“A culture of despair” when it comes to preservation in Philadelphia

Earlier this month, PlanPhilly spoke with Aaron Wunsch, the new assistant professor of historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been instrumental in ongoing efforts to rescue the Frank Furness-designed 19th Street Baptist Church from decades of neglect, natural disasters, and imminent demolition.

Wunsch, who calls himself an “architectural historian, first and foremost,” believes Philadelphia’s official and unofficial preservation apparatus is in trouble, and offers some interesting perspectives here on what needs to be done to expand appreciation and preserve the city’s rich historical resources. 

PlanPhilly: Where are you from originally?

Aaron Wunsch: Cambridge, Mass. I went from a public high school of over 3,000 students to a much smaller college, Haverford College, right up the road, of about 1,000 people. I went there for my undergrad years and earned a degree in American history. But I also took classes in Bryn Mawr College’s Cities Program, which is certainly one of the things that got me headed on this trajectory. 

Back in Massachusetts, I also started, at age 15, to work for the Cambridge Historical Commission during my summers, which was my first foot in the preservation field. Initially they had me doing clerical stuff, organizing papers that came out of various projects. But within my second year there, they had me write a nomination for the local register for a Federal Style house that had been rebuilt into a Greek Revival house. It had been moved off Massachusetts Avenue to Frost Street, which was the street where I grew up. 

I also came to head the North Cambridge Paint Program, which helped lower-income people paint their houses in North Cambridge, which then had a large working-class population. 

Then I went to Haverford and spent a lot of time at Bryn Mawr, and one of my great professors was Michael Lewis, who just finished his PhD. in art history here, and was one of the featured scholars in the recent Frank Furness festivities. He was really the person who got me interested in Furness and in Philadelphia architecture. I’d always liked old buildings. But selling me on Philadelphia was really Mike Lewis’s job.

After college I took a year off, worked for the Massachusetts Historical Commission in Boston, and then went back for a master’s degree in architectural history from the University of Virginia, with a certificate in historic preservation. I was getting a degree similar to the one I now help confer on other people. 

Before I graduated from University of Virginia, I began working for the Historical American Building Survey during the summer of 1994. They asked me to come up with an annotated bibliography on sources of the Washington Monument, which was then being restored by the Park Service. Among the great pleasures of that job was getting to go up on scaffolding on the side of the monument.

I worked there in summers starting in 1994, and full time starting in 1996. Almost all the projects I did were connected to a Congressional appropriation that was designated for Southeastern Pennsylvania. So I kept on coming up here to do projects, even though my office was in Washington D.C. 

The first project I took was a survey of the villas in Fairmount Park. By 1996, I got involved in several other projects. The first was Laurel Hill Cemetery, and that was a great project. In addition to doing a HABS report, the conditions of Laurel Hill letting us work there were that I would also provide a National Historic Landmark nomination, which is not something HABS is usually in the business of doing. Laurel Hill became the first National Historic Landmark cemetery in the country, which opened up funding opportunities that they had not had. 

That was my first HABS project when I was employed there full time. Then I worked on a survey of Quaker meetinghouses in Southeastern Pennsylvania. 

I also worked on the architectural history of the power plants of Philadelphia Electric, focusing on one in particular: the Chester plant, a really impressive building from the 19-teens. It’s right on the waterfront, just south of the Commodore Barry Bridge. 

It was part of a group of buildings designed by an architect who was sort of the in-house designer for the company, a guy named John Windrim. The engineer was W.C.L. Eglin. They did this, the Delaware station, and the Richmond station, which is among the most memorable looking. It looks like the old Penn Station inside. 

Windrim was an interesting guy; he was the company architect for Bell Telephone and Philadelphia Electric. He was a systems guy and he put a company image on these buildings. His dad was the architect for official buildings – notably, police stations — in Philadelphia from the 1880s and 90s. So this guy knows how to do public-looking buildings even when he’s working for corporations.

The Richmond station is one of my all time favorite buildings in Philadelphia, just south of the Betsy Ross Bridge in Port Richmond. These buildings are partly designed to be seen from these bridges, so when you go over them, do them that honor. 

They’re not meant to be things you get up close to, because for one thing, there’s a lot of electricity going through them. For another, they’re often in scrappy, industrial parts of the city. Part of the game with the architecture of these buildings is how to make them project public spiritedness, or civic identity, from afar? When you get up close, the concrete work is a little sloppy, but from afar, it’s spectacular. 

In 1999 I went back to graduate school. I felt like I had done my time with the Park Service, and I wanted to be back in an intellectual place. I went to the University of California at Berkeley, because I really wanted to work with people who were interested in architectural history as part of the cultural landscape. And they had a really interesting geography program related to the architectural history program. 

I got my course work out of the way in 2002, and came back East because my wife was an archaeologist at Monticello. So I moved to Charlottesville, Va., to be with her and write my dissertation. Which took far too long to write: seven years. As I was completing it in 2008, I got hired here to teach the American architectural history survey. 

The dissertation was called “Parceling the Picturesque,” and it was on the rise of  “rural” cemeteries, like Laurel Hill and The Woodlands, around the city of Philadelphia. 

In 2008, I was hired as an adjunct at Penn. And I was still finishing my dissertation. And my son Elias had just been born. I see him on the weekend, because I still commute from Virginia. I’m working on trying to relocate here. Now the wheels are turning. In June I received the assistant professorship. 

I’m delighted to be teaching here. You don’t like to think of dream jobs – at least, I don’t – because when you don’t have that job anymore it seems like your life is coming to an end. But I love teaching this stuff, I love being in Philadelphia where you actually have the buildings around you, you’re not teaching in the abstract.

I teach classes in American architecture, which involves documentation: archival research as it relates to building and landscapes – deeds, wills, maps, census. I teach that in the fall, with Randy Mason. In spring I teach its sequel, which focuses on visual recording, called site analysis; I co-teach that with John Hinchman, who serves as a research specialist for the Architectural Conservation Lab. 

PP: And on weekends, you work on preserving19th Street Baptist Church?

AW: Yes, much to the dismay of family members hoping to see me at some point. I have slowed on that. When it really seemed like this building was in the crosshairs and there was a good chance it would fall down or be torn down, I really did want to be involved in keeping that from happening. It was like, I can’t watch one more thing get torn down in this city. This was a building I know something about, whose designers I admire. So I got involved for conventional architectural history/preservation reasons. But I really ended up getting along well with those who were part of the congregation who also wanted to keep it standing. 

One of the revelations of that experience was how much you can do when the formal structures of preservation aren’t working. Which is to say, when one more condition assessment or one more structural engineering report will not solve the problem at all, even if there is funding for it, even if there are donations for it, what do you do? 

At some point, you just have to do it. At some point, you get together with other people who care about it and you say, “Let’s go to Home Depot. Let’s try to keep it standing.”

It really helped to have that preliminary check from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that got us enough to buy our first round of supplies. One of the things that was so gratifying about that project was to actually feel that I’m not just moaning about the fate of this building. I’m actually working with people to put it back together. 

PP: One of the reasons you came to Philadelphia was the wealth of historic resources here. Tell us about the preservation needs of this city. And how does Philadelphia stack up against other cities?

AW: I think the preservation needs of this city are huge. The city’s official preservation apparatus is in real trouble, and has been that way for a while. This is especially apparent to outsiders. Architectural historians marvel that buildings by nationally famous architects, like Napoleon Le Brun or Samuel Sloan, are constantly on the chopping block. But even ordinary visitors who know little or nothing about architectural history are astounded to learn that buildings like the Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street are in imminent danger, or that the 18th-century housing stock can come down with some regularity. 

There is a real culture of despair, or resignation, when it comes to preservation in this town. It’s not that people don’t care; it’s either that they assume that the system is working, or have given up on it ever doing so. 

Philadelphia has become a real can’t-do kind of place, unwilling or unable to think creatively about preservation and adaptive reuse. 

We have the architectural resources of a Colonial Williamsburg for the 18th century, and far better than Manhattan for the 19th. But we continue to think like Detroit, treating every development proposal, no matter how shoddy, as our city’s last hope. 

My goal isn’t to point fingers or single out individuals, it’s to acknowledge the scope of the problem, and to get others to do so. Then we can start turning things around. 

There are already signs of hope in unconventional quarters. I see signs of hope in Hidden City and PlanPhilly, unconventional places where preservation thought grows and gets a wide audience. 

In the future I think there is a real potential for our students to move forward with PennPraxis. The nexus between education and grassroots preservation is a really appealing prospect.

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia may very well head in a good direction. They have done good stuff in the past. I think that they are receptive to working with our students in summer internships and in neighborhoods that we’ve looked at in our classes. 

I also look forward to teaching historic preservation courses here, as I’ve done now for two years, in a way that means learning the techniques of our field doesn’t happen in isolation or in the abstract. It’s rooted in place and community. 

In the last two years I’ve taught classes in documentation and site analysis around Southwest Philadelphia, first in the area called Paschallville, near Cobbs Creek, and more recently in Kingsessing. 

Paschallville is at the very south end of Woodland Avenue, just before it becomes Darby. Starting in the early 19th century, it was a mill village. But even before then, there were bits of an 18th century settlement around there, buildings that are still standing there that no one in this area knows anything about, really good 18th century architecture that’s still there in the form of a church and houses.

It’s a fascinating neighborhood because the last time it got any real historical attention was in the early 20th century. Around the time of the Sesquicentennial in the 1920s, people interested in Swedish American history went back there and discovered that this was where Johann Printz built the first Swedish mill in America. And that allowed them to say this was the birthplace of American industry. The Colonial Dames ultimately latched onto the same site, and declared it the birthplace of civilized government in the New World.

By that point the neighborhood was already heavily populated by African Americans and more recently arriving immigrant groups. 

But the neighborhood became, starting in the last half of the 19th century, first a place where some grand suburban houses were built, and then rather quickly a place where industries in the Age of Steam began building their headquarters: Fels Naptha, the big soap works, and Brill Streetcar a little farther north. At the same moment the factories are starting to take shape in the neighborhood, so are the first electrified streetcars. This is a lower end suburb than the suburban villas of the preceding decade. These homes were for the workers of those factories, and they go quickly from modest houses that are freestanding to densely packed rowhouses. Again and again you have new immigrant groups coming in to work in these factories, living in houses that are built ever more densely around these 18th and 19th century buildings.

Now, it’s a really interesting area because it’s incredibly diverse. It’s heavily Jamaican, it’s also Vietnamese, it’s also Korean. There are Islamic parts to it, too. It’s a really vibrant urban neighborhood, and it’s a place that has great buildings, both from a traditional architectural history perspective and from a cultural landscape/geography perspective. You can go out there and see different groups taking hold of the buildings, putting on their own kinds of signage, painting the buildings in ways that relate to the countries they came from – many of the things that interest cultural geographers.

Also many of the things that preservationists really bridle at: heavy signage, paint colors that aren’t historical … So one of the reasons that I like holding classes out there is that it’s such a different kind of a place. In addition to presenting a lot of new research opportunities for buildings that people know very little about, it’s also a great experience for students who often come from backgrounds that never brought them through a neighborhood like that. As much as it makes them a bit uneasy, it also is part of their learning experience. 

PP: Hasn’t the preservation community of Philadelphia championed resources that are important to neighborhoods in recent decades?

AW: Here you’ll hear me argue both sides. In the 1960s and 70s, the preservation movement was coming into its own. It took the recommendations of architectural historians for what mattered as gospel. You preserved buildings that were the best examples of a particular style, the biggest example, the oldest example. But usually it was aesthetic reasons that preservationists were drawn to. Of course, the great rallying cry came out of the demolition of Penn Station in New York. But there were other versions of that cause that rallied people as well. 

By the 1990s I think it was less transparently clear why you protected a particular building or why you rallied around it. Partly in response to that, preservationists turned increasingly toward the local and toward community history, and said, why does this thing matter? Why do you care about it? We want to hear why you think it’s important. It’s a healthy impulse. But eventually you become just a mirror. You say, “I don’t have any idea what’s important, so just reflect back to me what you think is important.”

What that means is that 18th century buildings that are all over the city, in Southwark and Kensington, are torn down with some regularity, without anyone ever stopping them, and saying, should we have recorded those? Will you ever find enough community interest to identify those as community resources? You may not. Should they be recorded? I kind of think they should. Should they be preserved? Yeah, I think they should. 

So I do think it’s really important for preservation to have its own set of criteria for what matters, in addition to reflecting what matters to the neighborhood. It’s not one or the other. It needs to be both. Should preservation be more neighborhood-oriented? Yes, absolutely. Should it give up any sense of what it calls important? No, I don’t think it should. 

One of the things I found frustrating about preservation as it’s practiced in Philadelphia is that when it moves away from this strictly neighborhood model of trying to figure out what’s important, it tends to go for fads. One of those right now is Mid-century Modernism. I love Mid-century Modernist buildings. But when you go from fad to fad, you lose track of what else is getting left out. You risk leaving in the public mind the idea that all the 18th century or 19th century stuff has been evaluated, that the important stuff has been picked out and protected. And it absolutely has not. The city is far too big for that to have ever happened. When you say here is the flavor of the month, you risk fostering the notion that everything else is safe. 

The other odd thing to me, in the 21st century, is that when preservation pulls away from this neighborhood model and says, we do have our own criteria that we think is worth imposing, it often lurches back to the oldest, most style-based traditions of what counts as important. It’s either, we just ask the neighbors what they think is important, or we come back to a model that says, let’s put style first.

So Mid-century can easily be reduced to an aesthetic that everyone can get excited about and we do our best to preserve that. Doing that means figuring out who the leading architects of that day were, and then lumping them together into something like the Philadelphia School of Modernism. And then we go out and preserve the works of that school. This is the 1960s model of preservation, and that’s what left these neighborhoods out to begin with. 

Let’s try to figure out if there’s some third way to either stop reducing the works of a period to one style, or completely turning into a passive reflector of what other people think is worth saving. 

PP: What is that third direction?

AW: I would like to see preservation become dynamic enough to take neighborhood change seriously and not just as a bad thing. I’d like to see it think sociologically, think geographically. And to think about layers, which it does to some extent. But when push comes to shove, an enormous amount of preservation code still encourages people to rip off layers, and go back to the original, essential thing. I’d like to move away from that.

My feeling is that Philadelphia’s official preservation apparatus has essentially failed when it comes to protecting major historic buildings, and as demolition becomes something the Philadelphia Historical Commission doesn’t really want to address, or limit, or stop, that they end up doubling down on the small stuff – the signage and paint color, and what kind of window molding you use on your house. 

That has a doubly pernicious effect. On the one hand, it doesn’t keep the big stuff standing. On the other hand, it fosters the notion that preservation is about taste-policing and nit-picking, and doing the stuff that every property owner hopes you won’t do. I think that’s a lose-lose. I think that’s a direction that preservation must not go. 

In an age of heightened property rights sensitivity, do you really want to create the belief that preservation is just about paint and signage? Please say no. Please embrace a broader, more urbanistic, more geographical, more sociological approach to it. If I had a gospel, I guess it comes down to that.

To me, the larger issue here is this culture of resignation, this culture of despair and lowered expectations – that any demolition must lead to something good and the city needs it. 

I’ve been watching several of these church cases, and I’m amazed at how many people say, what else can you do with it? 

Are you kidding me? Adaptive reuse is not a radical new idea. It’s been going on for a generation. You could do a restaurant, you could do a movie theater, you could do any number of things. 

The point is, you keep it standing long enough until you figure out what you can do with it. That, to me, is the greatest surprise about working in this city. Not in Virginia, not in New England, not even in California have I ever encountered that lack of imagination, the willingness to accept demolition as the inevitable route that has to be pursued. That’s the weird thing to me. 

PP: What buildings should be on the watch list, or not?

AW: There are new buildings on the watch list on an almost weekly basis at this point. One of the things that’s shocking is that buildings get torn down which were never on the watch list. Like the Church of the Nativity, which was being torn down before anyone had the chance to weigh in on it. The 19th Street AME Church which is now gone. Or the church in Francisville, a Samuel Sloan building that was in good shape and an attractive building, and without any review at all because it wasn’t listed.

We don’t even know what should be on the watch list until it’s being torn down, and that’s a sign of real trouble. 

Generically speaking, if I were to start recreating things from scratch, one of the things I would do is focus on neighborhoods that we know are rich in architectural resources. So if you start with the 18th century, look at places like Southwark and Kensington, which have a lot of 18th century buildings left. Take early maps and try to figure out what’s still standing. That strikes me as a first step. It’s one of the things I hope to do with my students.

There are also particular architects whose work and careers have gotten shorter shrift in Philadelphia than they have nationally. 

When I was at the University of Virginia learning about architectural history, I knew that Samuel Sloan was a nationally important architect. And I came to Philadelphia to see his buildings being torn down, and no one having much to say about him.

When I look at the work that he did, it is staggeringly innovative at an urban level. Here is an architect who knew how to design new suburbs, working-class housing, some of the most innovative hospitals and schools of the mid-19th century. This was someone who had a real urban vision. To simply look at his aesthetic and say he wasn’t as good a designer as Furness really misses the point with someone like him. 

There are others, too. Just at the level of sheer architectural innovation and ingenuity, architects like George Pearson or Willis Hale — their names have come up but have never really gotten their due. I would like to do an inventory of what buildings by these people still exist, and go out and figure out how to protect them. Rather than putting individual buildings on a watch list, it’s putting careers on a watch list.

I also think the city hasn’t really gotten its head around vernacular architecture very well yet. The 19th century produced some really fascinating stuff. It would be interesting to know where the most intact trinity houses still are, where the best preserved factories and warehouses still are. The Cramp Shipyard building came down a short time ago; that shouldn’t have happened. That was a really important site. There are others like it in North Philly that need to be identified. 

I’m excited about the interest in Mid-century architecture in this area, not because the stylistic label of modernism excites me that much, but because I do think looking at 20th century vernacular resources is a good idea. I would like to get beyond looking at individual monuments by famous architects, like Louis Kahn or Robert Venturi or the other native sons, and look more closely at some of the more ordinary stuff of that period. 

That I think is starting to happen. 

It’s not always fun to look at. Some of it is innovative at the level of planning: it’s malls, it’s things that were important historically, but don’t immediately warm the cockles of my heart. You’ve got to preserve ugly stuff, too. That’s something preservationists still aren’t very good at. 

There’s a widespread popular notion that preservation is about preserving the pretty stuff. And as someone whose training is ultimately as a historian, not an architect, that never sits well with me. 

The stuff that really rallies people is important architecturally and historically. 

By the same token, when you get hold of an industrial building, like the Chester power plant, or some of the stuff in North Philly, be aware as you try to save it about what made it historically important, not just visually exciting, not just what makes for good condos or offices in the 21st century. Don’t be so quick to strip out all the stuff that showed how it worked, and who worked there. 

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.

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