Saturday, February 9, 2013

Philadelphia's Overbrook Farms and Historic Preservation

House on Overbrook Avenue in Overbrook Farms, Philadelphia, 30 April 2011
(photo by author)

I was all of 7 years of age when my family moved from our row house apartment in the Wynnefield Heights section of West Philadelphia to the middle class fringes of the famed suburban district known as the Philadelphia Main Line. The "Main Line" is an unofficial designation encompassing all or parts of the upper and upper-middle class municipalities of Lower Merion, Haverford, Radnor, Upper Merion, Tredyffrin, and Willistown Townships in Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties. The name's origins lie in the area's unique history: these communities, all a part of the old 1681 "Welsh Tract"—which explains the names of most of the towns and townships of the area—were built along the "Main Line" of the long-defunct Pennsylvania Railroad, at one time the largest publicly-traded corporation in the world. Then, as now, the Main Line defined "Old Money Philadelphia," and many of its zip codes perennially are included in lists of the wealthiest in America. What the Main Line historically represented is perhaps best understood by watching the classic 1940 Cary Grant-Jimmy Stewart-Katharine Hepburn (the last of whom fittingly was an alumna of the Main Line's famous Bryn Mawr College) film, "The Philadelphia Story," inspired by the life of Hope Montgomery Scott, who lived in a (still extant) 50-room Georgian mansion amid the 360 acres of an estate called Ardrossan in Radnor Township.

La Ronda, Bryn Mawr (demolished)
That was then, of course. In the ensuing decades, the exigencies of modern American life have wreaked havoc on the Main Line's matchless landscape. Many of the spectacular mansions—Penshurst, Cheswold, Timberline—have met the wrecking ball. Most tragic of all was the 2009 demolition of the matchless La Ronda estate in Bryn Mawr, simply because it wasn't air-conditioned. Others—most recently the Horace Trumbauer-designed Bloomfield in Villanova—have met their demise via fire. Others—Beaumont, Waverly—have been re-purposed for institutional purposes. Many of the estates that remain have been subdivided to make room for the construction of "McMansions" for the nouveau riche, monstrosities with all the "luxurious" amenities demanded by today's wealthy consumers but devoid of the aesthetics and quality building materials—and, I might add, the soul—of the homes built from 1875-1925. All of which means that preservation of what remains of this most exceptional of residential districts should be one of the most pressing concerns for both residents of the area and all lovers of Philadelphia.

This is why an article this week on the website of Hidden City Philadelphia caught my attention. It concerns a long-standing dispute over whether or not the Philadelphia Historical Commission should grant the neighborhood of Overbrook Farms a place on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Overbrook Farms is the first of the suburban towns on the Main Line, and the only one within the city limits of Philadelphia. It was developed starting in 1892, and its tree-lined streets filled with large, individually-designed single and twin homes remain relatively unscathed by the ravages of time, the declasse status of the bordering Overbrook neighborhood to its south and development pressures from booming St. Joseph's University on its northeastern border. In 1984 Overbrook Farms was named a national historic district. And so, on the face of it, it would seem that a comparable city designation would be a no-brainer.

But, as with all things Philadelphia, what appears to be the case on the surface isn't necessarily so. The point at issue: a national designation comes with no strings attached as far as "renovations" or alterations go; a city designation does. If the city designation were to go into effect, the owner of a property would not be able, willy-nilly, to demolish or alter its appearance, because doing so would damage the integrity both of the property and the district as a whole. Now, as one who constantly laments the damage done to the city's working-class streetscape by DIY home "improvements" over the past few decades, I believe such a designation is imperative to the neighborhood's long-term thriving. But, of course, in a political atmosphere dominated by Tea Party-style hatred of "intrusive" government and glorification of individualistic property rights, the proposed designation has garnered more than a little opposition, including that of the Orthodox Jewish school, Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, which has already demolished one historic house on Drexel Road and has plans for additional expansion. Others have expressed concern for people who can't afford to upgrade their property [an aside: I grant the potential cost of such work, and have more than a little sympathy for homeowners' financial burdens, but find it difficult to imagine that many of the people living in these spacious and gracious homes have serious financial difficulties]. As a result, the proposed designation resides somewhere in limbo, with no clear resolution in sight.

The issue, as always, amounts to this: how can the interests of individualism and communitarianism be balanced for the benefit of all? America, it seems, almost always sides with the individual. Property rights, so conventional wisdom claims, are sacrosanct. To an extent I would agree. But not entirely. All of us have a responsibility to the communities of which we are a part. And in many cases, the interests of a community override that of the individual, especially when the value of a neighborhood's properties and its aesthetic integrity are at stake. And it can hardly be supposed that a historical designation would hurt the property values of the district. In this case, the city must do whatever it can to ensure this designation takes place, including providing tax incentives to property owners who may feel unfavorably disposed for financial reasons. The integrity of the neighborhood depends on it. And remember: once a piece of architecture is gone, it is gone forever. As the history of Philadelphia has shown, no replacement structure ever matches the grandeur of what it replaces.

I leave you with a few photographs I took in April of 2011 in Overbrook Farms.


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