The Philadelphia Historical Commission approved the demolition of a home listed on the local register in Germantown at its meeting on December 8. It also considered a request to paint a mural on the side of the William and Letitia Still House in Bella Vista, and denied a developer’s proposal to partially demolish and dramatically alter a protected brownstone in Rittenhouse Square
Most of the meeting’s six hours were consumed by the request of the to demolish Boxwood, a historically designated property on the campus of the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (PSD), to add parking and improve traffic patterns. The request had already been considered at a meeting of the Historical Commission’s Architectural Committee and two meetings of its Financial Hardship Committee, the latter of which ultimately recommended its approval, as did Historical Commission staff.
According to PSD’s attorney, Matthew McClure, the request is based on financial hardship, that the demolition is necessary in the public interest, and the need for reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Boxwood is located at 156 West Schoolhouse Lane. Built in 1897 by architect Mantle Fielding Jr., it’s a Colonial Revival style house with a side-gabled, gambrel roof that is comprised of the main block, an appending wing, two porches, and a porte-cochère. It was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in March 2021, about a year and a half after PSD purchased it, although the nomination was underway before the acquisition.
PSD cited financial hardship, claiming it cannot afford to renovate the building. “The property has not been maintained for years,” McClure said.
PSD board chair Mark Apodaca furthered their financial hardship stance, claiming the school has been running deficits. However, a review of PSD’s tax returns on GuideStar and ProPublica reveals annual surpluses ranging from $580,000 to $3 million for the fiscal years ending 2018 to 2022. During that five-year period, the school’s net assets increased by $8 million to $44 million.
Soon after purchasing the property, PSD created a master plan seeking to increase parking and improve traffic flow within its campus. It determined it needs to demolish Boxwood to widen the driveway between the building and the rest of the campus and relocate to its lot parking spaces that are currently in the interior of the campus. The school says it can’t find a use for the building, cannot afford to renovate it, and will not sell it. McClure asserted that a nonprofit organization cannot be forced to sell a designated property.
Philadelphia’s historic preservation ordinance permits the demolition of historically-designated buildings if it determines the demolition is necessary in the public interest and/or the building cannot be used for any purpose for which it is or may be reasonably adapted. The former applies if the public interest gained by the demolition greatly outweighs the public interest in the preservation of the building, while the latter applies if the Historical Commission’s regulation of the property denies the owner of all economically viable use of it, hence creating a financial hardship.
Public comments addressed a desire to preserve Germantown’s historic architecture and questioned the assertion that no other use could be found for the building or some of its property.
Douglas Mooney, representing the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, raised a concern, saying “The site potentially contains significant archaeological materials related to the Revolutionary War, and specifically, the Battle of Germantown,” and that any demolition could disturb or destroy those resources.
Despite the dubious nature of PSD’s financial hardship claim, the Historical Commission unanimously approved the demolition with the caveats that the building be thoroughly documented, that no demolition permit would be issued until a zoning variance is secured, and that the design plans would require Commission review, since the property would still be historically designated.
The home prominent abolitionists William and Letitia Still at 625 S. Delhi Street was built in 1847. It was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in March 2018. Although the artist and design are yet to be determined, the applicant, Mural Arts intends for the Stills to be featured in the subject matter. It was noted that the building is currently being considered for National Historic Landmark status.
A Mural Arts representative explained the two possible approaches to creating the mural, either painting on aluminum panels that are then attached to the wall or painting directly on the wall.
The Historical Commission approved the request with the recommendation that the applicant utilizes the direct paint application method and consults with the National Historic Landmarks Program staff regarding the mural.
The final item of the lengthy meeting considered a request to demolish the rear of a four-story Second Empire brownstone building within the Rittenhouse Fitler Historic District and construct an 11-story, 141-foot tall addition. The Thomas L. Jewett House, located at 2112 Walnut Street, was built in 1871 by E. B. Warren and designed by architect John McArthur. The proposal would remove portions of the roof, the entire rear mansard roof and portions of the rear wall, and surround the building with the addition.
Public comment included concerns by residents of the 2100 block of Chancellor Street, which the new tower would face, overshadowing a row of carriage houses on the block. The developer’s plans include parking for the condominium tower to be accessible via Chancellor Street, which is not currently a two-way thoroughfare.
The Architectural Committee had recommended denial, pursuant to Standard 9, saying the project would demolish portions of the historic building, including the character-defining rear mansard and bay, destroying historic materials, with the new work overly differentiated from the old and incompatible with the historic materials, features, size, scale and proportion, and massing, failing to protect the integrity of the property and its environment, and that the proposed addition would be highly conspicuous and visible on the site and from the public right-of-way, which would fail to satisfy the City’s Roofs Guideline. The Historical Commission unanimously agreed to deny the project.