Friday, January 4, 2013

Peter Woodall on Philadelphia's Lost Buildings of 2012

From Peter Woodall over at Hidden City Philadelphia:
Every building meets its demise via a unique set of circumstances, however the historic buildings lost last year reflect some broad trends that will continue to play an important role in the coming year.
The devastating fires at the Thomas W. Buck and L.H. Parke industrial complexes, and a minor fire at the Divine Lorraine, highlighted the importance of sealing vacant buildings. Doing so isn’t easy–it requires consistent effort. Nor is it cheap, but many of these buildings that appear abandoned are owned by deep-pocketed developers–Tony RufoBart Blatstein and the Lichtensteins, we’re talking to you–who can afford the expense.
The historical value of industrial buildings is finally being recognized, with new federal National Historic Districts at Wayne Junction and in Callowhill, and one pending for buildings connected to Kensington’s textile industry. But the federal designation only provides tax incentives, and the city historic register, which would have protected buildings like those at the Frankford Arsenal from demolition, hasn’t caught up with the federal effort.
Meanwhile, the city’s Historical Commission still lacks a comprehensive survey of historic properties, which would allow it to prioritize what needs to be protected, and would help prevent surprises like the demolition of Bunting House. The commission remains scandalously underfunded overall, with staffing levels that are far below comparable cities. You can read more about the holes in the city’s system of historic preservation HERE.
The city’s stock of beautiful 19th century churches continues to be a source of anguish. There are a lot more churches than congregations willing to call them home, perhaps as many as 200. And even those still being used suffer from decades of deferred maintenance, particularly those in poorer neighborhoods that have congregations with few resources. Now the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is planning to close a half dozen more churches and its downsizing isn’t done yet.
Finding new uses for all these churches will take imagination, will and money. Perhaps a formal program to stabilize threatened buildings could be created by the city. The work can be done quite cheaply with sweat equity, as the example of 19th Street Baptist in South Philadelphia has shown. A robust tax incentive program on the part of the city is another possibility. What doesn’t seem to work is selling churches for a song to nonprofits without the resources to restore or even maintain the buildings, as the Archdiocese did in selling Church of the Assumption to Siloam, an HIV/AIDS group, or St. Boniface to the Norris Square Civic Association.
Philadelphia has one fairly robust–though threatened–way of protecting buildings and that’s by putting them on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Register nominations have fallen off, however, in recent years because no new historic districts have been approved (buildings that contribute to an historic district become listed). In 2012, about a dozen buildings were nominated. Citizens can initiate register nominations–that’s the subject of an upcoming workshop we’re holding on January 16. To register for the event, click HERE.

Scrolling down Woodall's list is a sobering exercise for all who love Philadelphia, history, and architecture (as an aside: is there any city in America that can claim the variety and quality of historic architecture that Philadelphia, despite its shortsightedness and shiftlessness, can?). My own melancholy ruminations on the loss of the Thomas W. Buck Hosiery Mill and the L. H. Parke Coffee complex to devastating fires can be found here and here. Others on the list met their demise before I, due to constraints of time and distance, could document them photographically (especially the Frankford Arsenal and the Van Straaton and Havey silk mill in Germantown).

But the problem remains, and I see no reason to be optimistic about the futures of hundreds of other historic homes, factories, and churches, particularly those that have fallen on hard times in hardscrabble, marginal neighborhoods. Every time I wander around my hometown I wonder what the next Buck Hosiery or St. Boniface Church will be. And when I witness the plethora of new, architecturally pedestrian buildings being constructed throughout such areas as Northern Liberties, North Central Philadelphia, and Graduate Hospital/Southwest Center City, a little of my soul dies with each regretful glimpse. What is it, I always wonder, in the American psyche that instinctively prefers the new and large, no matter how architecturally cheap and banal, to the old, almost always constructed to proper scale with detailing and quality, natural materials? Whatever it is, it is foreign to me, and has been since my youth. Here's to the hope that the city will, at long last, look deep within its collective soul and act to preserve the one thing that really makes it sui generis among American cities.

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