Preservation

Demolition Permits Issued for Revolution-era Stortz Buildings in Old City

April 19, 2024 | by Kyle Bagenstose

John Stortz & Son at 208-12 Vine Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

As George Washington and Benjamin Franklin walked the streets of what is now Old City Philadelphia in the 1780s, they presumably could have found a reason to travel north from Market Street along 2nd or 3rd Streets. After about a 10-minute stroll, had they turned onto Vine Street, they would have encountered a pair of three-story workshops. Within, tradesmen toiled away in what was then the largest city in a fledgling United States of America.

If the founding fathers were to walk the same block today they’d find a transformed world, save for the workshops, which miraculously still stand. But likely not for much longer.

In late March, a demolition permit was issued for 208-212 Vine Street, a three-structure parcel steeped in history. In addition to the Revolution-era workshops, which flank the frontage of the address, a center bay contains a four-story structure built around 1870. At the uppermost reaches of its facade, a vintage sign bears the name of the family business that has called the address home ever since: “J. Stortz & Son – Cutlers.”

Those close to the situation say that while they know the pending demolition of buildings as old as the nation itself will come as a sudden surprise to many Philadelphians, their demise has actually been at least a decade in the making. The Stortz family, which has owned and operated the building over five generations, has been weighing its options for at least 10 years, trying unsuccessfully to court developers to adaptively reuse the buildings as their own business model changed.

Over the past year the situation became dire. In spring 2023, Stortz & Son filed a financial hardship application with the Philadelphia Historical Commission and met with its Financial Hardship and Architectural committees, claiming they had exhausted options to restore the buildings and wanted to tear them down. Protests from the Preservation Alliance to freshly consider other options bought five months of time. Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, and allies believed there was a viable plan to create 50+ rental units via new construction on the rear of the property, subsidizing costs to repair and maintain the historic buildings. But in a subsequent October 2023 meeting, representatives from Stortz & Son said they believed the proposal was a money loser, and the Historical Commission voted 8-0 to approve demolition.

Sam Stortz, son of current owner John Stortz, declined a full interview, saying that the family believed the public had already made up its mind that the family and its company were acting out of “greed.” It was offered that Stortz could tell the story from his family’s perspective, but he further declined.

244 Years of History

An old advertisement for Stortz & Son products. | Image: Public Domain

If documents survive that tell the earliest history of development at 208-12 Vine Street, they aren’t easy to find. An internet search of digitally-available historic maps and newspaper records yields no specific mention of construction of three-story structures there. The buildings’ addition to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places predates a requirement for applicants to provide a detailed and well-sourced history of buildings, deepening the mystery.

However, contemporary sources offer some indication of the building’s past. The local historic register, as well as records leading up to the Historic Commission’s October 2023 decision to approve demolition, indeed state that “the buildings at 208 and 212 Vine Street were constructed about 1780,” and that the “building at 210 Vine Street was constructed about 1870.”

According to Steinke, the two older buildings were constructed for workshops. “They were never residences, even though they look like they could have been,” he said. “It was small-scale industrial production. In the days before automation, a lot of companies were family-owned, small-scale producers operating out of what we would now consider tiny buildings. Of course from their standpoint, they probably thought they were the cutting edge of technology,” Steinke explained.

What most endears 208-212 Vine Street to modern history aficionados is how little has really changed in the buildings’ nearly two-and-a-half centuries of use. According to a history on the Stortz & Son website, original proprietor John Stortz purchased an existing building and workshop at 210 Vine Street in 1853, which presumably was torn down for the four-story structure that stands there today. He then got his start manufacturing ice skates, but Stortz & Sons would expand production into a wide range of tools over time. “Before the advent of refrigeration, for example, Stortz & Son furnished full lines of ice handling tools such as ice axes, tongs and shavers,” the company’s website reads. “At one time, Stortz furnished tens of thousands of loom shears to the textile industry, paving hammers for installing cobblestones and a host of other tool groups now made obsolete by technology or economics.”

Archives of the Philadelphia Inquirer offer more colorful history. Help wanted ads from the late 19th century listing the 210 Vine Street address expressed a need for “operators on fine pants,” a “polisher on steel and iron,” and a “good man” to work as a pearl button cutter. For sale ads offered bicycle repair and plating services.

208-18 Vine Street in 1960. | Photo courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

News notices betrayed perhaps a rough-and-tumble crowd at 210 Vine Street, some of whom appeared to live in the building. One 1888 notice stated a 16-year-old who lived at the address was being held by police for theft, while two men with listed addresses there were arrested for stealing corn off of a steamship two years later. In 1887 came a report of a 13-year-old boy lying in hospital with a “deep wound in his breast.” “According to his story he was teasing a man in the machine shop at No. 210 Vine Street, where he was employed, when the man kicked him and he fell on the sharp point of a file,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Curiously, there appeared to be the potential for a sale of 210 Vine Street in a July 1900 edition of the newspaper. “For rent or sale– store and factory, four floors and basement,” a notice in the real estate section read, before listing the address.

For much of its existence, the operation was surrounded by other industrial operations, including Dietz and Watson, Strauss Tobacco, and Thomas Scientific Instruments. While those companies have all left as the surrounding area transitioned to residential, Stortz & Son kept much of its operations the same.

Stuart Rosenberg, architect and founder of architectural firm SgRA, noted that as recently as the 2010s the Stortz family invited members of the public to tour the facilities and observe old products and machinery, some of it still being used to make tools. “They were making harpoons when whaling was still an industry,” Rosenberg said. “They were making hand tools for masons for making slate, for making cedar shakes, for making barrels for wine and beer.”

Indeed, Stortz & Son’s website still proudly shows off a harpoon hanging from an interior ceiling, a 10-ton press to shear metal, and grinding wheels used to finish castings. “It basically reflects the history of technology,” Rosenberg said, likening it to a ready-made museum. “How can you let something like this slip away?”

Changing Fortunes

Inside the Stortz & Son workshop in 2011. | Photos: Peter Woodall

The exact motivations that have brought the Stortz buildings to the doorstep of demolition are something of an enigma. In 2011, the family, now in its fifth generation of proprietorship, opened its facility to Hidden City’s cameras. Family members commented proudly on a subsequent article. History-lovers like Steinke and Rosenberg also toured the facility during those years. The entire operation became something of a darling in the world of historic Philadelphia.

Yet, Steinke said it wasn’t long after that the Stortz family began to plan for a change. According to public statements by the family, in recent years the company has shifted away from its traditional toolmaking operations and toward importing and reselling tools from overseas. That led to a drawdown in activity at historic workshops on Vine Street.

Steinke explained that in interactions with the Historic Commission in recent years, the Stortz family said they would come up with a plan to try and redevelop the properties to include residential redevelopment and save the historic buildings along Vine Street, but had failed to attract a developer after shopping the project for at least nine years. The building has also started to show obvious signs of physical disrepair, according to Robert Gurmankin, president of Franklin Bridge North Neighbors, a local registered community organization. “If you were to walk by the building you’d see there are pieces of stucco missing. It’s falling apart,” Gurmankin said. “They really haven’t kept the building up.”

The deteriorating conditions of the building and lack of redevelopment interest became the basis of the family’s pursuit of a hardship exemption from this Historic Commission, which allows the owner of a property listed on the historic register a way around rules against exterior modification or demolition.

Stortz & Son submitted the application to demolish the building, claiming financial hardship, in spring 2023, which precipitated an uptick in involvement from the Preservation Alliance and other interested parties. Despite a flurry of activity to try and find a workable option, the Historical Commission unanimously approve demolition at its October 2023 meeting. That decision included a few stipulations, including that the Stortz family had to document it and secure financing for the demolition. A permit to raze the buildings was issued in late March. Technically, demolition could commence at any time, but the need for the buildings to come down remains in dispute.

Steinke said potential redevelopment plans for the property centered on the rear of the properties, which backup to New Street to the south. Newer, connected warehouses there could be demolished or overbuilt to construct new residential units that would subsidize the costs of maintaining the historic workshops along Vine Street. In spring of 2023, Stortz & Son approached the Historical Commission stating they had floated a proposal to build 24 units in this fashion, but received no offers from developers. “They also made claims about the buildings’ advanced deterioration,” said Steinke.

John Stortz and Son’s historic signage stands out on Vine Street. | Photos: Michael Bixler

The Preservation Alliance urged fresh consideration, believing more residential units could be developed on the property, and Stortz agreed to take a look. Rosenberg said he was hired by Stortz & Son a decade ago to develop the original 24-unit plan, and again in 2023 to create an updated version following the spring meeting. The second time around, Rosenberg said he took a fresh look at zoning and building codes and identified variances he believes could have been obtained to build up to 57 rental units on site in a four or five-story property. “The net result was, we were able to develop a solution using a variety of design solutions, which we believe was more cost effective than the original design, and also cleared them with the Historical Commission.”

Stortz & Son disagreed. Rosenberg pointed out that the company also hired Klehr Harrison, a powerful real estate law firm in the city. At the October Historical Commission meeting, Michael Phillips, a partner at Klehr Harrison, submitted testimony that the Stortz family had reviewed the new proposal with a team of consulting professionals and determined it would still result in a financial loss of $2.5 to $3 million over a 10-year horizon. “This is the same conclusion that has been reached by every developer that has considered acquiring the property over the past decade,” Phillips argued. The Historical Commission was persuaded and voted to approve demolition of the structure.

Steinke and Rosenberg said they both doubt the veracity of Stortz & Son’s analysis of the proposal, which assumed union labor rates several-fold more costly than non-union rates and also assumed the worst possible condition of the historic buildings and the highest costs to stabilize and restore them. Rosenberg added that even using these costs the projects he believes the project would achieve long term profitability, but felt the commission was persuaded by the high-powered team assembled by Stortz, while only he and the Preservation Alliance were there to argue against demolition.

There is little known about what will come next. Rosenberg said he has heard that perhaps half a dozen single-family, luxury homes might be planned. Gurmankin, president of the local RCO, said it was a “shame” that not even the facade of the buildings could be saved, but that he’d heard the existing Stortz & Son sign might in some way be reincorporated into whatever comes next.

As for motivations, it is guesswork. The Stortz family had previously marketed sale of the property for $3.5 million, and several observers expect the family is seeking to maximize profits on a property no longer useful to its changing business.

Told of Sam Stortz’s brief pushback on the idea that the family was acting out of “greed,” Steinke said he doesn’t know the family personally, so can only judge their actions based on what he sees. “I’m sure part of their motivation is to max out the value they can get for that property. Do you want to call that greed? It’s a subjective call. It is certainly human nature to want to maximize the value of an asset,” Steinke said. “We’re just disappointed that the City’s preservation regulations were not enough to save two buildings that date back to the American Revolution. That is super disappointing.”



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About the Author

Kyle Bagenstose is an independent journalist based in East Mt. Airy. Previously with USA Today, he writes primarily about environmental and urban topics.

10 Comments:

  1. JCBarrett says:

    Why do we have to tear down history in Philadelphia? This story repeats itself over and over in Philadelphia. I find it hard to believe demolition of this history property is the only solution.

  2. Joe says:

    Shocking and shameful Philadelphia.

  3. Stephen Roat says:

    My 5th Great Grandfather Jacob Roat, owned that entire block between 2nd & 3rd, and Vine and Elm (now New) in 1776. His nearby neighbors included Betsy Ross and Ben Franklin. He was a potter, and apparently quite successful, based on the inventory of his estate which listed quite a few luxury items. His will was dictated in a house on that property in July 1776 in which he writes that he was considering “the certainty of death and the uncertainty of the time.” He died in 1776 or 1777, and the two older buildings were built just after his death. I assume his children sold the property to whomever built 208 and 212. Also on that same block is the former site of the Painted Bride Art Center, also facing demolition. I go down there often. Thank you for the story.

  4. Kelli says:

    Super sad what’s happening to Philadelphia. Very quickly looking like New York. New apt buildings popping up with no charm at all!

  5. Greg says:

    Typical of a corrupt Historical Commission and predatory law fir. The fix is in. And the greedy Stortz family can go to hell.

  6. Robert F Sullivan says:

    Our historical society is worthless

  7. Gary Gliwa says:

    Stop Tearing Down our Past Without a Historical Building we are Destroying Our Future.I pray That Someone will bye that Historic Building and Save Philadelphias History Same on those who want to Tear the house Down.

  8. Grittenhouse says:

    This is outrageous. Deterioration is hardly evidence of hardhip, only of neglect. This is entirely corrupt. In cases like this, the City should buy out the owners at a reasonable cost and hold the properties for preservation and future use. The Stortz building itself is of no importance, but the surrounding buildings must be saved.

  9. Grittenhouse says:

    One issue is the definition of hardship, which clearly needs to be tightened. The other is the corruption of the commission, either by bribery or political pressure from above, due to bribery or influence.

  10. Morgan says:

    The edifices of our evolution and devolution are being effaced by a corrupt and complacent historical society, who bow to the whims of Wall Street. Historically, this city has been on a downward spiral ever since good old Ed Bacon and that vile judge created the myth that circumvents Independence Hall. At least with New York City there’s some aesthetics involved with the surfeit of glass monoliths. In Philadelphia, it’s just one banal box after another.

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