Series casts light on historic and unique sites that may be at risk of deterioration or demolition.
By Alan Jaffe
Surrounded by the born-again Bookbinder’s, Ritz East movie theaters, parkling lots and high-rise condos, the four-story Bouvier Building appears overwhelmed and overlooked.
The 20-foot-by-50-foot, four-story brick structure at 149 S. Hancock St. in Old City boasts little architectural appeal. But it is a survivor of court battles, political clashes, and changes in preservation policy. Its neighbors were razed for more parking space, and its past owners have seen little value in saving it. An eight-inch-thick file at the Historical Commission of Philadelphia attests to its many battles — and to its staying power. But its future remains in doubt.
According to Terry Gillen, executive director of the city Redevelopment Authority, the Bouvier Building’s legal guardian, it is in “pretty bad condition inside. The floors may be gone.” One entrance is currently open to the elements; its many windows appear sealed by plywood.
The building recently had been under an agreement to a developer, Gillen said, but is now under ownership of RDA, which hopes to find someone to reuse the structure. “If it were last year, it might not be so difficult. Given where the market is this year, I couldn’t even begin to guess” when it may sell. Gillen said she did not know the current value of the building because it needs an updated appraisal.
The building gets its name from Michael Bouvier, great-great-grandfather of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Bouvier purchased the property in 1834 and erected a workshop to saw marble and the imported mahogany he used as a renowned cabinet-maker.
It is the last remaining 19th-century structure in the block bounded by Walnut, Front, Sansom and Hancock Streets, and symbolizes the city’s bustling riverfront business district of that period. During the 1950s and ’60s, some of the neighboring buildings were cleared by the city due to blight and fire damage.
In 1976, the Bouvier Building was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. In 1985, however, the owners of Old Original Bookbinders purchased the building for $186,686, and two years later sought to demolish it to solve the restaurant’s parking problem. Restaurateurs Albert and John Taxin argued, and an independent audit confirmed, that rehabilitating the little building was “economically infeasible.”
The Old City Civic Association and the preservation community pushed back. Roger T. Prichard, an OCCA officer, conceded that the Bouvier did not have major historical or architectural significance, but it was “part of the fabric of the Old City neighborhood.” The Historical Commission denied the demolition permit, agreeing with the civic association that a historic site’s profitability, based on an inflated price, would not justify its demolition.
The RDA purchased the property in 1988 and began seeking a developer who would rehabilitate and re-use the building. There have been proposals for an 11-story building topped by a penthouse that retained the Bouvier’s façade. There have been proposals to move it, but the prospect was too expensive. Councilman Frank DiCicco once referred to the building as a “blighted property that is a stain on the neighborhood.” Then Councilman James Tayoun opposed calls to raze it.
In the 1990s, other 19th-century buildings at Front and Walnut were allowed to deteriorate to the point they were considered dangerous, recalled Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Historical Commission. “We did lengthy legal battles,” he said, that eventually ended in their demolition. Two 1830s buildings at Front and Chestnut Streets that represented Philadelphia’s thriving maritime commerce were razed in 2007 for a parking lot.
The Bouvier Building stands pretty much alone now. The RDA’s Gillen won’t predict what will happen in the current real estate market. But, she noted, there is hope: “It is in a really good, thriving neighborhood.”
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