Demolition has begun on Jewelers’ Row. It’s as bad as it gets for a city with a historic preservation crisis. In the middle of a nonstop development boom, in a city whose brand is history, more than 97% of Philadelphia’s buildings are still unprotected. Jim Kenney, despite running for mayor in 2015 on a platform that included strengthening preservation, has failed to lead on the issue, and has done nothing to save Jewelers’ Row.
In 2016, Toll Brothers’ plans to demolish five handsome, contiguous buildings on the Row and replace them with a glass-box residential tower inspired such indignation that more than 7,000 people signed a petition to save Jewelers’ Row. The mayor called the plan “deeply disturbing."
And he had more than three years to negotiate with Toll and persuade them to build instead on one of several nearby developable surface lots — perhaps the Disney Hole less than two blocks north that remains undeveloped after more than 30 years — or at the very least preserve the mismatched façades and cornice lines that give Jewelers’ Row its character. Toll didn’t even do that.
The failure to save Jewelers’ Row exposes Philly’s lack of control at telling its own story, and it’s galling, yet apropos, that the destruction comes from Toll Brothers, the quintessential suburban American developer. After buying the U.S. Naval Asylum in 1988, Toll sat on it for 15 years, and when squatters set fire to the 1833 main building, they would have torn it down had the Street administration’s Historical Commission not required them to rebuild. Of course now it’s the centerpiece of a massive gated community in a thriving urban neighborhood.
Toll Brothers pledged to “protect not only the look and feel of Jewelers’ Row but also its culture and heritage." It is doing so by destroying an eighth of its buildings in a district that should have already been protected. And Toll is being honored for its work: Bruce and Bob Toll will each receive an Industry Icon Award from The Inquirer next month.
In the same three years that the Jewelers’ Row circus played out, the Philadelphia History Museum (in an important city-owned building from 1825 one block north of Jewelers’ Row) closed; the city set a record for demolitions in a year; and the Mayor’s Historic Preservation Task Force recommended conducting an inventory of historic resources — something preservationists called for long before a task force — but it did not issue a timeline or deadline to do so.
Philadelphia has suffered plenty of demolitions worthy of our “Penn Station moment”: Frank Furness’ Provident Life & Trust Co., the Jayne Building (which Ed Bacon called “the worst single act of architectural vandalism that I’ve ever experienced”), the Boyd Theatre, Kenny Gamble’s destruction of his own legacy at Philadelphia International Records. ... But for a mayor ostensibly invested in preservation, the destruction of a major section of America’s oldest diamond district for a condo tower seems most egregious.
In Mount Airy, a long-standing zoning error allowed a developer to buy two handsome, contiguous homes with a plan to demolish and replace them with a much larger apartment building. With a groundswell of neighbors’ opposition and leadership from Councilperson Cindy Bass, the plan was averted, the parcels’ zoning corrected, and the developer is renovating the homes to sell.
At Jewelers’ Row, there was no such leadership, only unanswered protest and textbook capitalism. Owners willingly sold their buildings, America’s Luxury Home Builder® won, and the buck stopped nowhere. With over three years to do something, anything, to preserve an important historic district a block from Independence Hall, Mayor Kenney couldn’t get it done.
He was, of course, just reelected.
Bradley Maule has covered architecture, development, and historic preservation as a photographer and as the founding editor of phillyskyline.com, former editor of the Hidden City Daily, and contributor to other publications in Philadelphia and Portland, Ore.