From the sixth floor of the Jewelry Trades Building on the 700 block of Sansom Street, Avishai Greis overlooks a Jewelers’ Row that is changing in front of his eyes.
And it’s not just because of the vacant lot that now awaits a new, 24-story Toll Brothers tower.
Greis, a jeweler who has occupied the storied block for nearly 45 years, said he has witnessed Jewelers’ Row slowly eroded by the vast world of the internet. It’s now cheaper and more convenient to buy gold, silver, and diamonds online, making it harder to attract foot traffic into the mom-and-pop stores that line the street. 3D printing has complicated Greis’ craft, too, offering competitors a faster alternative than the meticulous jewelry casting process that he mastered decades ago.
So Greis, 72, is trying to reinvent himself to stay alive on the row, dabbling in sculpture — just a hobby, for now — and handyman work for tenants on the block. “The way shopping is being done, it’s impossible to survive,” said Greis, who runs Aion Manufacturing Co. “Toll may accelerate the speed [of decline], but this is something that will happen anyhow.”
Since Toll Brothers City Living made it clear 3½ years ago that it was eyeing a chunk of Jewelers’ Row for its first Philadelphia high-rise, questions have swirled over the fate of jewelry-makers such as Greis. Indeed, the number of jewelers on the block has dwindled since its heyday during the mid-1900s — with apartments and offices joining the quaint, brick-paved street. Tenants such as Greis have worried that ongoing construction for Toll’s tower will push more customers away.
For years, jewelers, preservation advocates, and Philadelphia residents called for city officials to intervene, pleading for them to save the street that is often considered America’s oldest diamond district. A petition generated more than 7,000 signatures. Protests were held. But in the end, the Horsham-based builder began razing five Jewelers’ Row properties in the last weeks of 2019.
Greis said he fears what awaits those still on the block. For example, the owner of the property he occupies, 740 Sansom St., secured a zoning permit in 2017 to build six extra stories on top. Although no other permits for the property have been issued — and the building’s owner, PRDC Properties LLC, has not disclosed further plans — Greis worries about how construction could affect building tenants.
But until then, there is one thing giving jewelers such as Greis some hope: The Historical Commission is expected in March to decide whether Jewelers’ Row is a historic district.
And the answer — which could give the block protection from future demolition — will not only end a years-long fight over the significance of Jewelers’ Row’s past but will also forge a clearer path for its future.
In March 2017, months after Toll disclosed its plan for a luxury condo and retail tower, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia nominated the block and surrounding area as a historic district. By then, it was too late to stop demolition from happening. Amid the typical rush to submit paperwork during historic preservation battles, Toll’s permit to raze the buildings was issued first.
Still, preservationists argued, it was important to try to save the rest of the area.
At the same time, they tried everything they could to stop Toll from moving forward: The Preservation Alliance appealed the developer’s demolition permits. Individual historic preservation nominations were submitted for two of the properties that Toll wanted to raze. Mayor Jim Kenney called one of Toll’s tower proposals “deeply disturbing" and asked the developer to reconsider its plan not to preserve the facades of existing buildings.
In the end, no effort to derail Toll was successful.
And all the while, the nomination for a Jewelers’ Row historic district sat undecided before the 14-member Historical Commission.
The commission has no rules dictating that preservation nominations must be processed within any time period, and the high volume of nominations — coupled with the commission’s other duties — often means that preservation nominations are backlogged for months or years. Property owners were notified about the Jewelers’ Row district nomination in December 2018, roughly 21 months after the Preservation Alliance submitted the paperwork.
Once property owners are notified, the buildings are treated as if they are protected until the commission makes a final designation decision. For the more than four dozen buildings in the proposed Jewelers’ Row historic district, that means nothing can be altered — and properties cannot be demolished — without the commission’s approval. Those same rules would apply if the district were officially designated as historic.
Immediately, dozens of property owners on the block protested the nomination and hired a lawyer, who plans to argue before the Historical Commission that a district would leave the 700 block of Sansom Street “frozen in time." Since the first properties along Jewelers’ Row were built more than two centuries ago, the block has morphed from a residential block to a row of publishing houses and then to jewelers. Why, then, the property owners wonder, are they not allowed the same opportunity for change?
“The owners have this fear that they are trying to preserve something in time that naturally, as the city evolves and the [jewelry industry] evolves, is changing,” said Michael Phillips, the Philadelphia lawyer representing more than two dozen property owners.
“By designating historic, you make it more difficult for the block to continue to evolve,” Phillips continued. “And if you have a lot of vacancies, it won’t be the same street and have the same nostalgia for future generations.”
Compared with preservation nominations for individual properties, historic districts often are more controversial and take more time to get approval. With more buildings up for consideration, more property owners typically push back. Perhaps most famously, the Overbrook Farms historic district, nominated in 2004, was not approved until last year.
As a result, Philadelphia has seen only 24 historic districts passed since 1984. However, the Historical Commission has never voted to reject a proposed historic district.
For Jewelers’ Row, that means the odds are in the Preservation Alliance’s favor — though advocates will need to convince the commission why the properties deserve protection. In the nomination, the Preservation Alliance argued that Jewelers’ Row is a "compact haven of industry in the heart of the city,” that reads as a “catalog of Philadelphia architectural history, where remnants of Carstairs Row, the first entire block of identical, speculative rowhouses built in Philadelphia, are visible between early revivalist façades, eclectic Victorian edifices, Art Deco ornament, postwar storefronts, and modern re-facings.”
But for Patrick Grossi, advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance, protecting Jewelers’ Row is also, simply, about “managing change" on a block known and celebrated for its brick paving, wide sidewalks, and old-Philadelphia charm.
“We hope that Jewelers’ Row can continue to exist,” Grossi said at a recent meeting before the city’s Planning Commission. “But if because of larger forces it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean the block needs to completely not exist in the way that we experience it today. It can be another kind of row; it has demonstrated that flexibility over time.”
The hearing before the Historical Commission is scheduled for March 13. On Feb. 14, the commission will consider Toll’s building permit application and will determine how much oversight it will have over the mixed-use tower’s design and construction. A spokesperson for the developer said in a statement to The Inquirer that it hopes to gear up “for foundation work in the coming months.”