Heated Debates Devour Five-Hour Historical Commission Meeting

March 16, 2023 | by Kimberly Haas

During the five-hour long meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission on March 10, members approved one new addition to the local register, the Tudor Revival-style Cresheim Valley Apartments in Mount Airy. It also offered advice on the value of historic districts and what exactly a historic designation means and does not mean, suffered the slings and arrows of an angry public, and groped around for middle ground with a combative attorney representing the owners of a former estate in Overbrook Farms.

Cresheim Valley Apartments at 7200-04 Cresheim Road were built in 1914 and designed by Henry DeHoff. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The West Mount Airy Neighbors nominated Cresheim Valley Apartments, a 24-unit complex at 7200-04 Cresheim Road, to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Built by architect Henry DeHoff in 1914, and adjacent to the Richard Allen station of the Chestnut Hill West Regional Rail line, the Tudor Revival complex is a prime example of the railroad-led expansion into Northwest Philadelphia. The nomination describes the style as “typical of early 20th century residential and commercial development, romanticizing the ‘old world’ designs of the English village into early American suburbs.”

Phil Pulley, identifying himself as director of operations for the property, objected to the nomination, saying their mortgage lender does not permit any encumbrances, so the designation would cause them to be in default. He went on to say he’d spoken with the lender and was told he would be required to hire a historical consultant and incur other expenses that he would have to then pass on to tenants. “It could result in $1,000 a month increases,” he claimed.

A postcard from 1914 featuring Cresheim Valley Apartments. | Image courtesy of West Mount Airy Neighbors

Leonard Reuter of the City’s Law Department replied that he had never heard of historic designation being considered an encumbrance, which is when someone has an interest in a property, like a lien. He said he had reviewed the property’s mortgage and considered it “standard boiler plate” without any unusual stipulations.

Historical Commission director Farnham likened the designation to zoning, which the City amends from time to time. “If your zoning changed, it wouldn’t cause your mortgage to be in default.”

The Historical Commission approved the nomination, stating it satisfied two criteria for designation: that it reflects the environment in an era characterized by the Tudor Revival style as applied to low-rise apartment buildings, and it exemplifies the railroad-led economic and historic transformation of Northwest Philadelphia in the early decades of the 20th century into a residential suburb within the city.

Temple Beth Israel, a Moorish Revival synagogue in Strawberry Mansion, was built in 1907 and designed by Sauer & Hahn. It was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1993. | Photo: Michael Buozis

A construction proposal for the former site of Temple Beth Israel in Strawberry Mansion that was sent to the Historical Commission by the Architectural Committee as a consent agenda item from its February meeting was moved to the regular meeting agenda when it became apparent there were several members of the public wishing to comment on it. The consent agenda is a tool that aims to streamline meeting proceedings by merging routine, non-controversial items into a group to be passed with a single motion and vote.

The property in question is a vacant lot at 3135-49 West Montgomery Avenue, which found itself on the agenda of the Historical Commission because it still appears on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. That designation had been given in 1993 to the Moorish Revival synagogue built by the firm Sauer & Hahn in 1907. It stood on the property until 2021, after a roof collapse in the prior year led the Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) to petition the Historical Commission for a demolition permit, which was granted, rather than require the landmarked building to be stabilized or repaired.

The parcel was subsequently sold to a new developer in 2022, who began planning a block of 14 townhouses on it. The owner has not requested a rescission of the historic designation despite recommendation by the Historical Commission staff, which held the opinion that there is no basis for it to review the proposal since no historic features remain on the property.

3135-49 West Montgomery Avenue was razed by the Department of Licenses and Inspections in March 2021 despite being listed for legal protection on the local register. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The public comment period brought a flood of frustrated community members castigating the Historical Commission for what they saw as negligence. “It was a rare architectural structure, never to return again anywhere in the world,” mourned Bonita Cummings of Strawberry Mansion Community Concern. “It’s a reasonable expectation of the community to be protected by the Historical Commission.”

“You have to help us to keep the city, the city we love,” agreed longtime Strawberry Mansion resident Calvin Williams. “You would never let this happen in Chestnut Hill or Society Hill. Someone needs to be held accountable.”

It appears that the City is attempting some retroactive accountability as it tries to recoup the demolition costs. According to the Office of Property Assessment website, as of February 2022, there were outstanding invoices from L&I to the property owner totaling $286,812 for demolition, sealing of an abandoned lateral, and other work, plus interest. When contacted for an update on any recent payments, an L&I spokesperson declined comment, citing “ongoing litigation.”

A rendering of the 14-unit proposal at 32nd Street and Montgomery Avenue. | Rendering: CANNO Design

A discussion followed on the value of historic districts. “Use this as an impetus to reach out to the [Historical Commission] staff,” said Commission Chair Bob Thomas to the Strawberry Mansion residents. “Work with your community to consider creating a historic district to protect what you care about, along with other benefits.”

Agreeing with the staff recommendation, the full Historical Commission approved the new construction proposal in a divided roll call vote.

Another contentious exchange came from a proposal to amend a designation. In April 2020, the Overbrook Farms Club and the Keeping Society of Philadelphia nominated the property at 5848 City Avenue for historic designation. Designed in 1871 by architect Addison Hutton, “The Chestnuts” was the estate of David Scull, Jr. and has been owned and occupied by the Sisters of Visitation of Philadelphia since 1940. The designation, which included the main mansion house, auxiliary buildings, and gardens in the 11.6 acre property, was approved in November 2020. Though the nominators cited a significant period of 1865 to 1940, the Historical Commission, in its review of the application, extended the period to 1965 and included other buildings as contributing.

The main block of the mansion at 5848 City Avenue. | Photo courtesy of The Keeping Society of Philadelphia

In January 2023, attorney Matt McClure of Ballard Spahr LLP, representing the owners, applied to the Committee on Historic Designation to amend the designation, reducing the size of the designated parcel and number of contributing buildings and returning the period of significance to that of the nominators’ original proposal, claiming errors in the nomination. At that meeting, the Designation Committee voted to recommend the Historical Commission reject the application to amend the designation.

It was revealed that St. Joseph’s University intends to purchase the portion of the parcel that the applicant was attempting to have removed from the historic designation. At last week’s meeting, when Commissioner Emily Cooperman expressed concern about the removal of a winding driveway leading from City Avenue to the manor house from the designation, in her opinion damaging the historic viewscape of the property, McClure explained, “For the university to make use of this property, to develop it, they’d likely mass a building closer to City Avenue. If they can’t, they likely won’t buy.”

Historical Commission staff, after initially recommending a rejection of the proposal to amend, issued a report in support of it. In explaining the odd sequence of staff events, Jon Farnham, executive director of the Historical Commission, said, “The report was done after the nomination was reviewed was a scheduling problem. We were not keeping it from the Committee on Historic Designation.”

In both meetings, a dizzying array of accusations were flung by the applicant, the original nominators, and members of the public regarding the accuracy of the original nomination and the motives of the applicant requesting the amendment.

The gardener’s cottage and carriage house and stable at 5848 City Avenue. | Photos courtesy of The Keeping Society of Philadelphia

A compromise was tentatively reached to approve the proposed smaller boundaries, but with the inclusion of a requirement that any development on an adjacent area that includes the driveway would require the Historical Commission’s approval.

Despite this détente, the lengthy, antagonistic exchange raised concerns among many of those present. “It’s a test case for developers to engineer a workaround by trying to cast a designation as incorrect,” declared Conor Corcoran, legal counsel for Hidden City Philadelphia and a member of the Overbrook Farms Club, a Registered Community Organization for the area.

“It’s a troubling precedent on how the Historical Commission conducts its business,” said Mary McGettigan, representing the RCO West Philly Plan + Preserve.

Continuances were granted with little comment to nominations for Piers 38 and 40 at 775 South Christopher Columbus Boulevard to the July 2023 meeting and the Julia Hebard Marsden House, part of the Chestnut Hill Hospital campus at 8835 Germantown Avenue, to April 2023.


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.

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