In its meeting on May 12, the Philadelphia Historical Commission reviewed several petitions for alterations to historically designated properties. It also offered comments on three very different buildings in Northwest Philadelphia that have been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.
Requests for alterations to historically registered buildings are first reviewed by the Historical Commission’s Architectural Committee before being sent to the full Commission with a recommendation for approval or denial. These are often routine matters, either carefully crafted to respect the character of the building or obviously not allowable under the designation.
One of the properties under review this month was a bit different. Located at 2100 Diamond Street in North Philadelphia, it is a half-acre vacant lot owned by the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Public Property and situated within the Diamond Street Historic District, which was designated in 1986. At that time, the parcel contained buildings that were listed as contributing in the district inventory, but later cited as “imminently dangerous” and demolished by the Department of Licenses & Inspections.
Proposals to amend the historic district boundaries to exclude the parcel were twice reviewed by the Historical Commission, which first declined to take action and subsequently denied the application. As a result, it still has jurisdiction over the review of building permit applications.
In 2020, the City applied to build a police station on the site. In the face of community opposition, it was denied by the Historical Commission, which found that the City had not included sufficient public input the proposed plans. This month, a revised application expanded the use of the proposed building to include a Police Athletic League Center, a community space, and outdoor recreation spaces for the public.
A lengthy public comment period followed, with area residents offering both favorable and opposing viewpoints. Commentators included City Council President Darrell Clarke who spoke in favor of the application, saying “If we did nothing, we’d be preserving two trash-strewn lots.” Following approval recommendations by the staff and the architectural committee, the Historical Commission concurred.
Later in the meeting, the Historical Commission’s comments were read regarding the nomination to the Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places for a 19th century Baptist church in Germantown, a Mount Airy Tudor mansion, and an iconic midcentury modern home in Chestnut Hill.
These nominations are overseen by the appropriate state agency, in this case, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). In the process, PHMC is required to solicit comments from the appropriate local government, which in turn must also provide a forum for public comment. The Philadelphia Historical Commission speaks on behalf of the City of Philadelphia in historic preservation matters including the review of National Register nominations, and within its meetings provides an opportunity for the public to weigh in.
Located at 40 E. Price Street, the First Baptist Church of Germantown is a temple-style Greek Revival building designed by architect Samuel Sloan in 1852 and currently owned by the Polite Temple Baptist Church. It was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The nomination cites the church’s significance under Criterion A in the Area of Social History and Ethnic History and Criterion C in the Area of Architecture. Under the former, it exemplifies Germantown’s cultural, political, economic, social, and historical heritage through two congregations who reflected the changing demographics and economics of Germantown in the late 19th through the early 20th centuries. Under Criterion C, the church is the work of Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan. The building is significant for its architecture, with the hallmarks of both the late Greek Revival period as well as the architectural and material innovation of Sloan’s practice, including one of the earliest surviving uses of architectural ornamental terracotta in the United States. As there have been few changes to the building, the church is still recognizable as the structure depicted in Sloan’s publication The Model Architect.
In West Mount Airy, Fairelawn at 30 Pelham Road is a 10,000 square foot stone, half-timbered Tudor Revival style residence and carriage house designed by architects George and William Hewitt and constructed between 1902 and 1903. The property was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2017.
The nomination claims significance under Criterion C in the Area of Architecture. The main house and its carriage house are examples of the Tudor Revival style. The property is representative of the suburban Pelham neighborhood by developers Wendell & Smith, with individual homes on large leafy lots with close proximity to Center City.
Moving deeper into Northwest Philadelphia and into more modern times, the third building is the Margaret Esherick House at 204 Sunrise Lane in Chestnut Hill. Completed in 1961, it is one of nine built houses by architect Louis Kahn. Margaret Esherick was the niece of Wharton Esherick, who was a close friend of Kahn’s, and for whom the architect designed a workshop in Esherick’s compound in Malvern.
The nomination names significance under Criterion C in the Area of Architecture. The house represents national architectural significance as an important residential example of the International Style. Although Kahn is widely recognized for his monumental and institutional works, the nomination contends his small number of residential designs are important as representations of his core architectural principles applied on a smaller scale. The house and a 2016 restoration have both received numerous awards. The property was listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2009.
In all three cases, both the public comments and the Historical Commission’s response were favorable towards designation to the National Register of Historic Places.
Very cool bunch of disparate issues/buildings adjudicated by the Commission. Thanks for letting us know.
Appreciate these reviews, as always.
Louis Kahn designed hideous buildings.