ONE LANDLORD speaking before the Philadelphia Historical Commission on Friday said there was nothing special about a block of 1870s twin rowhouses on Chestnut Street near 41st.

"These are just your basic West Philadelphia rowhouses," argued Eapen Kalathil, principal owner of one of the twins being considered for historic designation. "They are plain brick houses, with no porches."

But Kalathil would not win his argument. The commission voted to place his property at 4054 Chestnut St. and two other twins on the block - 4050 and 4052 - on the city's historic register.

The Italianate red-brick twins are part of a row of similar homes on the block built by the chemical magnate and real estate developer Thomas H. Powers.

Kalathil said he opposed the designation because "it's going to be expensive just to change a doorbell."

But Elizabeth Stegner, president of the University City Historical Society, said they are beautiful and representative of much of the architectural character and charm found in University City.

The Powers houses were built as rental housing for middle-class workers who didn't have the means to buy the larger Italianate mansions built on villas on Spruce Hill or the sprawling twins designed by Samuel Sloan on Woodland Terrace.

"We have the largest number of Victorian houses in one neighborhood in the United States, said Stegner, of University City.

But because of a building boom as developers rush in to put up brand-new buildings made of "faux brick" and other materials for student housing, more of the vintage 19th century buildings are being torn down, she said.

In fact, one of the Powers buildings, 4042-44 Chestnut, next door to the University of Pennsylvania Police station, has already been demolished and a newer, taller building that towers over the original twins is under construction.

Stegner worked with Aaron Wunsch, a University of Pennsylvania architectural preservation professor, and Oscar Beisert, a historian, to seek historic designation for the block of twins.

She said people bought homes in University City because of their architectural style, with many featuring wide porches and leafy front and back yards.

In Cedar Park, Stegner said, the block where she lives was designed by Horace Trumbauer, the architect whose firm designed the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Kathy Dowdell, a former president of the historical society, said that when she walks down Chestnut Street and sees the one new building towering over the red-brick rowhouses,"it looks like a beautiful woman whose smile has been marred by a blackened tooth."

Meanwhile, the historical commission postponed decisions on other twins at 4046-48 and 4056 Chestnut.

Commission members noted that 4046-48 is in a legal tug of war.

Andrew L. Miller, the attorney for the owners of 4046-48, argued that his clients applied for a demolition permit March 17, months before the neighborhood historical society sought historic designation May 10.

The owners were about to proceed with demolition June 16, but the historical society went to court the day before and won a temporary injunction blocking the demolition.

"We all play by the rules," Miller said, telling the commission that his client was relying on existing laws, prior to the neighborhood group's application for historic designation.

But Wunsch said: "This row of buildings has already been recognized as part of a national historic district."

Ironically, the block of twins is on the National Register of Historic Places, he said.

"This is an important block historically and architecturally," Wunsch said.

He said the historical society tried twice over the last 25 years to place the entire Spruce Hill area on the Philadelphia register but nothing ever happened.

"It doesn't require a degree in architectural history for people to know that they like living in a place, because of the buildings' age, or design, or the way they're set back from the street.

"They get upset when they see it get dismantled. It makes you feel like your neighborhood is disappearing."

russv@phillynews.com

215-854-5987 @ValerieRussDN