by Diane M. Fiske
Streetscape is a monthly column about architecture and urban planning
Young professionals and empty nesters are moving into Philadelphia’s desirable neighborhoods. This is good news for business, but sad for some favorite landmarks.
The danger of the disappearance of some of the buildings that make the city unique is that Philadelphians’ world may be a little less interesting if not somewhat monotonous.
Many of the buildings that are protected can be traced to a famous designer. These architectural treasures are relatively safe, but they represent a small percentage of the true flavor of the city.
Of course, in every neighborhood, including Chestnut Hill, buildings listed by the Philadelphia Historic Commission as valuable are protected from most types of demolition, including the Mother’s House designed by famed architect Robert Venturi or the Esherick House by another famed architect, Louis Kahn.
About 22,000 buildings in Philadelphia are on the Historic Commission’s preserved list, which means that any change to the facade of the building including its doors and windows must be approved by the commission. These buildings can only be torn down in extreme cases of neglect or financial hardship.
Regarding other valuable buildings that have not been recognized, the future is uncertain.
“We are losing a building a week” said Patrick Grossi, advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, recently in an interview in his Center City office. “These are buildings that can contribute to the overall functioning of a neighborhood and show its overall character.”
One example, he said, was the demolition of the Union Baptist church where Marion Anderson got her start.
He added that buildings that demonstrate the character of an area and function in that neighborhood could be beautifully designed, but not necessarily the work of a well-known architect. These are in danger of demolition or replacement.
Grossi said the Lovett Library in Mt. Airy and the Germantown Boys and Girls Club in Germantown are examples of valuable buildings in Northwest Philadelphia that could be torn down or replaced. because they are not protected.
He said the Germantown club, is in the process of being replaced rather than renovated and the Lovett Library is in no danger of immediate change, but it is not protected by being listed in the Philadelphia register. The building could be changed or replaced by the free library system.
“But it is a good example of a solid mid-century modern library and it could be replaced or changed with no protection,“ Grossi said.
He said some of the buildings constructed in the mid-20th century and the postmodern era are a fixture of their neighborhood and distinctive. These stand out and are landmarks and often the site of memorable events in the area’s history and are worthy of preservation despite the fact that a big-name architect did not design them.
These buildings are vulnerable to demolition to make way for the increasing need for residential construction. He said the good news is the Philadelphia Historic Commission last week preserved the youngest buildings submitted for the list of protected buildings. They are the Ott Camera on Castor Avenue and the Robinson Luggage building at 1020 Market Street. Both are mid century buildings that are important to their community.
The buildings are part of the late 19th century and mid-century modernism that are now considered worthy of preservation.
“There is really no incentive program for the rehabilitation of historic properties other than a tax abatement based on the cost of improvement,” Grossi said. “And this pales in comparison with the profit that can be made from new construction.”
A historically significant building that has not been listed as a protected site is the Society Hill Playhouse, which was constructed in 1902 and is the subject of a demolition permit by an owner who has sold the property to a residential developer.
Grossi said he is not interested in seeing preservation and development at odds with each other. He’d prefer to see a balance.
“What we are trying to do is figure out what buildings are eligible to be on the city preservation list and which are vulnerable,” he said.
He said only two or three percent of the estimated valuable buildings are on the local register and any not identified as significant are “fair game.”
In the case of a building like the Society Hill Playhouse, which will be demolished to make way for new residential construction once an application for demolition is processed, any application for preservation will not be processed.
Eventually, Grossi hopes Philadelphia acquires an extensive list of buildings worthy of preservation along with help for the overworked, underpaid Historic Commission. If the city acquires the list, it will join Chicago and Los Angeles, which have made preservation a little easier.