The Philadelphia Historical Commission designated six new buildings to the local register of historic places at its meeting on October 13. The proceedings were bookended by two items involving the demolition of previously protected buildings.
The meeting opened with the Historical Commission weighing in on the architectural and landscaping features of a new 50,000-square-foot health center proposal. Its involvement was owing to the Historical Commission’s recent decision to permit the demolition of Lawnside, a house built in 1813, which is listed on the Philadelphia Register, located on the campus of Friends Hospital, a National Historic Landmark, at 4641 E. Roosevelt Boulevard.
The discussion focused on the size and appearance of the building to be constructed, the planned loss of one of the original stone pillars marking the hospital entrance from Langdon Street, the restoration of the allée of trees along the entrance drive, and the view from Roosevelt Boulevard. In addition to objecting to the loss of the historic building, public comment focused on the size of the proposed building, its location at a dangerous intersection, and the lack of community participation in the decision making. A roll call vote gave final approval to the applicant’s plans.
The first designation nomination was for the Hollinger Building at 1611 Walnut Street. Built in 1923, its Neoclassical facade was typical for the financial industry at that time, which satisfies Criterion for Designation C, reflecting the environment in an era characterized by a distinctive architectural style. It meets Criterion E as a representative commercial building designed by Charles E. Oelschlager, an influential architect in late 19th and early 20th century Philadelphia. Under Criterion J the building is representative of and related to the cultural, economic, and social heritage of Walnut Street’s redevelopment and transition from residential to commercial which occurred between 1900 and 1930.
The designation of five residential properties followed. The Dr. Oscar James Cooper House at 1621 Jefferson Street is a semi-detached rowhouse built in 1890. It was the home and medical office of Dr. Cooper from 1930 until 1972, who served many in the predominantly Black neighborhood, exemplifying the social or historical heritage of the community. As founder of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and charter member of the Pyramid Club, Dr. Cooper was a person significant in the past, satisfying Criterion A.
The building at 307 S. Chadwick Street in Center City was constructed as a stable circa 1895 and altered by modernist architect Frank Weise in 1966 into his studio and residence. The Historical Commission found that it satisfies Criterion C and D as an early example of Postmodernism in Philadelphia. Weise significantly influenced the historical and cultural development of Philadelphia through his work as an architect, planner, and community organizer in the second half of the 20th century.
Two adjacent properties at 4837 and 4839 Germantown Avenue were were built in 1870 and 1871 and designed in the Second Empire style. They were constructed as one building at the same time as 4841 Germantown Avenue, which was designated last year.
The final nomination met with some contention. Two currently separate parcels, 150 and 160 W. Washington Lane in Germantown were nominated based on their history as home of Charles Jenkins, a prominent Quaker businessman and owner of The Farm Journal, and his wife, Maria Cope Jenkins. Cranford, the property at 150 W. Washington Lane, is a Colonial Revival brick house constructed in 1893 and expanded in 1909, while the property at 160 West Washington Lane is currently an undeveloped parcel surrounded by a stone retaining wall, which the nomination maintained had been the garden for the adjacent home.
Discussion centered around the status of the empty parcel. Some objected to its designation, citing a current lack of garden evidence and historical map references showing likely ownership by adjacent properties over time. Others, including the nomination, maintained there was sufficient evidence that it had been a garden, with the familial relationships among the adjoining properties suggesting a sharing of the green space. Some also argued that its historical significance would not be questioned if it hadn’t been subdivided from the property at 150 Washington Lane 11 years ago.
The Historical Commission designated the property at 150 West Washington Lane under Criterion A, owing to its association with Charles Jenkins, who impacted the cultural and social development of the Germantown community and larger Philadelphia area. Under Criterion D, the building was found to represent a distinctive example of the Colonial Revival style. The nomination of 160 West Washington Lane was declined.
The final item on the agenda addressed the proposed demolition of 208-12 Vine Street–three interconnected buildings that had been added to the Philadelphia Register at some time prior to 1985 and were named as contributing assets to the Old City Historic District in 2003. The complex had been the home of the John Stortz and Son store, with the buildings at 208 and 212 Vine Street dating to 1780 and 210 Vine Street constructed in around 1870. The current owner, John Charles Stortz, explained that the Stortz company, founded in 1853 by his great-grandfather, manufactured tools for masonry work, cooperages, ice businesses, sheet metal work, and other fields. Today the company serves mainly as an importer of tools, mostly from Europe, which it sells on a website, although Stortz continues to produce some tools on site.
Philadelphia’s historic preservation ordinance bars the Historical Commission from approving the demolition of historic buildings listed on the local register unless it determines that either the demolition is necessary in the public interest or the building “cannot be used for any purpose for which it is or may be reasonably adapted.”
The proposal states that the buildings are in poor condition and ill-suited to the company’s current work, and a 10-year effort to sell the properties for rehabilitation or development has failed to secure a buyer. The Historical Commission’s Committee on Financial Hardship had heard the proposal in May, in which the applicant outlined two adaptive reuse ideas, one limited to the historic buildings and a larger one that would erect an addition on the rear of the lot, and claimed neither would be financially viable. At the urging of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia to consider a larger development of the parcel, the applicant agreed and returned to this month’s meeting with an analysis of two additional schemes.
The applicant’s consultant again found that two new, larger scenarios would not be financially viable. Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance, questioned the scenarios’ construction cost estimates of $550 per square foot, saying an average for the Philadelphia area is around $210. He also noted that a realtor had given a rough estimate of $2 million for an as-is purchase price and asked what the applicant’s asking price has been, although an answer was not given. A listing on LoopNet indicates an asking price of $3.5 million.
A roll call vote unanimously granted the demolition, although with the condition that it would not take place until a zoning application and financing have been approved.
Also at this meeting, two notable nominations were continued to future meetings. Piers 38 and 40 on Delaware Avenue were continued to the March 2024 Committee on Historic Designation meeting, and the nomination of the Police Administration Building (aka the Roundhouse) at 700-34 Race Street was continued to the March 2024 monthly meeting.