A contemporary-style building with an exposed-steel facade is being proposed as a replacement for a historic five-story structure that once stood in Old City, across from the Museum of the American Revolution, before flames ravaged it 1½ years ago.

Mazal Tov Development LLC’s plan for the 239 Chestnut St. site calls for a five-story facade with large, industrial-style windows along the street, topped by an additional two-story overbuild toward the structure’s rear, according to plans provided Tuesday by the project’s architect, Kevin J. O’Neill of KJO Architecture.

O’Neill said his aim was to design “a more modern interpretation" of the mid-19th-century buildings that flank the site.

But staff members with the city’s Historical Commission, whose architectural committee is scheduled to review the $3 million project on Tuesday, said in a report on the panel’s website that the proposal doesn’t meet the site’s historic-preservation requirements and should be rejected.

After the February 2018 blaze, city inspectors "laser scanned the front facade and salvaged the cast-iron first floor ... so that the building could be reconstructed,” the commission staffers wrote. “The applicant ... proposes to construct a building that does not reuse the historic fabric or reproduce the historic facade.”

Also, while the proposed building’s fifth-floor roof line would line up with those of adjacent buildings, the two-story setback toward the building’s rear “would be quite visible from the street,” staffers wrote.

O’Neill declined to respond to the commission staffers’ critique. Contact information for Mazal Tov managing member Gary Murray was not immediately available.

Buildings at 237 and 239 Chestnut St. and surrounding structures in July 2017. The building at 239, directly behind the white car, was gutted in the February 2018 fire. The building at 237 to its right was seriously damaged but repaired.
CycloMedia
Buildings at 237 and 239 Chestnut St. and surrounding structures in July 2017. The building at 239, directly behind the white car, was gutted in the February 2018 fire. The building at 237 to its right was seriously damaged but repaired.

Mazal Tov has the property under agreement of sale, O’Neill said. Under the developer’s plan, the new building would house six condominium units and ground-floor commercial space.

The developer’s application before the Historical Commission is for an “in-concept” review, which allows project planners to get early feedback to help them guide their proposals. Projects that are granted in-concept approval must still return to the commission with their full plans for final approval before a building permit can be issued.

The commission’s approval is needed for the Chestnut Street project because the 167-year-old building that once stood at the site had been on the city’s Register of Historic Places, as had a neighboring structure at 237 Chestnut that was built concurrently by the same architect, Stephen Button.

Button’s other work in the city includes the Arch Street Presbyterian Church at 18th Street.

The 239 Chestnut building, which once housed apartments and a ground-floor restaurant, was gutted in a fire that also badly damaged its neighbor at 237.

While that neighboring building has been restored, 239 Chestnut was demolished. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives said in February that it had determined the fire was set.

An ATF spokesperson did not return a phone message seeking an update on the investigation.

Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said his group wants to see the historic building reconstructed and has been "advocating for that with the developer and the architect.”

Artist's rendering of condo building proposed for the Chestnut Street site in Old City where a fire-gutted historic building once stood. This overhead view looking northeast shows the two-story "overbuild" atop the building's fifth-story roof.
KJO Architecture
Artist's rendering of condo building proposed for the Chestnut Street site in Old City where a fire-gutted historic building once stood. This overhead view looking northeast shows the two-story "overbuild" atop the building's fifth-story roof.