by Diane M. Fiske
The struggle seeking protection for Jewelers Row on Sansom Street has strong links to Chestnut Hill where preservation is not exactly a foreign issue.
Historian Emily Cooperman, of Chestnut Hill, a board member of the Historical Commission, and chairman of the local committee on historic preservation, was the hearing officer in charge of a subcommittee hearing last month that recommended Historic Designation or preservation for the buildings. The recommendation was forwarded to the full commission.
But last Thursday, proponents trying to preserve the iconic Jeweler’s Row found they will have to wait until Feb. 10 to learn if the historic 200-year-old row of 19th-century buildings will survive a developer’s push to build a 16-story residential structure in their place
When asked, in a telephone interview what Jewelers Row has to do with Chestnut Hill, Cooperman said, “Everything – Chestnut Hill property owners and those in other areas that have historic areas should be aware of the pressures in the city for more development. We in Chestnut Hill have any number of historic buildings that are important to us.”
The full Philadelphia Historical Commission met last Thursday to consider their committee’s recommendation to grant the three buildings on Jewelers Row places on the city’s Register of Historic Places. They voted unanimously to put off the decision for 90 days.
The developer, Toll Brothers, had secured a demolition permit before the buildings were nominated for preservation.
Paul Steinke, executive director of the Philadelphia Preservation Alliance, which is seeking to preserve the buildings, said he was surprised by the delay, which means technically the buildings could be demolished at any time in that period.
“Of course this can’t happen soon because the three-story buildings are occupied,” he said.
Ronald Thomas, Historical Committee chairman, said the commission members would monitor the situation before they vote.
Steinke said the Alliance would be reviewing its legal options in the next few weeks.
The struggle started in August when news that a developer wants to demolish five buildings on Jewelers Row on Sansom Street hit Philadelphia preservationists very hard.
Toll Brothers wants to build a high-rise residential building in the heart of the row of small jewelry shops that date back to the early 19th and 20th centuries. Jewelers Row is one of the oldest still working commercial districts in the country.
The Philadelphia Preservation Alliance started to fight the developer and circulated a petition that generated more about 7,000 signatures so far. The Alliance, as well as neighboring property owners and tenant business owners launched a zoning appeal, which was denied by the Zoning Board of Adjustment.
A nomination was then submitted to the Philadelphia Historical Commission seeking a protected historic designation for: 704, 706 and 708 Sansom St.
According to Patrick Rossi, advocacy advocate for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, there have been instances when historic designation was made after a demolition permit was issued. It was previously thought that once the demolition permit was issued, the property could not be protected.
One of the problems is that Jewelers Row is located in “the most permissive zoning area in the city,” Rossi said.
“This zoning for the 700 block of Samson Street is CMX5 (commercial mixed use) allowing for the highest density and height,” he said, “This zoning is also held by JFK Boulevard and Market Street and other commercial areas.”
The developer’s plan has prompted passionate protests by local preservationists despite Toll Brothers’ assurances that it will take pains to conserve the district’s character. For one, the Preservation Alliance says the plan would open a new hole in Philadelphia’s under-protected historic fabric at a time of sharply higher demand for developable land in the downtown area.
At the hearing last month, Rossi discussed the background of two of the buildings. He said one of the buildings; 706 Sansom St., had been the site of the Henry C. Lee publishing house. Its architecture traced back to Matthew Carey who worked with Benjamin Franklin.
He said 704, a handsome red brick building, was designed to be a publishing house. In the early 20th century, the publishers moved to Washington Square, where Lippincott, Curtis, Ayres and other publishing houses were later located.
The Sansom Street publishers were replaced in the buildings by the jewelers who used some of the same skills in their trade as the engravers in publishing. There are about 300 people working in the buildings in various aspects of jewelry making.
The issue is a growing political one. Last month Mayor Jim Kenny said he is committed to bolstering the city’s resources devoted to historic preservation programs and suggested legislation to that effect is on the horizon.
In the meantime, preservationists like Cooperman will have to wait, hoping demolition of the historic buildings doesn’t proceed before the Historical Commission can reconvene and protect a series of buildings that unquestionably belong to the city’s rich past.
Diane Fiske is a Chestnut Hill resident and has written extensively about architecture and planning for the Philadelphia Inquirer and other publications.