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Preserving Philadelphia’s history, one building at a time

The city has “three centuries of American architecture on display — for free — every day,” thanks, in part, to preservation efforts.

The northwest corner of 10th and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia would look very different today if preservationists hadn't fought in the early 1990s to save the Victory Building, America's first office building, from demolition.
The northwest corner of 10th and Chestnut Streets in Philadelphia would look very different today if preservationists hadn't fought in the early 1990s to save the Victory Building, America's first office building, from demolition.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Google “most historic cities in the United States,” and Philadelphia makes every list.

Sure, such cities as Boston and Charleston, S.C., have interesting pasts, but Philadelphia deserves to rank No. 1 on that list, says Paul Steinke, executive director of not-for-profit, member-supported Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

“Part of it is that we have three centuries of American architecture on display — for free — every day,” he said. “It’s something that sets us apart, especially from the new cities of the South and West, and gives our neighborhoods a distinctive character.”

He’s not talking just about Independence Hall and colonial-era streets lined with brick rowhouses. He also means such places as the Engine 46 Firehouse in Pennsport, whose distinctive architecture signaled the elevation of firefighting from volunteer to professional work.

And the YMHA/YWHA in Center City, built through the fund-raising efforts of the city’s rising Jewish middle class, where the next transformation will include a new student center and exhibition space for University of the Arts.

And Joe Frazier’s Gym in North Philadelphia, where an actual boxer, not a movie character, trained for heavyweight bouts.

“That’s one of the hidden joys of this role for me,” said Steinke, a preservation advocate for nearly 30 years, “discovering these hidden histories that have been forgotten, putting them into the public record, and sharing that knowledge.”

The Inquirer asked the Preservation Alliance, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, to talk about the state of preservation today and share a sampling of significant properties saved in and around Philadelphia. In addition to advocacy, the alliance is known for its architecture walking tours, preservation achievement awards, and speaker series.

In Philadelphia, any individual can submit a nomination for historic protection. Over the last five years, the Philadelphia Historical Commission has designated 13 historic districts with 941 properties, 224 individual sites, and two interiors. Fourteen nominations were rejected, according to commission records.

Preservationists aim to proactively identify properties, Steinke said, but sometimes jump in at the last minute in reaction to an imminent threat of demolition.

In the 1980s and early ‘90s, when the city was losing people and businesses, landmarks such as the Victory Building at 10th and Chestnut Streets, stood vacant, deteriorating and at risk of demolition out of sheer neglect. The challenge then was to find creative uses for places nobody wanted.

Now, with the city’s population growing and formerly languishing neighborhoods becoming desirable, the development boom is putting “perfectly good historic buildings” at risk, Steinke said. In many cases, it’s cheaper and easier to knock down a building than adapt it for reuse.

Some real estate developers have taken the risk to bring back old buildings — such as the recent resurrections of the Divine Lorraine and the Met on North Broad Street by Eric Blumenfeld. But with any old building, Steinke noted, “you’re really not sure what you’re going to find until you start deconstructing it for rehabilitation.”

Some buildings — even those with a historical marker out front — don’t survive to have their stories told.

Among recent “heartbreaking” preservation losses, Steinke cited the demolition in December 2019 of a portion of Jewelers Row, one of Philadelphia’s distinctive specialty shopping districts, to make way for a 24-story residential tower. Six months later, citing economic uncertainty, developer Toll Bros. paused construction of the project.

“If the pandemic had started three months earlier, those buildings might still be standing,” Steinke said.

» READ MORE: Jewelers Row condo-tower developer Toll Bros. pauses work amid coronavirus uncertainty (from June 2020)

Mayor Jim Kenney has moved slowly on his 2015 campaign promise to make historical preservation a priority, but in November 2019, City Council passed three laws to make it easier to reuse old buildings.

In 2022, the city expects to begin creating a long-awaited inventory of “cultural resources” — “not just those whose histories are easily apparent in historic buildings eligible for the local register,” according to Paul Chrystie, spokesman for the Historical Commission.

That inventory, plus scheduled changes to the 10-year property tax abatement program that will favor rehabilitation, could help save more buildings, Steinke said.

To date, the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places has protected 11,848 resources; 116 more are under consideration. Once a building is designated, alterations must meet historic preservation standards, and demolition is prohibited unless it’s in the public interest, or the property owner demonstrates the building has no feasible use.

Philadelphia’s history “is a key element of our attraction as a place to live and work and raise families,” Steinke said, adding that there’s a sustainability argument, as well. “The greenest building is the one that’s already standing.”

Examples of historically designated properties below include those that “had some degree of city notoriety at the time,” Steinke said, and in which the Preservation Alliance played a role in the outcome. Descriptions were provided by the alliance.

Baptist Temple, 1837 N. Broad St.

Located on the campus of Temple University, this historic 1891 church was considered expendable in a 1990s campus master plan that envisioned its demolition in favor of green space. This, even though the original congregation was led by the Rev. Russell Conwell, the founder of Temple University. The alliance played a leading role in the effort to save the church and convince Temple’s leaders to preserve the building, which they eventually renovated as a performing arts center.

» READ MORE: Among acres of diamonds, Temple's real gem: Baptist Temple to reopen as cultural arts center (from March 2010)

District 1 Health Center, 500 S. Broad St.

A midcentury modern landmark on the Avenue of the Arts built in 1959, this turquoise brick and glass block building was threatened by the departure of the City Health Department and heavy development pressure in the area. The alliance sponsored its historic designation in 2017, and the current redevelopment plan for the property includes its preservation.

» READ MORE: Good Eye: A pop of modernist color on Broad Street (from May 2016)

Engine 46 Firehouse, 1401 S. Water St.

Constructed in 1894 by the City of Philadelphia, this high-style former firehouse reflects an era of rapid population growth in late 19th-century Philadelphia and a corresponding expansion of municipal services that saw the construction of architecturally distinctive firehouses, police stations and public bath houses in neighborhoods across the city — only a small fraction of which survive today. Once slated for demolition, the property was designated in 2018 by an alliance-sponsored nomination, thereby helping to ensure its survival.

» READ MORE: Engine 46 firehouse may be spared (from July 2013)

Joe Frazier’s Gym, North Broad Street and West Glenwood Avenue

Built about 1895 as a warehouse, the property is today remembered as Joe Frazier’s Gym. It was here that Frazier trained for some of his most celebrated bouts with fellow boxing legends George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the alliance successfully supported efforts to list the property on both the Philadelphia and National Registers of Historic Places in 2012.

» READ MORE: Joe Frazier's Gym gets historic status (from April 2013)

Lazaretto Quarantine Station, Tinicum Township

Built in the Federal style around 1800, this riverside complex was designed to protect Philadelphia from communicable diseases at a time when yellow fever wreaked havoc on its citizenry. A remarkable survivor for more than two centuries, it was targeted for demolition for airport parking in 2001 before a furious preservation effort led by the alliance saved it from the wrecking ball. It has been rehabilitated and now serves as the municipal headquarters of Tinicum Township, Delaware County.

» READ MORE: Long before coronavirus, Philly ran a quarantine center for another deadly contagion (from April 2020)

Nugent Home, 221 W. Johnson St., and Presser Home, 101 W. Johnson St.

These distinctive buildings were built for senior housing in the early 1900s — Nugent for retired Baptist ministers and Presser for retired musicians. By the early 2000s, both were vacant, graffiti-scarred, and surrounded by weed-choked lots. A proposal emerged to clear the site for a new mega-church. The alliance joined with the community to get both properties designated and then worked with a developer who restored the buildings as senior housing, which they remain to this day.

» READ MORE: Changing Skyline: Gratifying tale of buildings preserved (from April 2014)

Sigma Sound Studios, 212 N. 12th St.

Occupying a modest Depression-era industrial loft building in Center City, Sigma Sound Studios was the birthplace of a musical genre variously defined as “Philly Soul” or “The Sound of Philadelphia,” which dominated popular music in the late 1960s and 1970s. The alliance worked with a coalition of music history lovers to help this property narrowly escape the wrecking ball by listing it on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2020. There are hopes of turning it into a music museum.

» READ MORE: Saving Sigma Sound: Fans and preservationists hope the Sound of Philly studio can become a music museum (from March 2020)

Trinity Oxford Parish House, 6901 Rising Sun Ave.

This Colonial Revival structure in Northeast Philadelphia was built in 1928. For decades it housed many functions of its historic Episcopal congregation, founded in 1700. Threatened with demolition for a gas station/convenience store in 2017, the parish house became the subject of a spirited preservation effort in the community, culminating in a successful, alliance-sponsored nomination to the historic register. The property is being converted into an early childhood education center.

» READ MORE: Historic Northeast Philly church building that nearly became a Royal Farms will be a preschool | Inga Saffron (from September 2019)

United States Naval Home, 2420 Grays Ferry Ave.

The Navy created this refuge for retired sailors in 1824, retaining noted architect William Strickland to design a stately campus along the Schuylkill. After the home closed in 1976, the complex sat empty and decaying for more than two decades before public pressure forced its owner to act. The alliance helped broker a redevelopment plan that preserved public views of the historic buildings in the new gated residential community built in the mid-2000s.

» READ MORE: New life for old Naval Home site (from August 2010)

Victory Building, 10th & Chestnut Streets

Built in three stages between 1871 and 1901, this French Second Empire commercial structure fell into vacancy and decay in the 1980s and ‘90s. The alliance helped lead a citywide advocacy campaign seeking to prevent its demolition and fight for its preservation, which paid off when the newly renovated building opened as apartments in 2002.

Young Men’s & Young Women’s Hebrew Association, 401 S. Broad St.

Celebrated upon its completion in 1924 as the largest Jewish institutional building of its kind in the United States, this building served for more than nine decades as a center of Jewish social, cultural and educational activities. It was threatened with demolition in the 2010s. The alliance led an effort to get the building protected on the historic register, paving the way for its current adaptive reuse for academic uses. University of the Arts on Tuesday announced a project to transform the building, now known as Gershman Hall, into a student center and creative spaces for visual and performing arts.