Few places in the nation are as old or historically significant as Philadelphia, the touted birthplace of America.
Yet only 2.2 percent of the city’s buildings are historically designated.
Compare that with Boston, where 7.2 percent of buildings are protected from demolition. Or, Washington, which boasts a 19.4 percent rate after rapidly ramping up its preservation efforts in recent years.
In 2017, honoring a campaign promise to better protect Philadelphia’s buildings, Mayor Jim Kenney invited preservationists, academics, developers, and city officials to examine the city’s policies. It wasn’t long until conflicting ideas and slow-moving bureaucracy clouded the process. Meanwhile, prominent Philadelphia buildings continued to fall.
A month before the May 2019 primary, Kenney unveiled the group’s recommendations, wide-ranging ideas that included creating a citywide survey of historic inventory, and introducing legislation, such as zoning bonuses, to incentivize preservation. Additionally, one of the most significant suggestions was the idea to create an “index” of buildings that, while not historically designated, could not be altered or demolished until the building’s history is properly reviewed.
Here’s how the index could work, according to the task force: Philadelphia’s Historical Commission staff would compile the list. Each property would have to meet one of the city’s designation criteria. If a demolition or alteration permit were sought for an indexed building, the commission would have a set time period to either add it to the local historic register (protecting it from demolition) or decline to do so. The index could include hundreds of properties.
But the city, still in talks with various departments, does not have a current time frame for the index.
Which is why The Inquirer turned to readers: What buildings would you like to see saved?
We received more than 50 submissions, many for already historically designated buildings. Some people suggested broader ideas, such as creating new historic districts. Two said all Philadelphia buildings built before the mid-1900s should be protected. One suggested properties along Jewelers Row, which are expected to be demolished to make way for a condo tower.
The Inquirer chose 18 individual properties from reader submissions to profile here. Mayor Kenney, here are some suggestions to get you started:
1523-25 S. Eighth St.
Nominator Karin Morris from Passyunk Square said the bakery’s “quilted steel facade and neon signage represent 20th century commercial architecture.”
Termini Bros. Bakery has been serving some of Philadelphia’s best-known cannolis and sweets since 1921, when Giuseppe Termini and his brother Gaetano opened a humble bakery in South Philadelphia after immigrating from Sicily. Known for their wedding cakes and booming presence in the Italian immigrant neighborhood within just years of opening, the brothers eventually saved enough to move in 1938 to a larger bakery and storefront, where the business, now in its third generation, operates today. The three-story brick building underwent a facade renovation in 2011, when the bakery hired Materials Conservation to restore its 1930s glory.
1001-19 N. Fifth St.
Nominator: Roman Zacharko
Located in the fast-changing River Wards, St. Peter the Apostle has been a corner mainstay since the church was consecrated in 1847. Built for Philadelphia’s German Catholic community, which had outgrown its Society Hill parish, St. Peter’s became known for its ties to John Neumann, a Bohemian priest eventually named the fourth bishop of Philadelphia. A frequent visitor to St. Peter’s in the 1800s, Neumann lies in state at the church today, his body enclosed in glass beneath the altar of his national shrine. Neumann was declared a saint in 1977 and is invoked as a patron of immigrants and sick children.
In 2009, a fire broke out in the lower church of St. Peter’s, burning the pulpit to ashes. Neumann, located nearby, remained intact — something that clergy members at the time called “miraculous.”
1232 Chestnut St.
Nominator Sharon Farrell from New Hope said, “The DeLong Building ... is not only magnificent, but has one of the most beautiful fire escapes on the East Coast.”
Located on a 21-foot-wide footprint, the DeLong Building in Center City was built in the late 1890s by A.W. Barnes, a Philadelphia engineer-turned-architect, though prominent American architect Horace Trumbauer is also believed to have contributed — with some historians guessing he designed the property’s ornate, decorative fire escape on 13th Street. Home today to apartments and commercial space, the building was owned in its early days by Frank E. DeLong, who invented the hook and eye fastener.
The building, regarded as an early adopter of a more humble and modern style of commercial architecture, is within the national East Center City Commercial Historic District — which offers potential funding but no demolition protection.
2801 S. 84th St.
Nominator Benjamin She, from Rittenhouse Square said the school is the “most significant Brutalist structure in Philadelphia, next to the Roundhouse,” the nickname for the Philadelphia Police Department’s headquarters.
Amid budget woes and dwindling enrollment, the George Wharton Pepper Middle School in Eastwick, along with 22 other schools, was closed by the Philadelphia School District in 2013. It’s been vacant ever since. Known for its sharp, rectangular shape and concrete facade, the middle school is regarded as a prominent example of Brutalist architecture — a geometric style that gained popularity in the mid-20th century.
The sprawling school campus sits nearly two feet below sea level and has struggled over the years with flooding, including in 1999, when Hurricane Floyd caused nine feet of water to accumulate at the property, according to PlanPhilly. Last year, an Eastwick feasibility study suggested that the building be demolished to create a better community use, a decision that has drawn both support and opposition.
Between South 32nd and 33rd Street, Penn campus.
Nominator Danny Manuel from Waynesboro, Va. said, “What’s understood, doesn’t have to be explained.”
Often endearingly called the Cathedral of College Basketball, the Palestra, located on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, hosts games for basketball, volleyball, and wrestling teams, including the Philadelphia Big 5, an informal association of Penn, La Salle, St. Joseph’s, Temple, and Villanova. Penn claims that the Palestra, which opened in 1927, has hosted more games and visiting teams than any other college facility. The nearly 9,000-seat arena has hosted some of the best players in sports, including NBA star LeBron James during a 2011 exhibition game.
128-40 W. Diamond St.
Nominator David Fecteau, from Washington Square West, said, “Kensington Hospital anchors the southern edge of Norris Square, the park, in Norris Square, the neighborhood. It is a character-defining feature of the neighborhood.”
In 1883, Kensington Hospital started humbly, operating out of just a few rowhouses scattered around Norris Square. Founded by Dr. Howard A. Kelly, a pioneer in gynecology, the hospital received enough financial backing to open a main facility in 1890 — the same hospital building that stands today. Kensington Hospital is considered Philadelphia’s second-oldest hospital and initially opened to treat women, particularly fertility, delivery, and pregnancy issues. In a self-released 2015 community health needs assessment, the hospital was cited as the location for the second successful cesarean section in Philadelphia.
Today, the hospital has 45 beds and serves as a general community hospital for acute and chronic care. It also provides drug detoxification services.
2601 N. Broad St.
Nominator Oscar Beisert from Germantown said the station is “a grand gesture built by the Reading Railroad between 1928 and 1929.”
Designed in 1929 by Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer, the grandiose North Broad Street Station operated as a train station for only a few decades. Built in Classic Revival style by the Reading Co., the station — featuring a row of palatial columns — was envisioned with the high expectation that it could compete with the recently opened Broad Street Line and pump investment into the surrounding neighborhood. However, the U.S. stock market crashed not long after Trumbauer was asked to design the station. And though the $2 million building was completed, it was closed decades later. No significant neighborhood investment followed nearby.
In the 1960s, the building was converted into a hotel, during which the interior was altered. The hotel did not last either. In the 1980s, the building was damaged by fire.
Today, the Station House Transitional Shelter, a homeless shelter with ties to former Mayor W. Wilson Goode, operates out of the basement of the building, which is shared by Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, which provides residential housing for vulnerable populations.
5538-50 Baltimore Ave.
Nominator Bart Everts from Upper Darby said: “Although the interior is largely gone ... the old projector room and grand curtain, as well as the great stained glass crescent windows still stand. It is a good example of buildings off the radar of Center City that tell a lot about the history and evolution of their neighborhoods.”
Opened in 1921 as a modern cinema, the New Ambassador Theatre arrived in West Philadelphia with much fanfare. According to a 1921 Inquirer article, the theater’s HVAC system was highly anticipated because of its "perfect control of the temperature inside the playhouse, regardless of the condition of the weather outside.” Air-conditioning would not become commonplace until years later.
A year after opening, the building was purchased by Frederick G. Nixon-Nirdlinger, a prominent theater operator, who also owned the Metropolitan Opera House and the Academy of Music. However, less than a decade after buying the Ambassador, Nixon-Nirdlinger was shot and killed by his wife in France.
The Ambassador Theatre survived as a cinema until 1958, according to Hidden City Philadelphia, after which it was revived as a rock club. Hidden City reported that the theater’s marquee was removed in the 1980s. Today, the brick theater, featuring an intricate cornice, is used by Kennedy Printing, which expanded its operations into the theater for use as a pressroom.
601 E. Indiana Ave.
The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which nominated the Carnegie library system, said the system should “be recognized via a citywide thematic district, collectively designating all of the remaining Philadelphia Carnegie libraries.”
Andrew Carnegie, the 19th-century steel magnate once said to be the richest man in the world, devoted the final years of his life to philanthropy, including funding a public library system. Carnegie donated nearly $60 million — the equivalent of $1.5 billion today — to libraries, founding more than 2,500 globally, including almost 1,700 in the United States.
In Philadelphia, 25 libraries were built from Carnegie money during the early 1900s. Though six have been demolished, most of the remaining buildings still operate as libraries. Kensington’s McPherson Square Library, featuring tall columns and a dome ceiling, is a prominent example of architecture that emerged from Carnegie’s grants. In recent years, the lawn that encompasses the library has found itself at the center of Philadelphia’s opioid crisis that has burgeoned in Kensington.
4951 Walnut St.
Nominator Kiasha Huling from East Mount Airy said, “We’ve lost significant sites and stories of black history as a result of the development boom. The Paul Robeson House is not just the physical location where Paul spent his final 10 years, it housed a wealth of history.”
Though he was born in Princeton, Paul Robeson, a prominent activist and artist, spent the final years of his life at 4951 Walnut St. in West Philadelphia. The son of a runaway slave, Robeson achieved international fame for his artistic achievements and political views.
Robeson, born in 1898, became the third African American student to enroll at Rutgers University, where he played football and was twice named an all-American. He became a popular actor and a baritone singer. Robeson’s political views later overshadowed his accomplishments, however, and at the start of the Cold War, he was labeled a communist — something that brought severe scrutiny from the FBI. The controversy surrounding his outspokenness against racial discrimination after a visit to the Soviet Union ultimately culminated in 1950, when his passport was revoked. In the 1960s, he moved to Walnut Street with his sister, where he lived privately until his death.
Today, the house serves as a modest museum and is listed on the National Register for Historic Places, which does not protect the home from demolition.
Scattered sites around 2400 Hunting Park Ave.
Nominator Atkin Olshin Schade Architects, based in Center City, said, “It is one of the most significant and largest former industrial sites in Philadelphia that remains virtually intact.”
The former Budd Manufacturing Co. was one of Philadelphia’s leading industrial giants in the 1900s, when the city was called the “Workshop of the World,” producing metals, textiles, rail equipment, and more. The Budd Co. was a prominent metal fabricator, partnering with companies such as Ford to manufacture cars. Budd’s plant sprawled across several Nicetown buildings. Operations stopped in the early 2000s.
Since, many of the giant brick structures — with large factory windows — have sat vacant, though some have found reuse. Temple University has an administrative outpost in one building. Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan filmed “After Earth,” a movie starring Will Smith on the site. And long before Donald Trump was president, he tried to build a casino at the former factory.
Earlier this year, six buildings belonging to the campus were put under agreement for sale to the Plymouth Group, a New York private equity and real estate investment group for more than $6 million. No official plans have been set, though “commercial and industrial repurposing," with potential educational or residential use, has been suggested.
319 N. 19th St.
Nominator Louise Quattrone from Logan Square said the school “is the first Catholic girls’ high school in the entire country, [and] has a unique history. Additionally, I understand that Roman Catholic High School, Hallahan’s brother school, has received [historic] designation.”
The John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ School in Logan Square was built in 1911 as the first all-girls diocesan high school in the country after Father John W. Shanahan, the superintendent of the schools for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, reportedly spoke in the 1890s of the “urgent need” for a local Catholic girls high school. At the time, an all-boys Catholic high school already existed, the Roman Catholic High School of Philadelphia, at Broad and Vine Streets.
In 1908, according to the John W. Hallahan school’s 2013 student handbook, Mary McMichan, a devout Catholic, came forward with a $100,000 gift for the creation of the school. Three years later, a cornerstone, blessed by Pope Pius X, was laid. Originally called Catholic Girls High School, the name of the school was changed in 1925 upon McMichan’s death to honor her brother.
Tens of thousands of women have graduated from the school. The Roman Catholic High School at Broad and Vine Streets, the first free diocesan Catholic high school for boys, has been listed on the city’s historic register since 1986.
901 Spring Garden St.
Nominator Vincent DiMaria from Callowhill said, “This former train station on the abandoned Reading Viaduct would be architecturally and culturally important to maintain as future phases of the Rail Park are developed. ... The structure appears to be in relatively good condition and does not appear to be modified significantly.”
Built in the late 19th century by the Reading Co., the former Spring Garden Station that occupies the corner of Ninth and Spring Garden Streets today is abandoned, plastered with graffiti and littered with trash. However, when the elevated rail station opened in the early 1890s, it was received with excitement, despite being largely overshadowed by the opening around the same time of Reading Terminal, the larger rail station at 12th and Arch Streets. Both operated until the mid-1980s, when construction on the Center City Commuter Connection, which linked Philadelphia’s underground stations, wrapped up.
The Spring Garden station, which largely carried passengers, is on the Reading Viaduct, the elevated railroad tracks built to serve Reading Terminal. Today, a section of the rail park has been redeveloped — similar to New York City’s High Line. However, much of the elevated land, including where the Spring Garden Street Station is, remains in the hands of Reading International, a successor of the Reading Co. The company has been coy about its plans for the section that it owns.
2200-238 Washington Ave.
Nominator Jay Farrell from Graduate Hospital said, “The block represents one of the few mostly intact industrial blocks on the Washington Ave industrial corridor."
The Phosphor Bronze Smelting Co., founded by Charles J.A. Dick in the 1870s, was a leading manufacturer of phosphor-bronze, a strong metal used for rods, bearings, and wire. The company expanded its significant presence along Washington Avenue during the late 1890s and early 1900s.
The company became a prominent manufacturer and smelter before it was purchased in 1948 by the Seymour Manufacturing Co. in Connecticut. According to an Associated Press article at the time, the name was changed to the Phosphor Bronze Corp.
It’s unclear when that business shuttered. Today, a number of former manufacturing plants along Washington Avenue have been or will soon be demolished to make way for development. Developer Ori Feibush recently announced plans to demolish the Frankford Chocolate Factory that existed nearby. And there are plans to demolish the large industrial building that sits across from the Phosphor Bronze plant.
4600 Disston St.
Nominator Yen Ho from Ambler said Frank Shuman “was known for his sun machine that replaces fossil fuels as an energy source. He experimented his project around his home and in Tacony.”
Frank Shuman was a Philadelphia transplant and an inventor, best known for his work in solar technology, though he had numerous patents in his name. The Brooklyn-born Shuman moved to Philadelphia in the late 1890s, when his uncle, Francis Schumann, was assisting in the casting of the William Penn statue that tops Philadelphia City Hall today.
Frank Shuman lived for several decades on Disston Street in Tacony, where he pioneered and experimented on solar technology in his backyard. To drum up interest from investors, Shuman reportedly invited the public to watch him demonstrate the solar power machine he was building on his property. Ultimately, Shuman took his technology to Egypt, where he built the world’s first solar thermal power station. The technology worked well enough to pump thousands of gallons of water from the Nile to irrigate nearby land.
Shuman died in 1918. Today, the property — adorned with a prominent turret — exists as a private residence.
3728 Chestnut St.
Nominator: Atkin Olshin Schade Architects, based in Center City
The original St. James Catholic church was founded in 1850, becoming the first Catholic church to be built west of the Schuylkill. It was later rebuilt in the 1880s and completed in 1887, with a design by Edwin Forrest Durang, a Philadelphia architect who specialized in ecclesiastical design. Durang’s work is found at more than a dozen churches across the city and state.
Not far from the St. James church on Chestnut Street, a separate Catholic church, St. Agatha, was founded on the 3800 block of Spring Garden Street in the 1800s. The two churches were incorporated to become St. Agatha-St. James in 1976 after St. Agatha suffered a second fire.
Today. St. Agatha-St. James is known for its two soaring towers, intricate detail, and careful stonework. It is still in active use.
204 S. 12th St
Nominator Faye Anderson, from North Philadelphia said, “Minton was a caterer and leader in the free black community. He entertained Frederick Douglass ... and provided John Brown a place to stay shortly before the Harper’s Ferry raid.”
Henry Minton was a prominent black Philadelphia caterer who became a leader in the free black community. He lived and ran his business during the late 19th century inside 204 S. 12th St. in Center City, a 3½-story home. The building also served as a meeting place.
Earlier this year, the house was nominated to Philadelphia’s historic register as a small piece of a larger submission that focused on preserving multiple pieces of the nearly block-long building, given their significance to the LGBTQ population. After a heated debate between Oscar Beisert, the nominator, and attorney Matthew McClure, who represented the building owner, Midwood Investment & Development, the Historical Commission voted to designate only the portion of the building on the corner of Chancellor and Camac Streets. This portion of 204 S. 12th St. was a central piece of the Camac Baths, a former Jewish schvitz that was frequented by the LGBTQ community.
Faye Anderson, a preservation advocate in Philadelphia, says that with Minton’s ties to the property, it should be reconsidered for historic preservation. Minton was visited there by abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown, she said. In 1880, an Inquirer article noted a court summary involving Minton, which described a local judge fining a man, John Donohue, “$1 and costs” — roughly $25 today — for committing “an assault and battery upon Henry Minton ... a restaurant keeper on South Twelfth Street."
5235-45 Unruh Ave. and associated buildings between New State Road and the Delaware River
Nominator Alex Balloon from Tacony said, “This complex was once the world’s largest Saw Works, and Tacony was built as a company town around this complex.”
In the early 1870s, Henry Disston, an English immigrant who came to Philadelphia as a boy, moved his rapidly expanding saw business to Tacony, the Northeastern Philadelphia neighborhood. The Disston Saw Works, as his company was called, was the largest and one of the most highly regarded handsaw manufacturers in the U.S. — and its 300-acre facility employed more than 8,000 people. The area surrounding the manufacturing site quickly became a preeminent bustling company town, existing as a riverfront community filled with schools, rowhouses, workshops, a bank, and more — some of which was funded by the Disston family.
Disston Saw Works was well-known for providing good wages and training opportunities for its employees until the company was ultimately sold in the 1950s. While some original buildings no longer exist on the site, many remain, bearing Disston’s name. Some have found reuse with other companies, including Disston Precision, a custom steel manufacturer.