Ballet’s plan for N. Broad would raze building in Callowhill historic district

The announcement in October that the Pennsylvania Ballet would create a $17.5 million dance center on North Broad Street was greeted with ovations by the city and arts community. The groundbreaking for the complex of five dance studios, school and offices marked a turnaround for a company that had been struggling and in debt two decades ago, and was another step forward for the revival of North Broad Street.

But the plans for the new ballet headquarters include the demolition of a building at 325 N. Broad that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the preservation community is not joining in the applause for the project.

“I’m appalled that they’re going to tear down the 325 building,” said Robert Powers, president of Powers & Company, a historic preservation and architectural conservation firm. Two years ago, Powers & Company conducted the nomination process for the Callowhill Industrial Historic District to the National Register. The building at 325 N. Broad is listed as contributing to the historic district, and it could and should be re-used by the Ballet, Powers said.

The dance company’s plan, designed by Erdy McHenry Architecture, shows the creation of an open courtyard with trees at 325 N. Broad and renovation of the building at 331.

“I think it’s a misguided design that is not taking advantage of Broad Street,” Powers said. “Creating a small park along an urban corridor is not appropriate. The building [at 325] is an excellent candidate for rehabilitation. This is an artistic company that is not respecting historic resources.”

The Ballet has raised $11.2 million so far, mainly from donors, for the project. The city is contributing $1 million through its Cultural Corridors Fund, and the state is providing $2.5 million through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.

Any alterations to a building on the National Register that are paid through public funding sources go through a review process by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission.

John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, said the PHMC reviewed the Ballet’s plan and determined it had an “adverse effect” on the site. “But it appears they concluded that documentation of the building to be demolished was sufficient. They did not do any consultation with parties in Philadelphia in reaching that conclusion,” Gallery said.

Gallery did meet recently with John Gattuso, who heads up the building committee for the Ballet. And Gallery said the most recent proposal by the dance company included restoration of one of the buildings on Broad Street and restoration of other structures at the rear of the site. “That was a somewhat better plan” than had been proposed earlier, Gallery said.

In an interview with PlanPhilly, Gattuso said the Ballet is “totally embracing the Callowhill Industrial Historic District” and its plan is a “great example of use of historic assets.”

The façade of 331 will be preserved and the building will be kept intact and renovated for office space, said Gattuso, who is regional director of Liberty Property Trust’s Urban and National Development team. The garage buildings at the rear of the site will become rehearsal studios; a green roof will be installed on one of those buildings and clear glass upper stories will eventually be added.

“The only building being removed is 325 N. Broad,” Gattuso said. “It is not in very good condition, and the main reason is that we need to create a large studio that is the exact dimensions of the Academy of Music stage. Now it’s a two-and-a-half-story building with lots of small rooms.

“We are sacrificing that one building to get the functionality that we need for the studio and ballet school.”

A consultant had found that alterations over the years to 325 N. Broad did not retain the historic character of the building, Gattuso also said.

There has been a “very precise effort on the part of the design team to retain the historic structures,” he said.

Auto row

The Ballet purchased the cluster of buildings at Broad and Wood Streets in 2007 with the intention of transforming them into a center for dance and the company’s permanent home.

The buildings went up 100 years ago as a center for the burgeoning automobile industry.

The surviving jewel of the auto row is the Packard Motor Company building, 315-321 N. Broad, designed in 1910 by renowned industrial architect Albert Kahn. Cars were assembled on the upper floors and showcased in the cherry-paneled first floor. The Packard building was later known as the Press Building and was home to the Philadelphia Record newspaper for two decades. The building was transformed into 151 luxury apartments in the mid-1980s in a $15 million retrofit by Historic Landmarks for Living.

The handsome building at 331 N. Broad that will become the Ballet’s offices was erected in 1911 for the U.S. Tire Company. And the Colonial Revival building at 325 N. Broad that will come down in the Ballet’s plan was constructed in 1910 for the Willys-Overland Motor Company, which was best known for the design and production of military and civilian Jeeps.

The former auto buildings are part of the relatively small historic district of 66 resources, within 14 city blocks, which trace the evolution of industrial architecture and manufacturing growth in Philadelphia.

A neighborhood in transition

In recent years, the Callowhill area has been adopted by artists, writers and urban revivalists and dubbed the “Eraserhood,” a tribute to film director David Lynch, who lived in the gritty neighborhood while a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Lynch has said his years in Philly shaped the post-industrial ambiance of his discomforting movie, “Eraserhead.”

The North Broad corridor has undergone a more upscale transformation as well. New restaurants have moved into long-vacant storefronts, including Marc Vetri’s Osteria, 640 N. Broad St. Developer Eric Blumenfeld turned a former dress factory at Broad and Mount Vernon Street into 101 loft apartments, and is working on a site at 600 N. Broad that will include two more restaurants by Vetri and Stephen Starr.

The Daily News/Philadelphia Inquirer building, 400 N. Broad, has been purchased by Bart Blatstein for redevelopment as a retail, dining and apartment complex.

Repurposing industrial and office buildings in the area was a goal of putting the Callowhill district on the National Register. Tax credits for redeveloping historic buildings serves as a great motivator in saving such buildings, particularly in a difficult real estate market.

But the Ballet project misses the point, Powers said.

“There are so many opportunities for renovation of historic buildings,” he said. “A lot of times we’re fighting developers to preserve these sites. We shouldn’t have to be fighting with the Ballet.”

The Ballet company recognizes the importance of the North Broad revival, Gattuso said, and the dance center “will help make this a terrific neighborhood.”

“The new plan is to be applauded. We are preserving three buildings and the neighborhood is getting a great activity-generator on North Broad. This will be a contributor to the loft district, not a negative.”

The entire project is slated for completion in spring 2014.

Gallery, of the Preservation Alliance, said it is “unfortunate that there was not an opportunity for broader discussion” of the plan, “particularly since both state and city money is going into this.”

The Alliance has suggested to the city that there should be a procedure for municipal review of cases where buildings on the National Register are to be razed using city funds. “But in the end, I think that bringing the Ballet to the area and at least the restoration of three properties would most likely have been supported,” Gallery said.

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