The Pearson House, a 19th-century home in Germantown where a local painter created his most important works, received a spot on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places on April 9. Exactly two months later, the house’s owner received a demolition permit from the city.
And on Wednesday, residents watched as workers threw materials off the roof of what is described as one of the oldest remaining houses on Wayne Avenue.
“You could see the bricks from the chimney were on the ground,” said Allison Weiss with the SoLo/Germantown Civic Association, which is trying to stop the demolition.
Contrary to what many residents think, historic designation does not automatically preserve Philadelphia properties. In addition to structural condition and developers’ will, timing of a nomination can work against a property. In the case of the Pearson House, by the time the Philadelphia Historical Commission accepted the historic nomination for consideration in late November 2020, the home was far along the path toward demolition. The property owner already had a demolition zoning permit from the Department of Licenses & Inspections.
While the Historical Commission considered the property’s nomination in March, the owner asked for a denial, citing the demolition permit and the intent to take down the house to construct a four-story multifamily building. The commission granted the Pearson House a spot on the historic register anyway but with the caveat that it would automatically rescind the designation if the building is lawfully demolished — an action the commission has taken before.
Paul Chrystie, a spokesperson for the commission, said the agency had no power to stop demolition since the owner started the permitting process before the designation process began, “although the commission would prefer that the owner preserve the building.”
“This is a historic city,” said Emaleigh Doley, executive director of the Germantown United Community Development Corp. “But the law says that you can just erase some of that if you want to.”
She has seen commercial and residential development ramp up throughout Germantown, a neighborhood known for its historic charm, and said neighbors were caught by surprise by the plans to tear down the Pearson House, which Wayne Avenue Brothers LP purchased in March 2020 for $300,000, according to property records. Community members would like to see the original house incorporated into any new construction.
“Really what we would like to see is some changes within how the city overall approaches historic preservation and the protections that are in place,” Doley said. “Because we shouldn’t really be at this point.”
On Wednesday, L&I halted initial demolition work at the house at 5139 Wayne Ave. The department said the contractor had not obtained a necessary sidewalk closure permit or met with an L&I inspector to review demolition plans and safety protocols as required before work begins. Sean P. Whalen, an attorney with the real estate law firm Vintage Law who is representing the building owner, said the workers thought they had what they needed to start demolition.
“As soon as the Streets Department issues the sidewalk closure permit, which is pending, the demolition will recommence,” he said Friday.
Nearby residents hoped the brief reprieve could buy them some time as they keep trying to preserve the three-story masonry building, which was constructed around 1857 and which residents consider a fixture in the neighborhood. The SoLo/Germantown Civic Association appealed the demolition permit to the Board of License and Inspection Review on Wednesday morning. The permit allows the contractor to take down the building using handheld tools.
The board can revoke permits if it determines they were issued in error. But the filing of an appeal does not stop demolition.
“We think, and the city has concurred, that everything was issued properly, and everyone followed all the rules and regulations that they were required to,” Whalen said.
According to the nomination the Historical Commission received in September and accepted as correct in November, the Joseph T. Pearson House demonstrates the social and artistic heritage of the Germantown neighborhood and the city in the early 20th century. Joseph T. Pearson Jr. lived with his family in the home from 1882 to 1919 and painted a majority of his most well-known and exhibited impressionist works while living there, according to the nomination.
Most of the outside of the house is stucco, while red brick and wooden shingles cover an addition. The home sports a bright red door, green shutters, and a front porch with railings. Aspects of the house’s architecture are designed in the Queen Anne Revival style, according to the historic nomination written by Oscar Beisert, an architectural historian with the Keeping Society of Philadelphia, which advocates for the preservation of historic properties.
Beisert said he knew the owner planned to demolish the building for a while but submitted the nomination because he and neighbors weren’t sure which permits the owner had. He said the Pearson House and the blocks surrounding it should have long been part of a historic district.
“We all know this area is historic,” he said. “Come on.”
A lot of people are fine with development, but “they don’t want things being destroyed,” he said. “Communities are upset all over the city about this.”