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Changing Skyline: In Philadelphia, a historic building is not forever

Winning landmark protection for historic buildings in Philadelphia is no easy thing. But keeping them protected has become even more of an ordeal.

Winning landmark protection for historic buildings in Philadelphia is no easy thing. But keeping them protected has become even more of an ordeal.

It used to be that safeguarding the city's most cherished works of architecture was a cut-and-dried process. If you could prove that a design was worthy, or that something really important had transpired inside, the Historical Commission would list the building on the City Register. People might fiercely disagree about the merits of a nomination, but once a building was on the list, it couldn't be demolished or significantly modified. Preservation was forever.

That all changed during the Nutter years as the housing market boomed, developers began combing the city for buildable lots, and the commission took a decidedly pro-development turn. As the demolition of the historic Boyd Theater showed, being on the register is no guarantee against the wrecking ball. Developers have now come to see designation as a suggestion, rather than settled law. Like so much zoning in this town, it is an inconvenience to be overcome.

We can see the implications of the commission's development-first thinking playing out in Powelton Village, an extraordinary neighborhood of stately Victorian townhouses that blossomed in the late 19th century as trolleys pushed their way into West Philadelphia. In October, the commission agreed to list the entire 3600 block of Lancaster Avenue on the historic register. Known as Lancaster Mews, the distinctive ensemble of 16 Italianate-style houses is fully occupied, with shops and restaurants on the ground floor and apartments above.

No sooner did the group receive Historical Commission protection than negotiations over its fate began.

Eager to increase the number of rental units, the owner, AP Construction, filed a renovation plan with the commission that would dramatically change the size and appearance of the 1870s ensemble. It wants permission to slice off the rear portion of the mews and insert a more efficient, modern structure in its place. Only the Lancaster Avenue facade, and parts of the walls on 36th and 37th Streets, would survive.

In the development world, people call such projects facadectomies. It's really demolition by another name.

Maybe because the commission has so confused its mission in recent years, the proposal sailed through the staff review. In a written opinion, director Jon Farnham gave AP's proposal a thumbs-up, saying "it allows for the preservation of the buildings and a financially viable redevelopment."

Wait a minute. Lancaster Mews seems "financially viable" just as it is.

The buildings, after all, are a short walk from the Drexel and Penn campuses. Students fill the apartments and patronize the stores. In recent years, the Lancaster Avenue business corridor has seen improvement with a new cafe and housing. An apartment house is planned for 37th Street (on the site of the former Drew elementary school) and will include space for retail and restaurants. Yet, AP wants to eliminate the shops in Lancaster Mews so it can cram in more apartments.

Beyond the economic arguments, this ensemble is vital to maintaining the identity and texture of Powelton Village, which is losing its great Victorians as developers replace them with more efficiently designed student apartments. It's significant that groups as diverse as Drexel and the People's Emergency Center have lobbied for the mews' preservation. They don't want a fake historic building with no public activity on the ground floor.

They're not the only ones who believe the mews should be left as it is. Last week, a Historical Commission subcommittee of architects rejected Farnham's recommendation and turned down the facadectomy proposal. It urged the full commission - which has final say - to do the same when it hears the case April 8.

Fortunately, Mayor Kenney, who has promised to give preservation issues a more sympathetic ear, named a new set of appointees Thursday to replace the Nutter-era holdovers on the commission. They will be led by Robert Thomas, an architectural historian who also served under Nutter. Lancaster Mews is shaping up as the first big test of the administration's commitment to preservation.

The new members will have their work cut out for them. Ever since the commission allowed the Boyd to be demolished under its financial-hardship rule, developers have come to expect similarly lenient interpretations of the preservation laws. It's the main reason the developer of a 600-foot luxury tower on Rittenhouse Square is petitioning for demolition of three small historic buildings on Sansom Street. The only hardship is that the trio are in the way.

"It's really about maximizing the value of the real estate," says Katherine Dowdell, an architect and former chair of the Preservation Alliance board. "Financial hardship wasn't put into place to protect people who wildly overpaid for their properties."

AP Construction, which bought the mews for $5.75 million in 2013, isn't seeking a hardship ruling. But Farnham argues that its facadectomy proposal deserves consideration because it was already planning a demolition when the mews was listed on the historic register. What's odd about that logic is that the building was nominated - by the Planning Commission, no less - specifically to thwart a potential demolition. (AP's Bob Gillies declined to speak about the company's plans.)

Used as a last resort, facadectomies can sometimes be a way to preserve the appearance of a historic building. The approach saved the limestone Rittenhouse Club facade on Walnut Street. But old brick fronts are much more difficult - and expensive - to prop up during reconstruction. What guarantee is there that Lancaster Mews' facade would survive the ordeal?

Why even go there? Lancaster Mews proved it was worthy of preservation once. It shouldn't have to prove it a second time.