The February meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, clocking in at five hours, was filled with continuances, postponements, and interjections by the City’s Law Department. Despite the packed agenda, the iconic Boot & Saddle neon sign was added to the local register, a little Mission Revival-style Gulf Oil gas station was approved for relocation to Fairmount Park, and several debatable development projects were approved.
The Historical Commission rarely designates objects as historic, but the iconic Boot & Saddle sign on South Broad Street was unanimously added to the Philadelphia Register. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia submitted an in-depth nomination for the South Philly landmark. The imposing and playful sign was designed in the popular Neon Spectacular or Extravaganza style when Philadelphia still had a large collection of neon signage. According to the nomination, ”Despite its European origins, neon came to symbolize American progress and inventiveness as well as American energy. Neon Spectaculars were electric mosaics, information grids, and street theater, simultaneously advertising and entertaining passersby.”
The sign was created in the 1950s by a South Philadelphia-based company that became Colonial Signs, commanding attention for a new country music bar opened by Del Borrello. The original Boot & Saddle bar was a popular hang out for Philadelphia Navy Yard workers, and the interior was decorated with Navy Yard memorabilia. The bar and its attendant neon were fixtures of neighborhood nightlife until the Navy Yard closed in the 1990s, and its customer base dwindled. Eventually the bar closed and sat vacant for 13 years. In 2013, the Boot & Saddle reopened as a music venue. In 2015, Len Davidson of the recently closed Neon Museum of Philadelphia led a restoration of the sign. After closing due to financial strains caused by the pandemic, the space was sold last November and is once again active under the new ownership of jazz and contemporary music presenter Ars Nova Workshop.
The petite Gulf Oil station at 20th and Arch Streets will be moved to Fairmount Park near the Sedgley Porter House. The Mission Revival-style gas station has occupied the corner of the busy intersection for over 90 years. When the station was built in 1930 it was one of the first drive-in service stations in Philadelphia and was placed in the middle of a dense residential neighborhood. By the 1960s the neighborhood had been aggressively redeveloped by way of urban renewal as Center City expanded. The station eventually closed and was designated historic in 1981.
By the 1980s, developers began coveting the parcel the station sits on. According to the Historical Commission staff’s report, “The building was unsuccessfully offered to Gulf, the Smithsonian Institute, the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, SEPTA, and the Fairmount Park Commission.” While those efforts to clear the lot, and several others, failed to materialize, it now appears the site will finally be developed. The original plan was to relocate the former station to the entrance to Aviator Park at 20th and Race Streets near Logan Circle. The plan, established in 2021, was recently changed over objections and concerns by The Franklin Institute, Moore College of Art & Design, and The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel, alleging that moving the station to the park would encourage homeless camping and vandalism. It is now headed to an obscure corner of Fairmount Park and will be stewarded by the Department of Parks and Recreation.
In a repeat appearance, the Historical Commission finally gave its “in concept” approval to plans for a large new development within the Chestnut Street East Commercial Historic District. The proposal for 702-704 Chestnut Street has come before the Historical Commission several times without garnering final approval.
Much of the debate preceding the 9-to-1 vote concerned the proposed demolition of the extant portion of the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph building at 704 Chestnut Street and the potential reproduction of the facade of the building.
The five-story original Telegraph building was built in 1851 and went through several extensive renovations in the 1890s, resulting in its current three-story height. The newspaper operated out of the building until 1918. It most recently it was home to the beloved dive bar Las Vegas Lounge.
Dan Macoubry, chair of the Architectural Committee and Historical Commission member, spoke in favor, saying “It’s a demolition and as such it doesn’t meet the standard of the Secretary of the Interior. But since the condition is poor and only two floors [of historic material] exist,” he supported its demolition.
Commissioner Emily Cooperman responded, “I am a skeptic as to why a demolition would be in the public interest. It is clearly in the developers interest.”
Although the demolition at 704 Chestnut Street has been a sticking point for the project, so has the general size and feel of the proposed development. Herb Shultz, representing the developer, described the newest round of changes, including eliminating the 13th floor, increasing some setbacks up to 30 feet, simplifying the facade, removing the bay windows, and redesigning the windows.
In another 9-1 vote, the proposed redevelopment of St. Andrew’s Byzantine Ukrainian Catholic Church at 425-429 Pine Street in Society Hill was approved. The church project, which includes the renovation of the church into a single family home and the partial demolition of the rear rectory in order to build an apartment complex in the rear of the lot, was first reviewed by the Historical Commission last month. It was kicked back to the Architectural Committee after Historical Commission members and the public debated the facade material of the proposed apartment building and the fate of both the stained glass and louvered windows of the existing church.
Several members of the public spoke in opposition to the project, mostly expressing their desire for new development to take into account the character of the neighborhood. One person described the project as “clumsy.” Despite objections, the Historical Commission approved the project “in concept” with the elimination of both the louvered and stained glass windows.