By Matt Blanchard
Philadelphia preservationists squared off against the state government in Commonwealth Court on Tuesday, winning an eleventh-hour reprieve for two historic structures on North Broad Street.
After a day of testimony, Judge Keith B. Quigley ordered that no further demolition take place on the Philadelphia Life Insurance Co. building, or on its 1962 Romaldo Giurgola addition, until a full trial can be held on Jan. 24. The state Department of General Services had already started dismantling both structures, known as the PLICO buildings, as part of the $700 million Convention Center expansion. Now that work will halt for at least two weeks.
“We got exactly what we were hoping for,” said John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. “We won the injunction we were pursuing. Now we get to make the full case about why these buildings should be preserved.”
About a dozen attorneys and staff of the state Department of General Services marched out of the courtroom without comment.
Preservationists say the PLICO buildings form a historic streetscape around City Hall, and will break up the blank mass of the Convention Center’s new façade on Broad Street. And they argue Giurgola’s addition is historic in its own right, appearing in architecture books as a masterful blending of old and new.
The state has its points, too, citing engineering reports that suggest the buildings are structurally unsound and prohibitively expensive to restore.
But at the heart of the dispute is a 2004 legal agreement in which the state-run Convention Center Authority seemed to promise local preservation groups and the state Historical and Museum Commission that it would do precisely the opposite of what it’s doing now: preserve both buildings and incorporate them into the new center.
Under the terms of this agreement, preservationists say they acquiesced to the demolition of some 19 buildings to make way for the convention center (including the whimsical Race Street Firehouse with its gargoyles and battlements), but were promised that 3 structures, including the PLICO buildings, would be saved.
“It’s not just the value of these buildings,” said preservation attorney Paul Boni. “It’s also the integrity of the process. The historic preservation community and the government put together a deal, so the government should stand by it.”
To preservationists, the 2004 agreement was a guarantee.
But to the state, the agreement was no guarantee at all. Early on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 22, demolition crews tore off the cast stone façade of the Giurgiola addition. Preservationists scrambled to file a Christmas Eve plea for emergency injunction in Commonwealth Court. That plea got them Tuesday’s hearing – and has now gotten them a full trial.
The Upcoming Trial
While the state DGS declined to comment on Tuesday, the hearing offered a preview of the trial to come. State attorneys have filed preliminary objections containing three arguments – any one of which could potentially knock the case out of court.
First, the state contends the 2004 agreement was simply not binding. Convention Center Authority lawyer Elizabeth Whitmer told the court it was merely a “statement of intent” between two state agencies, subject to revision, and not binding.
What’s more, Whitmer argued the entire case should be dismissed because while the Convention Center Authority signed the agreement, it is actually the Department of General Services that owns and controls the properties.
And further, Whitmer said the Preservation Alliance, a Philadelphia-based non-profit, simply has no legal standing to bring a case based on the 2004 agreement because it was not a signatory to that agreement.
“As a stranger to this contract, the Preservation Alliance simply has no right to enforce this contract,” she said.
Preservation attorney Boni fired back, arguing that it was hard to believe the Convention Center Authority had no control over construction activities on the convention center site, and that the state was violating its obligation to work with preservationists “in good faith.”
A second line of battle is on a more concrete question: Are the buildings too far gone to be repaired?
On this issue, it’s a battle of the engineers. On Tuesday the state called Mark Dickenson, a demolition project manager from Hill International who said his crews found dangerous conditions when they began demolition of the PLICO buildings on the 22nd.
“It was significantly more deteriorated than either the [two earlier engineering reports] led us to believe,” Dickenson said. Heavy stone façade panels were missing retaining clips, or were held on with caulk, he said. A wall in the rear of the structure collapsed.
Preservationists, meanwhile, point to the published comments of the city’s Licenses and Inspections commissioner, who said neither building needed to be demolished. And Gallery of the Preservation Alliance testified to “obvious discrepancies” he says he found among the Convention Center Authority’s engineering reports.
Afterwards, Gallery restated his suspicions: “Some of the witnesses were offering testimony about the buildings that’s never been corroborated by anyone else,” he said.
Alan Greenberger, president of the Design Advocacy Group, says the destruction of the PLICO buildings will not only impoverish one block of North Broad, but will undermine preservation efforts across the state.
“If DGS is allowed to take these things down, I think all agreements – whether with the state or locally in the city – all preservation agreements will be held in great skepticism,” Greenberger said.
Dec. 24: Following the unexpected, Saturday morning demolition of the façade of the Mitchell/Guirgola addition to the Phila. Life Insurance Co. building, the Preservation Alliance has obtained a Christmas Eve, Commonwealth Court ordered temporary injunction against any further demolition.
The Department of General Services was also ordered to preserve the removed facade and shore up the buildings against the natural elements.
There will be a court hearing in Harrisburg on January 8, regarding the future of the injunction covering the two properties. Voice your opinion.
Background: Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron reported Sunday that the state’s Department of General Services and the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority have disregarded a call from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to preserve two historically significant buildings on North Broad Street.
The five-story neoclassical Philadelphia Life Insurance Company building and its 1960s addition by architect Romaldo Giurgola were in danger of demolition after the state interpreted a not-so-bad L&I designation of “unsafe” as permission to take down the buildings. That conclusion has been adamantly challenged by the Preservation Alliance. This demolition began after DGS informed the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission that the Memorandum of
Agreement incorporate the buildings into the convention center expansion, which was signed by PCCA and PHMC, was not binding on DGS.
So, the Dec. 22 stealth demolition of the facade of the building designed by Giurgola began and would have continued for the next few days if the injuction had not been obtained. The limestone has been completely removed from the front of the building and chunks of it lay strewn under the scaffolding that spans both structures.