A Demolition, a Continuance, but No New Designations at Historical Commission Meeting

March 14, 2024 | by Kimberly Haas

Although no new sites were added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places at the meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission on March 8, the Commissioners nevertheless were kept busy with other matters pertaining to the oversight of the City’s historic properties. In particular, modifications of three properties along Walnut Street on and around Rittenhouse Square were reviewed. Two were approved, and a third denied.

A proposal to alter and add signage to the ground floor facade of the former Barnes & Nobel bookstore at 18th and Walnut Streets was approved. | Rendering: Stokes. Architecture + Design

The building at 1805-09 Walnut Street, which had most recently been a Barnes & Noble Booksellers, was built in 1924 as the Presbyterian Ministers Fund for Life Insurance. It was also known as the Alison Building and designated as a contributing asset to the Rittenhouse/Fitler Residential Historic District in February 1995.

The applicant, Smallville Restaurant Associates LLC, a name registered to the Starr Restaurant Group, requested permission to replace the storefront’s transoms and install face lit signage and wall sconces. The Historical Commission approved the request with the stipulations that the signage be reduced in size and the transoms documented and the materials repurposed within the restaurant’s interior.

Further east, the owners of 1617 Walnut Street requested permission for alterations that included altering the entranceway, adding signage, and installing a security gate to accommodate a Nike Jordan Brand World of Flight store, which they said would be the first in North America.

The Italian Renaissance Revival building was built in 1921 for William H. Wilson, president of the Philadelphia Real Estate Board, and designed by the Philadelphia architectural firm of Seeburger & Rabenold. The first floor features two display windows and an entryway, each topped with rounded transoms. The second story repeats the openings with French doors and a decorative iron railing and is topped with a dentilated pediment. It was designated in 2020, with the nomination noting that the building “communicates a sense of grandeur and presence through its design and verticality, despite its much taller neighbors to the east and west.”

After a debate about the appropriateness of the proposed roll-down security door, the Historical Commission voted unanimously to approve the requested alterations.

After three revisions, the latest proposal for an addition to 2112 Walnut Street was denied. | Image courtesy of CBP Architects

The third site was a revised proposal to construct an addition at the rear of 2112 Walnut Street after removing the rear mansard roof and portions of the rear wall. After being rejected at the Historical Commission’s December 2023 meeting as too tall and too massive, the revised proposal lowered the height from 11 to six stories and downsized the number of dwelling units to four from the original 10.

The building was constructed in 1871 for Thomas L. Jewett, president of the Pennsylvania Warehousing & Safe Deposit Company, and was listed as a contributing asset to the Rittenhouse/Fitler Residential Historic District in 1995.

After hearing objections from neighbors on Chancellor Street behind the building, the Commissioners’ debate included a discussion of whether the rear portion of the building was original or added later. If original, some members contended the removal would was extensive enough to be considered a demolition of character-defining elements, which would be prohibited. A close roll call vote of six to four denied the request.

Development firm Olympia Holdings seeks to build a 33-unit apartment building on a vacant lot at 26-34 Church Lane in Germantown. | Rendering: KJO Architecture

Another thorny issue was dealt with on the heels of the Historical Commission’s creation of the Germantown Urban Village Historic District last month. The proposal to construct a five-story building on the vacant lot at 26-34 Church Lane was unanimously denied based on its height and design. There was, however, some confusion regarding the timing of the zoning permit versus that of the nomination. The Historical Commission’s Rules and Regulations allow it to consider development plans in place at the time of the issuance of the notice announcing the consideration of a designation. Yet, in this case it wasn’t clear since the permit was applied for prior to the nomination, but received afterwards.

502-04 S. Juniper Street was approved for demolition despite its placement for legal protections on the Philadelphia Register. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Historical Commission also heard a report from the Committee on Financial Hardship, with a proposal to demolish the historically designated building at 502-04 S. Juniper Street. The trinity house at that address dates back to 1830 and was added to the local register in 1984. The Historical Commission gave its approval with the stipulation that the owner document the front facade with high resolution photography.

The absence of new historic designations at this meeting apparently was owing to several continuances, including the nomination for 700-34 Race Street, the former Police Administration Building, which was continued for six months, until the September 2024 meeting.

The fate of the Police Administration Building, aka the Roundhouse, currently hangs in the balance. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Best known as the Roundhouse, it was nominated in December of 2022, reviewed by the Historical Commission staff in July 2023, and reviewed and recommended by the Committee on Historic Designation in September. At its scheduled review by the full Historic Commission at its meeting on October 12, a five-month continuance was announced.

The second continuance takes the nomination up to the 12-month review limit set in the Historical Commission’s Rules and Regulations. A spokesperson for the Historical Commission said it was to “give the Parker Administration time to review and comment on the nomination.” They also noted that any additional continuance requests would need to be reviewed by the Historical Commission at a public meeting.


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.


  1. Kevin says:

    Thank you for reporting!

  2. Grittenhouse says:

    Nominating the Roundhouse was lunacy, a mockery of preservation.

  3. Margaret Sadler says:

    I always discover so much reading your reports.
    Much appreciation.

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