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Philly officials recommend demolition of historic Rittenhouse Square buildings set ablaze amid unrest in May

The buildings are part of Philadelphia's most prestigious shopping street and part of a historic district.

Three Walnut Street buildings that were ransacked and burned on May 30 are now expected to be demolished.
Three Walnut Street buildings that were ransacked and burned on May 30 are now expected to be demolished.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Three historic, 19th-century buildings in the heart of Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square shopping district will have to be razed due to fire damage sustained during the mayhem that followed a Black Lives Matter protest in May, the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections has determined.

The three structures are on the 1700 block of Walnut Street, the most prestigious shopping corridor in Philadelphia and a city historic district. Their demolition will leave a major gap in the street’s continuity at a time when Center City’s retailers are struggling to survive the pandemic’s economic impact.

“It’s akin to losing buildings on Fifth Avenue in New York or Boylston Street in Boston,” said Paul Steinke, the head of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

The fate of the buildings has been uncertain since they were set ablaze by vandals on the night of May 30, following a day of somber demonstrations condemning the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The fires destroyed the interiors of 1706, 1708, and 1710 Walnut, leaving only their blackened and scorched front facades standing. Originally built as townhouses for wealthy Rittenhouse Square residents, the three were converted to shops as the area evolved into a fashionable shopping district in the early 20th century. The buildings are less than a block from the square.

L&I officials initially thought the buildings' fragile brick facades could be saved and new structures constructed behind them. But earlier this month, the department informed the Historical Commission that the trio would have to be demolished “as soon as possible for safety reasons,” commission executive director Jonathan Farnham wrote in an email Friday.

L&I made the recommendation after an inspection determined that the fire had “severely damaged the structural integrity of the properties,” the department’s spokesperson, Karen Guss, explained in an email.

Because the buildings are part of the city’s Rittenhouse-Fitler Historic District, they cannot be demolished or reconstructed without the Historical Commission’s involvement. While Farnham said the commission has not yet received formal requests for demolition, the building owners will be required to reconstruct the buildings “to their original appearances” within a year. To ensure the accuracy of those replicas, they will have to make laser scans of the facades before starting demolition and incorporate salvaged building materials into the new construction.

The owners of the three properties — McDonald’s Corp., Pamela Ferber, and Joan and Barbara Keiser — could not be reached for comment.

None of the buildings on its own is a significant work of architecture, although 1710 Walnut was designed by Furness & Hewitt, the firm of the great Philadelphia architect Frank Furness. But together with other buildings on the 1700 block of Walnut, they make up a distinctive and elegant ensemble of storefronts that help define the look of Rittenhouse Square’s commercial area, a National Register historic district. The building at 1708 Walnut, which Furness designed in 1873 for H.W. Catherwood, features elaborate brickwork and a frieze of glazed ceramic tile.

The buildings were set on fire during a night of citywide unrest that left many neighborhood commercial corridors in shambles and resulted in the permanent closures of dozens of restaurants and stores. According to an official in the Commerce Department, 1,200 retail businesses filed police reports of damages following the May 30 disturbances. Although there is no official count of Philadelphia retailers, the department estimates that about 16,000 businesses operate in ground-floor spaces throughout the city.

Because the Black Lives Matter protests earlier on May 30 had been peaceful, Philadelphia police did not anticipate the destruction that would erupt that evening, and their presence on Walnut Street that evening was minimal.

At the time, all three Walnut Street buildings had retail tenants on the ground floor, including a McDonald’s restaurant and a Dr. Martens shoe store. Since the pandemic began in March, at least half a dozen Walnut Street shops have permanently shut their doors. Nearly all were boarded up again this week in fear of possible damage after the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr. in West Philadelphia.

Steinke said he had tried reaching out to the owners of the three Walnut Street buildings to discuss the reconstructions but has not been successful.

Not only were the buildings important elements in the historic district, he said, “they helped to make Center City a destination for jobs and economic growth.” While hopeful that they will be rebuilt, “one of my concerns, given the economic environment and the weak demand for retail space, is that it may be awhile before that happens.”