At the September meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, an Italian American church was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, two new construction projects were approved in historic districts, and a comment period was held on behalf of nominations submitted to the National Register of Historic Places.
First Italian Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia at 1010 South 10th Street was nominated by the Bella Vista Neighbors Association. The 114-year-old brick church designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style is remarkably intact, although it was originally built with a large bell tower that was removed some time after 1954.
In the early 19th century, the Philadelphia Presbytery aggressively proselytized the mostly Catholic Italian immigrants of Philadelphia’s “Little Italy,” now called Bella Vista. The church, designed by firm Charles W. Bolton and Son, was constructed in 1908 with a capacity for 1,200 worshippers as well as classroom space for up to 500 children. Providing many services to the community, the church became a social and architectural anchor. Church services were held in both Italian and English. Dual services are held today, now in Indonesian and English to cater to the neighborhood’s newest wave of immigrants.
A church elder spoke during the meeting, stating his general support for the nomination. However, he noted that the congregation is small and poor and does a lot with their building to generate revenue. He asked that the Historical Commission to nominate only half of the building, the street-facing side, in order to allow for future renovations, perhaps to make a community theater that might ease the financial strain on the congregation. Small congregations maintaining large and architecturally complex churches is often an issue for the Historical Commission, and both staff and commissioners spoke to clarify financial hardship protocols. They emphasized that adding a building to the local register does not “freeze it in amber,” but allows the Historical Commission to help and guide necessary future renovations or changes. Much debate among the commissioners and the public ensued. Ultimately, the Historical Commission voted in favor of adding the entire church to the Philadelphia Register, with the exclusion of the small garage on Kimball Street.
The former Rothacker-Orth Brewery and Lager Beer Saloon building, best known today as London Grill, is a Federal-style building at 2301 Fairmount Avenue. It operated as a pub for over 100 years. The site is an important neighborhood landmark in the Fairmount-Art Museum neighborhood that has received robust public support for historic designation protections after the owners attempted to sell the site for potential demolition.
Patrick Grossi of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia authored the nomination. Grossi writes, “While the history of lager beer brewing in Philadelphia is often associated with large, imposing brick brewery buildings, especially those designed by brewery architects Otto C. Wolf or William Decker, 2301 Fairmount Avenue represents an important early stage in the development of the city’s lager brewing industry, for which Philadelphia was nationally known by the late 19th century. This relatively small building typifies the beginnings of the larger beer industry, when German brewers were only just starting to realize the commercial possibilities of this increasingly popular brew.”
Meredith Trego, the attorney representing the owners, and Nick Kraus of Heritage Consulting spoke in support of the nomination, but requested that the back wing of the building be excluded from the nomination. Much debate ensued over the boundaries of the original construction and the presence of historical material. Ultimately, the Historical Commission decided to delay voting on the nomination to give the owners more time to research the site more extensively for historical material and draw clearer boundaries for the eventual nomination. We can expect to see London Grill back before the full Commission in October or November.
Two construction projects under the Historical Commission’s jurisdiction were up for discussion. The first was a new building at 416-24 Vine Street in the Old City Historic District. The architect, Rich Villa of Ambit Architecture, responded to suggestions made by the Architectural Committee, which originally recommended denial, to modify the color of the facade to mimic stone, reduce the number of round, corner windows, and deepen the top cornice. The Historical Commission approved the building as revised.
The building proposed at 2204 Walnut Street, a property within the Rittenhouse/Fitler Residential Historic District, was under consideration for a second time. Architect Sergio Coscia presented changes made to the proposed building since the last meeting: massing the building to have a “shorter” impact and adding textural grid detailing to the party wall.
Commissioner Emily Cooperman began the comment period by stating that while she respects and appreciates the changes, “We are still stuck with a building that is too big.” The proposed 10-story building sits in the middle of a block containing only 3-to-5-story buildings. While there are taller buildings within the historic district, the planned height would dramatically change the unified skyline of the immediate surroundings. Cooperman also reminded the Historical Commission that “[it is] our duty to safeguard not just individual buildings, but the district as a whole.”
Several people spoke during the public comment period. Paul Steinke, representing the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, stated that the Alliance, “appreciates [the architects] receptiveness to our input, and thanks them for what they’ve tried to do. The Preservation Alliance is not opposed, although it is not ideal.”
Two residents of St. James Place, whose north side faces a small 18-foot alley abutting the proposed construction, voiced concerns about the height of the building, fearing a drastic loss of light into their homes.
Historic preservation activist Oscar Beisert, who stated that the height feels “inevitable,” spoke critically about the design of a striated panel on the set-back top floor of the proposed building.
After much deliberation, the project was approved pending changes to the striated paneling by a vote of 6 to 3.
The Historical Commission also offered a comment period for three National Register for Historic Places nominations. The National Register, authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, provides formal recognition of a property’s historical value, but provides no legal protection against demolition or alterations in Philadelphia. During the nomination process, a local body is invited to review and provide feedback on nominations in their neighborhood.
The first site up for discussion was the Blumenthal Brothers Chocolate Co. factory, a massive three-story building at 2201-21 Margaret Street in the Bridesburg. The factory produced iconic American candies like Sno Caps and Raisinets from 1911 until it closed in 1969. The facility was used to produce other confections, and finally auto parts, until it was put up for sale in 2016. Most of what is still standing on the property is a 1924 addition, but much of the historical material remains surprisingly intact. The Historical Commission stated its full support for the nomination.
Next up were the two Zion Baptist Church buildings on the northwest and northeast corners of North Broad and Venango Streets. From 1950 to 1988, the church was led by influential civil rights leader Reverend Leon H. Sullivan. The historic congregation was formed in 1882 by a former slave, the Reverend Horace Wayland. It moved around Philadelphia without a permanent house of worship until 1969, when the congregation moved into the two-story Gothic Revival-style church designed by Carl P. Berger in 1912. The church’s newest building and permanent home, a two-story Modernist brick-and-glass building built in 1973 at 3600 N. Broad Street, was designed by Walter R. Livingston, Jr., Philadelphia’s most prominent African American architect of the post-war period. Notably, another building associated with Reverent Sullivan, the Sultan Jihad Ahmad Community Foundation building, was added to the local register at July’s meeting. The Historical Commission noted its full support for the nomination.
Last up for comment was the former Penn Asylum for Indigent Widows and Single Women at 1401 E. Susquehanna Avenue. Founded in 1848 by four shipbuilder’s wives, the charity was led entirely by women for the support of other women. The brick, stucco, and marble vernacular building was first constructed in 1769 and altered in 1858 when the asylum moved in. While many alterations took place over the following 100 years, the building remains largely intact with a cohesive aesthetic. The Historical Commission gave its full support for the nomination.