Preservation

One New Historic Designation and Jewelers’ Row Hole to be Filled by 35-story Condo Tower

April 16, 2024 | by Kimberly Haas

Pier 38 at at 775 S. Christopher Columbus Boulevard. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Philadelphia Historical Commission added one new property to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places at its meeting on April 12. It also weighed in on requested alterations to designated properties and nominations to the National Register of Historic Places. 

The meeting was bookended by a property that had come up in earlier meetings, beginning in 2021. The Southwark Municipal Piers, more commonly known as Piers 38 and 40, are located at 775 S. Christopher Columbus Boulevard. Both were nominated in October 2021 and four continuances—the most recent at this meeting—followed, moving the issue to the September 2024 Committee on Historic Designation meeting.

At the close of the April meeting, Commissioners commented in favor of the nomination of the two pier buildings to the National Register of Historic Places, one of their duties to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Dating to 1914-15, the piers’ massive size was a response to an enlargement of the Port of Philadelphia and their Beaux Arts style architecture made them a familiar visual feature of the Southwark neighborhood.

1503-05 Walnut Street in July 2023 following a SEPTA bus crash that impacted the old bank building’s storefront. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The Historical Commission approved the designation of the former City National Bank building at 1503-05 Walnut Street, built in 1930 and by architect Arthur W. Hall. The building, nominated by Oscar Beisert of The Keeping Society of Philadelphia, was found that the Center City landmark satisfied Criterion D, owing to the ornamentation on its facade, a distinguishing characteristic of Art Deco style, and Criterion C, reflecting an era in which Art Deco was used on commercial buildings.

Another property slated for a designation review, the Julia Hebard Marsden House at 8835 Germantown Avenue, was continued to allow the nominator and owner to agree upon proposed modifications to the boundaries of the designation.

The latest rendering of the proposed construction at 6915 Germantown Avenue. | Image: Tierview Development

Two construction proposals on vacant lots that had been recommended for denial by the Architectural Committee were reviewed by the full Historical Commission. The first was for a four-story residential building adjacent to the Joseph Gorgas House, built in 1798, at 6915 Germantown Avenue and added to the local register in 1957. The parcel in question, recently subdivided from that of the house, is currently a parking lot that historically functioned as the house’s side and rear yard.

Having made modifications suggested by the Historical Commission’s Architectural Committee, including moving it further from the Gorgas House, slightly reducing its footprint, and adding brick to the facade to make it visually closer to other area buildings, the plan was approved in a roll call vote, although it still received objections during the public comment, mostly owing to its height.

Pearl Properties’ latest proposal for 708 Sansom Street includes a 35-story mixed-use tower. | Rendering: DAS Architects

The second construction project represented the culmination of a long and unhappy saga for preservationists. Until 2019, the property at 708 Sansom Street featured one of five 19th century buildings which were sold to suburban real estate developer Toll Brothers, which revealed plans to demolish them and erect a 16-story condo tower, later revised to 24 stories. An urgent nomination for the properties experienced delays, as did a 2019 nomination for a Jewelers’ Row Historic District, which remains on hold “until the Historical Commission is again meeting in person,” according to Philadelphia Historical Commission Executive Director Jon Farnham. Its published schedule has set meeting dates through January 2025, all of which will be conducted via Zoom.  

After the demolition, Toll Brothers abandoned its plan and sold the parcel to Pearl Properties in 2022. The development firm received Civic Design Review approval in February of this year to construct a 35-story mixed-use tower on the site.

The infamous “Jewelers’ Row hole” in 2022. | Photo: Michael Bixler

The presence of the owners’ representatives at the Historical Commission meeting was largely to maintain that the latter’s jurisdiction over the parcel was limited to review-and-comment rather than full jurisdiction. As an undeveloped site, it does not contribute to the proposed Jewelers’ Row Historic District and hence would limit the Historical Commission to review-and-comment. However, the building plans clouded the issue, by including a cantilever over the building to the west, which the Historical Commission could view as a reason to have full jurisdiction.

If the Historical Commission were to take that route, the issue would be further clouded by the timetables required in its rules and regulations, which gives them 90 days to act upon a request, and bars the Department of Licenses and Inspections from issuing a building permit during that time. The designation of the historic district would appear to assert full jurisdiction, but the indefinite hold on its review eliminates that possibility with the aforementioned clock ticking. Public comment argued that, when nominations are pending, the Historical Commission considers the property under its protection until its ruling on the nomination. Ultimately, the Historical Commission decided it had only review-and-comment jurisdiction.

Keystone Mill in Manayunk. | Photo: Google Street View

Towards the end of the meeting, the Historical Commission offered comments on another National Register nomination, the former Keystone Mill at 201 Leverington Avenue. It agreed with the nominator that the building is a representative of a significant industry of the period (Criterion A), as a large Philadelphia mill that used a type of recycled wool called “shoddy,” a cost-saving measure in the face of foreign wool tariffs and an economic depression during its period of significance of 1887-1906. It also satisfies Criterion C as an example of the work of S. S. Keely, who designed and built over a dozen mills in Manayunk in the latter half of the 19th century. Although currently vacant, the building was sold last June. In January of this year the new owner received a zoning permit to convert it into a 42-unit multi-family dwelling, with a new 27-unit building elsewhere on the property.



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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.

3 Comments:

  1. John Egan says:

    Sad to see Jewelers Row destroyed but that battle (with Toll Bros) was lost 5 years ago.

  2. StanR says:

    Yes but now a 35 story tower which will totally dwarf the street? We’ve now gone from 16 to 24 to 35 stories? Does the city not care about it’s history?

  3. S. Young says:

    Do whatever you can to prevent a 35 story building to be built on Jeweler’sRow.
    Not only are the height totally out of proportion, but it will produce another wind tunnel in the area.
    There is nothing in the immediate vicinity that forms of bridge between three-story buildings and 35 story condo. It is not near the Saint James or even The Ayer.

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