Rowhouse in South Philadelphia
Address: 1513 Christian Street
Date: Late 1800s
The Story: This home at 1513 Christian Street was part of a perfectly intact row of townhouses that date back to the late 1800s. The area is historically known as Black Doctors’ Row, where African American professionals, including esteemed architect Julian Abele and singer Marian Anderson, lived in the early-to-mid 20th century. This stretch of Graduate Hospital has recently become a hotbed of real estate acquisition, rowhouse demolition, and quick-buck construction.
In June 2021, City Council approved a one-year demolition moratorium for Christian Street between Broad and 20th Streets. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and The South of South Neighbors Association submitted a nomination for Black Doctors’ Row to the Historical Commission in September 2021. The stretch of 154 properties along Christian Street between Broad and 20th Streets, the first historic district in Philadelphia devoted to the history of African Americans, was approved for designation by the Historical Commission in July 2022.
Hidden City staff members Celia Jailer and Peter Woodall contributed reporting to this article.