Hospital, Conservancy clash over historic status

by Tom Beck
Posted 8/23/23

The future of the Chestnut Hill Hospital’s Women’s Center is going before the city’s historical commission for potential designation to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

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Hospital, Conservancy clash over historic status


After a two-and-a-half-year standoff between two neighborhood institutions over the future of the Chestnut Hill Hospital’s Women’s Center, the building at 8811 Germantown Ave. is slated to go before the city’s historical commission on Friday, Sept. 8, for a potential designation to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. 

At issue is how much control the hospital has over what it can do with that property.

The controversy dates back to January 2021, when the Chestnut Hill Conservancy nominated the building to the city’s register. The nomination was submitted soon after state money was allocated to the hospital for the potential demolition and subsequent expansion of the Women’s Center, which provides services related to gynecology, mammography and bone density. According to the nomination, the Conservancy feels the building should be designated because of its Georgian-influenced Colonial Revival style and because it was designed by a significant architectural designer, Charles Barton Keen. The center was also nominated because the building exemplifies the historical heritage of the community. The property has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1987.

The problem for the Hospital, however, is that with a designation to the city’s historic register comes reduced flexibility in how planners can modify the building, which they were hoping to expand in the near future. According to Dr. John Cacciamani, president and CEO of Chestnut Hill Hospital, the hospital wants to eventually connect the rear of the Women’s Center with the parking garage located behind it – and would need to modify the existing structure. 

“There would be no easy way to connect it, without taking [a wall] off,” he said. “Every architect that we talked to said that would be near to impossible.”

The purpose of the expansion, Cacciamani told the Local, is to create space for new MRI scanners and other equipment that the hospital needs to remain competitive in the marketplace.

“Not only do we want to remain competitive,” Cacciamani said, “we want to knock it out of the park.”

Lori Salganicoff, executive director of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, was receptive to Cacciamani’s concerns.

“We want the hospital to thrive,” she said. “And also for the community to protect itself while that happens.”

But it’s important, Salganicoff said, “for the character of the community to not be eroded as this important institution evolves.”

Salganicoff was quick to point out that the Philadelphia Historical Commission regularly allows for historically designated properties to have additions built onto the rear of the buildings, so long as at least the front facades are left untouched. An example of this kind of addition is occurring at the Mt. Airy National Bank, near the corner of Germantown Avenue and Nippon Street in Mt. Airy, where the historic building is getting a two-story addition that includes 19 residential units. 

The two sides have been negotiating since the  nomination was first put before the city’s Committee on Historic Designation. The hospital wants the freedom to do as it wishes with the Women’s Center building while the Conservancy wants to resolve their differences, which, it believes, would increase its chances of getting the building historically designated. 

But the biggest holdup involves an letter of agreement that was signed by the Conservancy and the Hospital in 1999, which stipulates that the area behind the parking garage be preserved as open space. 

The Conservancy alleges that Chestnut Hill Hospital broke this agreement in 2016 when there were structural issues in the parking garage that forced cars to temporarily park elsewhere. As a result, the hospital laid gravel down in the area behind the garage – which the Conservancy says was supposed to be maintained as open space, not for a parking lot – which violated the terms of the agreement.

The Conservancy today sees an opportunity to address its concerns over the agreement with a potential agreement about the historic nomination. Organization officials want Hospital leaders to acknowledge the legitimacy of the agreement and to not violate it in the future as part of any deal that could, in return, allow for the hospital to build its addition.

Cacciamani told the Local that the agreement “was never codified as a legal document.” The Conservancy said that according to a lawyer it hired, it has been.

But in any case, that’s not the point, Cacciamani argued. He said he thinks the Conservancy is “weaponizing” the easement as part of its push to get the building designated.

“They’re two distinct issues,” Cacciamani said in a follow up phone call. “If they want to take it to the wall about the easement, let that be what it may be and let that work itself out. Why are you dragging that into this conversation with historic designation?”

Despite the back and forth, Salganicoff said her organization is “eager to work with the Hospital on a compromise that preserves this historic mansion, which is the last remaining historic building on the campus” while also “addressing an earlier agreement between the hospital and the community to maintain [the area behind the parking garage] as open greenspace.”

Cacciamani wouldn’t say he was optimistic about a deal getting done before the Sept. 8 hearing. 

He was optimistic, however, that the Philadelphia Historic Commission will “hear a very compelling argument as to why we think the building should either not be historic – or if it is, historic with limitations – so that we are able to do what we need to do for the women of Chestnut Hill.”

Correction: As of Aug. 26, this article has been updated to reflect that in fact no easement has been signed between the Conservancy and the Hospital. Instead, a letter of agreement was signed in 1999 -- not 1991 as previously stated -- that the Hospital would both preserve the open space behind the Women's Center parking garage and sign an easement for the land once presented with one by the Conservancy. Despite the Conservancy presenting the Hospital with easements to sign in an effort to preserve the land behind the parking garage, the Hospital has not signed them. The Conservancy, as a result, feels that the Hospital has reneged on the 1999 agreement.

Clarification: The article was also updated to make it clearer that the Conservancy was never opposed to the expansion of the Women's Center. Instead, it was opposed to the demolition of the Women's Center.