A historic haven for black Philadelphians slated for demolition

The Wharton Centre at 22nd Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Wharton Centre at 22nd Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

A string of buildings that once housed one of the city’s first social service providers for black Philadelphians are set to meet the wrecking ball.

The Wharton Centre was founded in the early 20th Century as one of many “settlement houses” to serve an expanding African-American community in North Philadelphia. The organization trained early social workers, provided anti-gang violence programs, hosted a youth arts center and provided shelter for the homeless in an era when government-run social services were still in their infancy. City officials, merchants and civil rights leader Cecil B. Moore met at the center in the wake of the 1964 race riots on Columbia Avenue, which was later renamed in Moore’s honor.

While silver lettering still marks the group’s old headquarters on Cecil B. Moore Ave, the center had filed for bankruptcy by the mid-2000s and its archives were moved to Temple University for safekeeping. The buildings were later rented as apartments by a private landlord and then sold to the East Falls-based Obara Realty Group in 2017.

But last week, Obara was granted demolition permits for at least two of the five buildings that comprised the Wharton Centre.  The company’s move comes at a time when real estate values in the area are rising. Between 2010 and 2016, median home prices in the 19121 zip code that encompasses the property jumped by 68 percent  — the third biggest increase of any Philadelphia zip code.

The buildings are not listed on the city’s historic register, which acts as a safeguard against demolition. Faye Anderson, director of All That Philly Jazz, a public history project documenting the city’s Jazz Age history and the Cecil B. Moore Ave corridor, linked this demolition to a report issued last week by the city’s Historic Preservation Task Force detailing a systemic failure to nominate historically-significant buildings.

“To me, the City failed the first test of its close commitment to strengthen historic preservation,” she said. “It’s still demo now, survey later.”

The task force report found that few historically significant buildings in Philadelphia are ever nominated for protections –– just 2.2 percent of all structures, compared to an average of 4.3 percent in the 50 largest cities.

Meanwhile, older buildings are vanishing at an increasing pace. 2018 was a record year for demolitions with developers initiating more knock-downs than any other year on record, a PlanPhilly analysis of city permit data found.

Anderson argued that the Wharton Centre was historically significant in its role as a venue for aspiring musicians in the mid-century, offering rare paying gigs to artists who would later gain national prominence, like jazz saxophonist Benny Golson.

“The Wharton Centre is one of the few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz,” she said. “The community center’s recreational activities included concerts with jazz greats and legends-in-the-making.”

The buildings stand just blocks from the Dox Thrash House, another endangered place important to black Philadelphia history.

Obara CEO Joe Quinones declined to discuss his plans for the property and abruptly hung up when asked about the demolition plans. An L&I permit states that the company intends to maintain the property as a vacant lot following demolition.

Kelly Cofrancisco, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said in an email that Obara is within his legal rights to demolish the building. But “situations like this, where a building has historic value but no protection, are why Mayor Kenney formed the Historic Preservation Task Force and why he began moving forward last week on Task Force recommendations.”

“The index recommended by the Task Force would enable consideration of historically significant buildings prior to issuance of a demolition permit,” Cofrancisco said.

Editors note: This article was updated on April 10 with a comment from the Kenney administration.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.