Richard Tyler, 83, who served as Philadelphia’s official historian and was a passionate and effective steward of its historic buildings during the tumultuous creation of the city’s modern preservation law, died Saturday, April 27, from a heart attack at the home of his son, Sam, in Northern Ireland. He had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, said his daughter, Elizabeth M. Tyler.
Mr. Tyler, who was recruited to run the Historical Commission in 1974, is a major reason that former white elephants like Eastern State Penitentiary and the Lit Bros. store still stand. After helping to fend off developers who sought to raze those buildings, he enlisted two powerful politicians, Mayors W. Wilson Goode Sr. and John F. Street, to strengthen the city’s preservation law.
That 1985 law, which survived a legal challenge at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, gave Philadelphia the power to prevent owners from tearing down buildings listed on its Historic Register. Until then, the city was only allowed to delay demolition for a six-month review. Even more than the buildings he protected, the preservation law is Mr. Tyler’s most lasting and profound accomplishment.
A native of Norristown who studied American history at Harvard University and earned a doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, Mr. Tyler served under five mayors, retiring in 2005. One reason he was so successful during his 31 years at the Historical Commission is that he was as adept at navigating City Hall’s corridors of power as he was in perusing its historic archives.
“Dick insisted on having direct access to the mayor,” recalled David Hollenberg, a preservation architect who worked for the National Park Service and served on the Historical Commission. “Dick had no hesitation about marching across the street and kibitzing with Mayor Goode.”
Mr. Tyler’s political skills were considered so unusual for a civil service employee that a 1990 Inquirer profile by Marc Duvoisin took special note of them. In addition to being a “fount of information” about Philadelphia history, Mr. Tyler was “an astute politician, a clever tactician. Above all, a survivor,” Duvoisin wrote.
Mr. Tyler may have been good at mingling with politicians, but he did not look the part. Standing 6-foot-6 and rail thin, he had a nimbus of fluffy white hair that made him resemble “Doc” Brown, the mad scientist from the Back to the Future movies. Mr. Tyler strode around Center City wearing a French military cape, with a corncob pipe nestled in his palm, in the style of an ivory tower academic. He was partial to Swedish tobacco, said his daughter, a professor at the University of York in England.
Mr. Tyler used his close relationships with the city’s top elected officials in his negotiations with developers. He felt so confident about his position that he repeatedly refused to sign the demolition permit for the Lit Bros. store in the late 1980s, recalled Sally Elk, a former Historical Commission staffer and now the president of the penitentiary historic site.
Once, after getting wind that an expediter was on the way over with a new demolition permit, Mr. Tyler folded his lanky frame under a desk so that he would not be spotted. “Luckily, he had a huge desk,” Elk said.
Soon after that incident, he approached Goode and begged him to intervene, reminding him that Lits was the last complete block of Victorian commercial architecture on Market Street. “There was already a crane set up inside the building, and they were about to start demolition,” Goode recalled. “I gave the orders not to proceed.”
The enormous cream-colored structure was eventually purchased by Growth Properties and Brickstone Realty, which converted it to an office building and shopping mall.
Mr. Tyler also persuaded Goode to cancel an agreement with Toll Bros. to build houses inside the massive stone walls of the former prison. At the time, Alcatraz had just been turned into a tourist attraction. Mr. Tyler promised Goode that Eastern State would someday be just as popular. This year, the number of visitors exceeded those at the Barnes Foundation, according to Elk.
In 1980, Mr. Tyler went out of his way to befriend a freshman council member, Street. Concerned that there would be many more crises like Lits and Eastern State, he persuaded Street to take up the cause of preservation. Street agreed to introduce the bill giving the Historical Commission the authority to stop the demolitions of certified historic buildings.
“Mayor [William J.] Green didn’t want to do the bill,” recalled Street, but “Tyler was relentless.”
Although the bill passed, it was soon challenged in court by United Artists, then the owner of the Boyd Theatre on Chestnut Street. In what became a legal roller coaster that threatened to undermine the cause of preservation nationally, the law was struck down, then reinstated by a series of courts. In 1993, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court put the matter to rest when it ruled that Philadelphia’s preservation ordinance was constitutional.
Despite the victory, the experience so unnerved Mr. Tyler that he decided to go to law school at Temple University, Hollenberg said.
One of the innovations of the new preservation law was that it allowed the city to designate entire neighborhoods as historic districts. Fearing that preservation might be seen as an elitist pastime, Mr. Tyler recommended that the Diamond Street corridor in North Philadelphia should be the city’s first historic district. It was followed by the Rittenhouse-Fitler and Society Hill historic districts. Although those districts were initially opposed by some residents, all have thrived.
Mr. Tyler did suffer a number of defeats, especially during the Rendell administration, when several colonial-era warehouses in Old City were torn down. Perhaps the worst blow came in 2000 — during the Street administration — when the chairman of the Historical Commission, Wayne Spilove, announced he was tearing down the 1600 block of Sansom Street to put up a parking garage.
One area that Mr. Tyler was unable to secure as a historic district was his own Spruce Hill neighborhood in West Philadelphia. He raised his family in an 1885 cottage on Regent Square and commuted to his job at City Hall on the Route 13 trolley.
“He was a great champion of Philadelphia,” Goode recalled. “We don’t have an advocate like Dick Tyler today.”
In addition to his daughter and son, Mr. Tyler is survived by several grandchildren.