by Diane M. Fiske
Fon Wang, winner of the Philadelphia American Institute of Architecture Young Architects award, grew up in Chestnut Hill and graduated from Springside Academy.
A soft spoken and modest woman, Wang said she won two years ago, but it was presented this year because the AIA headquarters in Center City was being renovated in 2015. The annual award is given to an architect, under age 40, in the Philadelphia area who has made a difference in the design world.
Wang grew up in Chestnut Hill in the 100-year-old former home of Marianne Rex, one of the community’s early movers and shakers. Her parents, Ignatius and Trudy, who are both architects, continue to live in the community. She was recognized in her years at Springside Academy for her prowess in field hockey.
After graduating from the five-year architecture program at the Syracuse University School of Architecture, she worked for a firm in New York City that specializes in preservation and for MGA Architects in Philadelphia. At her early firms, she became interested in specializing in architectural preservation.
“It saves buildings and preserves them for the future,” she said. “It is good for the environment.”
About two years ago, she began working as a historic preservationist with the Ballinger Architectural firm in Center City. Her current assignment is as preservationist with the Corn Exchange Bank on North Third Street, which was constructed in 1903, and helping preserve its exterior neoclassical qualities.
“One of the interesting things about the project is renovating the interior of the building without changing the l00 year old exterior,” she said.
The building has been purchased by Linode, a tech firm that has grown from a garage start-up to a national company,
Her firm is redesigning the interior of the limestone building to fit into its very contemporary mission of managing “cloud” material. Firms that want to use space in the cloud must buy it from a firm like Linode that will manage it.
Wang laughed and said the building is located on North Third Street between two other tech businesses. She said it had acquired a name in jest as a reference to the preponderance of technical firms.
“Third Street has become to be known as ‘Nerd Street’ because of all the technical firms on the street,” she said.
Wang, who also teaches a course in historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design said she is “frustrated” by the preservation process in Philadelphia.
One of the situations in the city that adds to her unhappiness, she said, is the one on Jewelers Row where the Preservation Alliance’s petition to seek preservation status from the Historic Commission for two of the buildings on Sansom Street, near Seventh Street, has been delayed for months.
Jewelers Row, as it is known, is a collection of low-rise buildings dating from the mid 19th century where jewelry sellers and repair organizations traditionally own several of the ground-floor stores. The three stories above are owned by other artisans and artists.
A proposal by Toll Brothers to build a six-story building where three of the buildings are located hold a threat, according to preservationists, of causing the demise of the entire Jewelers Row district – the oldest in the country.
“Any number of people, around 300, will lose their businesses if the buildings are torn down,” she said. “One of the upsetting things is that the situation served as an incentive for the owners of the buildings on the block to try to propose a building that is much higher than the original buildings.”
She said in other cities the situation is much more sympathetic to people trying to fend off development and preserve their buildings.
“For instance, in San Francisco, proposals are given a month to appeal before a development decision is made final,” she said.
Wang said she had a fragile hope that the frequent delays and postponements and protests about the development plan may cause the Jewelers Row proposal to be abandoned.
“This has happened in other areas,” she said. “It isn’t a strong hope, but it is the best we have unfortunately.”
Diane Fiske’s Streetscape is an occasional column about architecture and planning. She has covered those subjects for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.