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As Toll Brothers starts work on Jewelers Row tower, merchants wonder what’s next | Inga Saffron

Can the historic street retain its essential character even as its businesses grow more diverse?

The owner of 700 Sansom Street, the oldest building on Jewelers Row and the only one listed on the Historic Register, is concerned about the impact of Toll Bros. construction.
The owner of 700 Sansom Street, the oldest building on Jewelers Row and the only one listed on the Historic Register, is concerned about the impact of Toll Bros. construction.Read moreInga Saffron

In Philadelphia, obliterating a beloved old building isn’t necessarily a barrier to celebrating it. The expensive new townhouses that replaced the original Please Touch Museum, which occupied a handsome, early 20th-century carpet factory, can’t boast much in the way of design, but they do have a shiny nameplate that declares, “Museum Estates at the former Please Touch Museum.”

Go to the Jewelers Row District website and you’ll find another exercise in nostalgia-making for a place that isn’t quite gone yet. The landing page features an old-timey picture of America’s oldest diamond center, complete with horse-drawn trolleys. But it’s only a matter of days before what’s left of that view of Sansom Street segues into history.

After four years of official dithering at City Hall, preservation lawsuits, and uncertainty, Toll Brothers’ proposal to wedge a glassy 24-story condo onto the Federal-era street is finally a reality. A construction fence now surrounds the five doomed buildings, and demolition is expected to start any day now, followed by two years of construction. When the dust clears, what will be left from the old image?

The answer depends on who you talk to. Rich Goldberg, a third-generation jeweler who owns Safian & Rudolph, remains bullish on the future of Jewelers Row. Since taking over as president of the merchants association from his father, Hy, he has presided over its rebranding and expansion. It’s the Jewelers Row District, instead of just Jewelers Row. The group’s membership now includes a healthy helping of non-jewelers, such as Jones and El Fuego restaurants. The district’s boundaries are larger, too, encompassing the area from Walnut to Market, between Seventh and Ninth.

The changes are intended to strengthen this unique place, which remains, despite Toll’s incursion, an authentic, homegrown ecosystem of jewelry designers, fabricators, and retailers, and an important employment cluster for the city. But the decision to broaden its membership is also an acknowledgment that Philadelphia’s historic diamond district isn’t as thick with jewelry shops and makers as it once was. More restaurants have settled on the Row’s main street, the 700 block of Sansom. More property owners are converting the upper floors of their buildings to apartments.

“There are no new jewelers coming in,” said David Perlman, owner of the Jewelry Trades Building on the corner of Eighth Street.

The issue now is whether the remaining jewelers can survive two long years of sidewalk blockages, dust, noise, and heavy trucks. Paul Steinke, the head of the Preservation Alliance, which led the unsuccessful legal fight to stop Toll’s tower, is worried. “We’ve seen over and over again that construction is poison for foot traffic,” he told me. “The disruption caused by these projects is like hanging a ‘Closed for Renovation’ sign on the blockplace

Goldberg doesn’t deny that the Row faces tough days ahead. In preparation, the merchants association has embraced a familiar suite of placemaking strategies to lure shoppers. It has started holding movie nights; Silver Linings Playbook, which features gorgeous shots of the Row, began the series, followed by Bridesmaids. In September, the district organized its first street festival with food vendors. Come holiday time, merchants will hang the lights they bought from the Silver Linings set. There’s an Instagram account, of course, with photos of diamond engagement rings in heavy rotation.

While online sales have hurt some jewelers, Goldberg argues that the jewelry business is better off today than most other retail categories. “People still want to look at a diamond in person, to see how it’s cut,” he said. The Row’s merchants can also offer custom designs, a practice supported by the artisans who occupy the beehive of workshops in the Jewelry Trades Building.

All that has enabled Jewelers Row to hang on while the city’s other Rows — Fabric, Antique, Kitchen Supply — have gradually lost their identity. Paul Levy, head of the Center City District, which includes Jewelers Row, argues that such “single-use districts” are a thing of the past, so welcoming other types of retail makes sense.

But Jewelers Row isn’t only important as a place to buy jewelry. It’s a deeply resonant collection of buildings that reflects the capacity of Philadelphia architecture to adapt to new uses. Even though it is hard to tell today, the street was home to Philadelphia’s first rowhouse development, William Sansom’s Carstairs Row, built in 1799. Only three buildings retain something close to their original design, but that includes the nearly unaltered house at 700 Sansom, next to the Toll site.

Even with the architectural changes over the years, a visit to the Row still conjures up a disappearing Philadelphia, a time before glass-and-metal buildings began slicking things up. Because the 700 block refuses to obey the rules of the city grid, and veers slightly out of line, it feels like a place apart. Its redbrick street pavers, eclectic architecture, and the reflected sparkle of the shop windows enhance its distinctive character.

That’s one reason the Preservation Alliance has been pushing the city since March 2017 to make Sansom Street a historic district. For a single block, the number of buildings by significant architects is extraordinary: T.P. Chandler, Henry Lea, the Wilson Brothers, Ralph Bencker. Yet, the Historical Commission has repeatedly delayed the vote, saying it wanted to give property owners time to respond. Two-and-half years seems generous.

The vote is now scheduled for December, but Goldberg and others are vigorously fighting the historic district. Goldberg said owners worry the district will restrict the kind of renovations property owners can make.

That’s true. But a historic district doesn’t mean Jewelers Row will be frozen in time; it simply regulates how things change. The trade-off is that the designation increases the chances that the district will remain an attractive, desirable place to shop. It’s hard to see how some recent repair jobs, like the stucco makeover at 720 Sansom, help advance the Row’s viability.

If a historic district had been in place when Toll proposed its tower, the commission could have played a meaningful role in shaping the design. Despite the importance of Jewelers Row to Philadelphia, we don’t really know what the finished building will look like, since its renderings were clearly meant as placeholders, rather than real designs.

Toll’s tower isn’t going to be the last on the street, either. Perlman has applied for permission to add six stories to his Jewelry Trades Building. Completed in 1929, the building was designed by Ralph Bencker to host just such an addition. With the right design, the expansion could even be an asset to Jewelers Row. But we need the Historical Commission’s oversight to ensure that it is sympathetic to the existing building and the neighborhood.

Jewelers Row also needs the city to aggressively protect the surviving Carstairs Row building at the corner of Seventh Street. Its owner, Richard Le, is fearful that the deep foundations necessary for Toll’s tower could undermine the little building. The Department of Licenses & Inspections (which recently slapped him with a violation notice, for an unsafe parapet wall) has ordered Toll to install vibration monitors.

Jewelers Row may never again look exactly like the image on the merchants association’s website. But there is still time to contain the damage that already has been done. If we truly want to honor our history, we need more than plaques and photos of lost streetscapes.