by Maddie Clark
Located within the former campus of the Lutheran Home at 6950 Germantown Ave., the Leibert House was built by William Leibert, a bookbinder and printer, between 1800 and 1808.
This vernacular, federal-style house is now part of the Germantown Home, a nonprofit, affordable housing and nursing care for low-income seniors that is part of the NewCourtland Network.
After a citation from the city found part of the old house to be unsafe, NewCourtland decided it was time to tear it down to make way for an expansion of its facilities. Area preservationists took notice.
“I never dreamed it wasn’t on the register,” said Oscar Beisert, director of the Keeping Society of Philadelphia.
The register Beisert was referring to is the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Being listed on that register would not only prevent NewCourtland from razing the house, but would also compel the company to keep the home up to historic preservation standards.
The Keeping Society, which is dedicated to preserving and protecting historic properties within Philadelphia, nominated the Leibert House for that designation on March 16 due to its significant architectural style, characteristics and cultural heritage.
In addition to the house’s Gothic Revival of architecture, there’s a social, economic and historical heritage surrounding not only the Leibert family, but also the Germantown community, including Mt. Airy.
This Leibert house is “part of the area’s larger story,” Beisert said.
On Friday, Jan. 11, the Philadelphia Historic Commission held a hearing to determine whether the Leibert House would be designated as a historic place. The designation, however, was not granted at the request of NewCourtland, which had filed for a continuance. The commission will schedule a hearing in February to revisit the matter.
The house first came to the forefront about a year ago when it was cited by the city to make it safer. Since then, the front porch has been knocked off in order to “make it safe all around,” according to Bob Theil, a spokesperson for NewCourtland.
While there is no plan right now, the Germantown Home has expressed interest in demolishing the house in order to use that space for affordable senior housing, Theil said.
According to Beisert, the Leiberts were longtime members and leaders of the Church of the Brethren, a Christian sect that was first founded in Germantown in 1723. The family also consisted of established printers and bookbinders in Germantown throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. Germantown was once a center of publishing and printing in the 18th century.
The subject property represents the only surviving home and workplace of bookbinders during a time when Germantown was a national and regional printing center, Beisert said.
Beisert said he would “never advocate for anything to become a museum,” and hopes that if the house were to be designated, the Germantown Home would consider incorporating it into their already existent structure.
“It’s not like it’s Independence Hall,” he said. “Designation doesn’t mean there can’t be changes or developments made [to the house].”
The Keeping Society and PHC are only interested in designating historical places and spaces and managing changes in a sensitive manner, he said.
According to Beisert, only 2.2 percent of Philadelphia has been designated historic and is therefore protected by alteration or demolition. The Germantown Avenue Historic District of 1966 and Germantown Avenue Historic District of 1987 are among the list of National Historic Landmarks that might have been recognized as historic, but have no real historic protection. They could be radically altered or even demolished with no oversight.
Beisert hopes buildings like the Leibert house can be protected before there’s a crisis.
“People aren’t interested in protecting things unless they’re threatened,” he said.