Historical Commission Overturns Historic District Designation and OKs Demolition of a Legally Protected Landmark

July 20, 2023 | by Kimberly Haas

At its meeting on July 14, the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC) added four properties to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, rescinded the legal protections of a designated historic district, and took away protection from a home listed on both the National and Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Historic designation aims to preserve historic properties, but it has limitations. The PHC can approve demolition of a designated property for several reasons, including if it is found to be unsafe, has lost its historic aspects, or if its destruction is deemed to be “in the public interest.” At Friday’s meeting, the PHC accepted the latter premise for Lawnside and granted its owner, the Thomas Scattergood Foundation, permission to demolish it and let the Department of Public Health build a new health center in its place. Lawnside, also called the Superintendent’s House, is located at 4641 East Roosevelt Boulevard on the grounds of Friends Hospital. It was deemed a National Historic Landmark in 1999.

The PHC originally considered the application at its September 2020 meeting and continued the matter to allow time for additional analyses, but the application was subsequently abandoned. The Department of Public Health and the Scattergood Foundation conducted additional studies over the next two years and again concluded that the demolition of Lawnside was necessary to construct the health center.

Lawnside at 4641 East Roosevelt Boulevard is part of Friends Hospital, which is listed on both the National and Philadelphia Registers of Historic Places. | Photos: Michael Bixler

Friends Hospital, founded by Quakers in 1813 as The Asylum for the Relief of Persons Deprived of the Use of Their Reason, was the first private psychiatric hospital in the United States. Lawnside, built to be the superintendent’s residence in 1859, is a two and one-half story, three-bay, double-pile coursed fieldstone home. It was erected near the entrance of the hospital grounds. Although the Friends Hospital placement on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1975 did not include a designation of contributing properties, the designation of Friends Hospital as a National Historic Landmark in 1999 included specific buildings. Lawnside was among them. The nomination also noted the importance of the viewshed of the large property, which “was considered essential for the privacy of the patients, as well as for the calming familiarity of its natural setting,” according to the nomination.

The Department of Public Health has proposed a new health center, designed by architecture firm VSBA, at the entrance of Friends Hospital. | Rendering: VSBA

Population growth in lower Northeast Philadelphia, particularly with immigrant groups, has led to an overburdening of Health Center 10 on Cottman Avenue. Residents experience months-long waits to be assigned a primary care doctor, which is necessary before receiving other forms of treatment.The PHC acknowledged the need for the health center and repeatedly asked about and offered suggestions for alternatives to demolition. Department of Public Health officials and Scattergood Foundation representatives stated they had considered 44 locations, including some located elsewhere on Friends Hospital’s 99-acre campus and claimed that no other site was useable according to their criteria.

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia (PAGP) filed a Right to Know request with the City of Philadelphia to obtain the Department of Public Health’s analysis of the 44 potential sites and seven finalist sites it said it evaluated for the project. The City responded that it would be able to fulfill the request no earlier than August 5, whereupon the PAGP requested the PHC grant a continuance of the matter, stating that “as the principal steward of Philadelphia’s historic resources, the Commission has a right to know whether another site for this use would be satisfactory–a site that would not jeopardize the bucolic setting that Friends Hospital has occupied since its founding in 1813.” Paul Steinke, executive director of PAGP presented this request in the public comment period of the meeting, but it did not receive a response from the commissioners.

After presentations, discussions, and commentary that together clocked in at two hours and 20 minutes, the PHC approved the demolition of Lawnside, pending approval of plans for the health center. The vote of 7-4 with one abstention hewed mostly along representational lines: City staff in favor and all but one appointed commissioner opposed. 

Solomon Burke’s childhood home at 3836 Mount Vernon Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The PHC went on to add four properties to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

In the Mantua neighborhood of West Philadelphia, the rowhouse at 3836 Mount Vernon Street was designated based on its history as the childhood home of soul music legend Solomon Burke. He was born in 1940 in the house, which also served as his grandmother’s church, where she and Burke’s mother preached. He eventually joined them, becoming known as “The Wonder Boy Preacher” before launching his music career in the 1950s, melding his roots in gospel and blues into R&B to form the nascent sound of soul music.

The International Peace Mission movement’s Circle Mission Church, home, and training school at 764-72 South Broad Street. | Photos: Michael Bixler

Another site of significance to Philadelphia’s Black history is the Circle Mission Church, home, and training school at 764-72 South Broad Street. Built by real estate developer Charles B. Prettyman, who, despite not having known associations with architects, nevertheless employed a striking mix of architectural styles in his projects. The two buildings were purchased by a group of followers of Father Divine and his International Peace Mission movement, which had significant impact on Philadelphia, and particularly its Black population, in its advocacy for equality and civil rights. The PHC approved the designation owing to the site’s association with Father Divine and also acknowledging its contribution to an era characterized by a distinctive architectural style.

Calvary St. Augustine Episcopal Church at 814-22 North 41st Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The PHC added another church with a Black history connection to the local register. Calvary St. Augustine Episcopal Church at 814-22 North 41st Street in West Philadelphia was associated with Reverend Canon Thomas Wilson Stearly Logan, Sr. who was the first African American clergyman to serve as rector to a white congregation. He was also a civil rights pioneer and a community advocate. The church was built in 1851 and designed by architect John M. Gries.

Inglewood Cottage at 150 Bethlehem Pike. | Photo courtesy of Massimo Cristofanilli

The fourth designation was to Inglewood Cottage at 150 Bethlehem Pike in Chestnut Hill. Built in 1850 by noted Philadelphia architect Thomas Ustick Walter, the house is an example of Gothic Revival architecture and is also emblematic of the development of Chestnut Hill upon the expansion of the Reading Railroad. It was built for engraver and publisher Cephas G. Childs, who lived there until his death in 1871.

The PHC also approved the modification of the trolley entrances at 19th and Market Streets. Along with numerous other entrances, they were designated as contributing to the Cast Iron Subway Entrances Historic District in 2018, 53 in total. The owner, SEPTA, proposed to construct a roof over the entryways and requested approval that would also allow future modifications to be replicated at other entrances, with Historical Commission staff review rather than going before the entire PHC.

The Saw Handle Department and Manufactory of Disston Saw Works at 5201 Unruh Avenue in Tacony was built between 1883-84. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Just as the meeting began with a contentious item, it also ended with one. After the PHC designated the Disston-Tacony Industrial Waterfront Historic District in 2021, several owners of buildings in the 41-acre complex along the Delaware River at Unruh Avenue and New State Road appealed the decision. A court order remanded the nomination back to the PHC. This prompted the Historic Commission staff to visit the site and evaluate the proposed contributing properties, many of which are not in good condition, some are vacant, and many have been modified. Subsequently, the staff offered recommendations to tailor the designation only to certain properties on the site that still retain some historic characteristics.

The site is an active industrial zone of machine shops, vehicle repairs shops, vehicle parts recycling businesses, and other manufacturing operations. Although much of it is inaccessible to the public, parts are viewable from the river and a portion of the East Coast Greenway recreational trail is being constructed between the site and the river.

The nominator, the Tacony Community Development Corporation, and public commentators spoke in favor of the nomination, citing it as an important facet of the history of the neighborhood. On the opposing side, some of the owners and their attorneys spoke to the poor condition of their buildings and the inaccessibility to the public. The PHC voted to overturn the nomination.

The PHC adjourned at 3:55 PM, a few minutes shy of seven hours of deliberations.


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.

One Comment:

  1. E N Beaumont says:

    So it seems historical designation means very little in Philadelphia

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