The Philadelphia Historical Commission approved the nominations of three properties to the local historic register at its monthly meeting on April 14. The proposed demolition of an industrial building to make way for new construction was also given the go-ahead.
The addition of the Alain LeRoy Locke House, a privately owned rowhouse at 2221 South 5th Street, bolsters the Historical Commission’s efforts to acknowledge more sites significant to the city’s Black history. The nomination satisfied Criterion for Designation A, having significant value as part of the heritage of the city and associated with the life of a person significant in the past.
Locke, the first African American Rhodes Scholar, earned degrees in philosophy from Harvard University, is considered the “Father of the Harlem Renaissance,” and championed LGBTQ+ African Americans who were part of the movement. The house in the Whitman neighborhood of South Philadelphia was his childhood home from 1892 until 1899.
The Wood Norton Residences is a three-story Tudor Revival apartment building at 370 West Johnson Street in Germantown. It is a prime example of the railroad-led economic development of the city’s northwest neighborhoods in the early 20th century. The Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation found it satisfied Criteria for Designation C and J, reflecting an era characterized by a distinctive architectural style and the social or historical heritage of the community, with a period of significance of 1911-12.
The nomination is part of a new historic preservation initiative by West Mount Airy Neighbors, which also authored the nomination for the Cresheim Valley Apartments at 7200 Cresheim Road, resulting in that site’s designation last month. Unlike that nomination, which was vigorously opposed by the owner’s representative, the owner of the Wood Norton Residences, Johnson Street Holdings LLC, notified the Historical Commission that it did not object to the designation.
Public comments were strongly in favor of listing it on the local register, with several pointing out the building’s importance in light of last year’s demolition of its twin at 6347-57 Wayne Avenue, which has been replaced by a six-story, 50-unit building.
The final nomination did not escape objection. Stonyhurst is a Queen Anne-style manor house located at 3401 Solly Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia. It is the work of architect George T. Pearson, who was active in Philadelphia in the late 19th century and designed many residences.
The attorney for the owners, the Missionary Servants of the Most Blessed Trinity, objected to the nomination, claiming it was a flawed application that should have been either rejected or returned to the nominator for amendment. Commissioners pointed out that the Committee on Historic Designation had recognized some flaws, but had agreed with the nomination that the property satisfied two of the proposed criteria, which is sufficient for designation. They cited Criteria for Designation C and E, reflecting an era characterized by a distinctive architectural style and being the work of a significant architect in Philadelphia history.
A representative of the owner then objected to the nomination, raising concerns about a potential financial burden that designation might bring. Historical Commission members responded that designation does not create any financial requirements, but rather affords a property the consultative aid of Commission staff and possible funding sources both public and private. They also pointed out that financial issues are not a part of the historic designation review, nor a reason for rejection of a nomination.
Two designation nominations were continued: one for the Julia Hebard Marsden Residence at 8835 Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill to the May Historical Commission meeting, and the other for the Thomas C. Potter House at 5920 Greene Street near Vernon Park to the May Committee on Historic Designation meeting.
The Historical Commission approved a request to demolish 500 North Christopher Columbus Boulevard, a non-contributing industrial building related to the designated Philadelphia Warehousing and Cold Storage Company. The developers plan to keep the former boiler house’s smokestack and include it in a new seven-story addition.
The Historic Commission also reclassified 256 North 32nd Street from a contributing to non-contributing parcel within the Powelton Village Historic District. The move was initiated by Historical Commission staff to correct an error in the original historic district nomination, which identified the building as an addition to a contributing building, when in fact, it had been constructed in 1997, outside the period of significance of the district, which ends in 1931.
In many Historical Commission meetings, a sizable amount of time is taken up with proposed alterations to buildings already on the Philadelphia Register. Often, these are routine matters, obviously permitted under the standards established by the Department of the Interior or not. Sometimes permission is requested after the work has been done.
Generally, each request is seen as an isolated situation. At April’s meeting, however, some public commenters expressed concern over a potential pattern. Four proposals centered around the choices of replacement windows or cladding on historic buildings. Two of the cases sought approval for materials not deemed appropriate by the Architectural Committee, one as a substitution over a previously-approved design and the other to legalize a replacement that had been done without being submitted for review. During the public comment, David Traub of Save Our Sites cautioned against approval, suggesting “it will lead to other developers seeking to change midstream.”
Sounding a bit frustrated, Historical Commission Chair Bob Thomas pointed out that Commission staff conducts educational sessions throughout the year, as does the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. He urged contractors to attend them to better understand the Department of the Interior standards that are required when working on historically designated properties.