Preservation

Two African American Landmarks, Wharton Hall, and Others Added to the Philadelphia Register

June 20, 2023 | by Kimberly Haas

The DeLores Tucker House at 6700 Lincoln Drive. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Philadelphia Historical Commission added six properties to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places during its June meeting. Two of the designations acknowledged the important contributions of African American women: the C. DeLores Tucker House and the former home of Ethel Hedgemon Lyle.

DeLores Tucker, a lifelong Philadelphian, civil rights activist, and the first Black female Secretary of State, lived at at 6700 Lincoln Drive from 1959 until her death in 2005. Tucker marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 and was a founder of both the National Congress of Black Women, Inc. and African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom. After her political career, Tucker devoted herself to condemning certain gangsta rap and hip hop music for misogynist and violent lyrics. As a result, she was criticized in the recordings of several musicians.

The Ethel Hedgemon Lyle House at 415 N. 53rd Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Ethel Hedgemon Lyle founded Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority along with a handful of classmates at Howard University in 1908. She had a long career as an English teacher in Philadelphia, where she was also civically engaged, helping to found the West Philadelphia League of Women Voters. She lived in the two-story rowhouse at 415 N. 53rd Street from 1924 to 1950.

Wharton Hall at 1268 S. 26th Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Historical Commission designated Wharton Hall, a three-story brick commercial building at 1268 S. 26th Street. Constructed between 1892 and 1894, Wharton Hall’s various historic uses as a commercial space, banquet hall, political venue, and a school exemplifies the cultural, economic, social, and historic heritage of the neighborhood.

A second attempt at designation was presented for Emmanuel Christian Church, formerly known as the Hickman Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church and originally built for St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church. At the northwest corner of Baltimore Avenue and South 50th Street, the church and its chapel addition have been a prominent landmark in Cedar Park since the turn of the last century.

Emmanuel Christian Church at 5001 Baltimore Avenue. | Photos: Michael Bixler

The University City Historical Society (UCHS) authored the original nomination. After being met with objections by Hickman Temple AME Church, the building’s former owners, UCHS withdrew its nomination in January 2022. Emmanuel Christian Center, which purchased the property in June 2022, was amenable to designation, and UCHS resubmitted an updated nomination.

The church building has suffered deferred maintenance for many years, with the most visible sign being a tall steel brace shoring up the east facade, in response to an unsafe structure citation by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. More recently, the church was in the news when two large stained glass rose windows were identified as Tiffany glass and fetched a six-figure price at auction after being sold as salvage by the congregation.

The Historical Commission agreed that Emmanuel Christian Church satisfied Criteria D, E, H, and J. Under Criterion D, the church features characteristics of Late Gothic Revival architecture. It satisfied Criterion E as the work of prolific Philadelphia church architect Isaac Pursell. As a familiar and longstanding feature of Cedar Park, it also qualifies under Criteria H and J.

The Thomas C. Potter House at 5920 Greene Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Thomas C. Potter House at 5920 Greene Street in Germantown is a large Colonial Revival home constructed in 1892. It reflects the suburban, upper class residential architecture of Germantown, characterized by the Colonial Revival style. The house was designed by Mantle Fielding, Jr., an architect who significantly influenced the architectural development of Northwest Philadelphia.

William Howell Row at 2008-10 Chestnut Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

A pair of buildings at 2008 and 2010 Chestnut Street, referred to as William Howell Row, was constructed in 1869. The twins embody an era characterized by marble-fronted dwellings. Additional features are emblematic of the Second Empire style popular in the decade after the Civil War, including decorative window and door surrounds, mansards with dormers, and broad, bracketed cornices. The two buildings are examples of the development of vacant or formerly industrial land south of Market Street and west of Broad Street into upper middle class and upper class neighborhoods in the mid-19th century.

While those six buildings were nominated amid enthusiastic endorsements, three more actions followed, each with its own controversies.

The Roberts Le Boutillier House at 500 E. Washington Lane. | Photo: Michael Bixler

A seventh nomination, for the Roberts Le Boutillier House at 500 E. Washington Lane, was vehemently opposed by its owner. A divided vote by Historical Commission members resulted in declining to designate the Gothic Revival home built in 1876.

The Historical Commission did not, however, acquiesce to the next negative petition. The Green Hill Market House at 1632 Poplar Street, built in 1860, was added to the local register in 2018. As a rare, remaining market house, it was deemed historic by having significant character as part of the development and heritage of the city, reflecting the environment in an era characterized by a distinctive architectural style of which it embodied distinguishing characteristics, and exemplifying the economic and social heritage of the community. The current owner, Church of the Living God, requested a revocation of the designation, claiming it had not been informed of the nomination and, wishing to sell the property, feared the designation would interfere with their ability to do so.

The former Green Hill Market House, currently occupied by Church of the Living God, at 1632 Poplar Street. | Photo: Google Street View

Historical Commission members and staff explained that the only criteria by which they can rescind a designation is if it is demonstrated that the asset has lost its historic characteristics, or never qualified, or if it is proven that the nomination notice was never received. Since notices had been delivered to the owner’s address on record with the City, the Historical Commission voted to deny the petition to rescind.

The Purifying Houses, aka “Church Row,” at Point Breeze Gas Works were built between 1853 and 1859. | Photos: Philadelphia City Archives and Pictometry via Keeping Society of Philadelphia

The final item in this meeting was consideration of the nomination for 3101 W. Passyunk Avenue. Point Breeze Gas Works is owned by the Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW), which in turn is owned by the City and is currently used for storage. The Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation had voted to recommend designation at its March 2021 meeting. Having been reviewed by the full Historical Commission last month, a request for continuance brought it to a final discussion during June’s meeting.

A letter from Mayor Jim Kenney expressing safety concerns at the site should the property be designated led to a compromise nomination that would preserve two-thirds of an acre or about 1.2 percent of the site. A letter from the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) program noted that, dating to the 1850s, the site is significant in the nation’s technological history as one of its oldest gas works. “Philadelphia was one of the first U.S. cities to experiment with illuminating gas,” HABS wrote, which led to start of the gaslight era.

Survey drawing of Philadelphia Gas Works’ Point Breeze Meter House, built between 1851 and 1868. | Image courtesy of Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress

The buildings cited in the nomination are referred to as Church Row, owing to their resemblance to rural English churches, despite their industrial use, an intentional design to allay fears about a new technology.

The nominator, Oscar Beisert of The Keeping Society of Philadelphia, requested permission to withdraw the nomination, citing the City’s concerns about safety and security. “But we think the City could find a way to preserve these historic buildings,” he noted. Historical Commission members expressed doubts that historic designation would lead to illicit visits. Discussion turned to possible documentation of the buildings for the sake of a historic record. The utility’s attorney responded, “If the nomination were removed, my client would be amenable to this.” It was noted that the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) had documented one of the buildings, the Meter House, which was subsequently demolished by PGW. A divided vote by Historical Commission members approved the request for withdrawal of the nomination.



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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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