Commission rejects historic designation for Port Richmond church

The Philadelphia Historic Commission voted on Friday not to accept a nomination for the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Messiah on the 2600 block of East Huntingdon Street in Port Richmond.

The Commission’s committee on designation had affirmed the building’s significance in a hearing last week. But Ori Feibush, a developer who’s hoping to replace the 150-year-old church with single-family homes, elected to start demolition earlier this week. The building had been declared imminently dangerous by the Department of Licenses and Inspections, thereby overruling the demolition delay that comes with a nomination under consideration by the commission, and many in the community wanted to see it torn down. L&I’s declaration requires the owner to demolish or repair the dangerous conditions.

Commission member Sara Merriman made the motion to reject the nomination. She said the precedent in cases where L&I has declared a building imminently dangerous is clear: The Commission does not designate such buildings.

Before voting, the Commission heard from a number of lawyers representing Feibush and the Olde Richmond Civic Association, a neighborhood group that opposed the designation. Oscar Beisert had originally submitted the nomination, but Beisert withdrew it after hearing that the community was opposed to the designation and wanted the property redeveloped. Andrew Fearon then resubmitted the nomination. Fearon spoke in support of the nomination on Friday and asked the Commission to consider designating a portion of the structure, in a separate tax parcel, that was built in 1892.

Aaron Wunsch, a preservation professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said there should be a public report when L&I declares buildings imminently dangerous. He noted that politics had become involved in the nomination process: representatives for State Rep. John Taylor and Councilman Mark Squilla testified in opposition to the designation. In response, several Commissioners said that political influence had nothing to do with their decision. The Commission voted unanimously not to accept the nomination.

At the earlier committee hearing, Chris Sawyer, the zoning chairman for Olde Richmond Civic Association, said that nominations for historic buildings should be vetted by Registered Community Organizations before going to the Historical Commission. At the very least, he said, RCOs should be notified.

In other action, the Commission voted to delay a decision on the designation of the Vanna Venturi house in Chestnut Hill for 90 days. The nomination was submitted by the Chestnut Hill Historical Society and supported by both the AIA of Philadelphia and the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

The nominators said on Friday that they were asking for more time so they could negotiate a preservation easement with either the current owners of the house or potential new owners. A preservation easement can have tax benefits to owners of historic buildings while also allowing them to be protected. Placing the Venturi house on the historic register would complicate that process, said Emily Cooperman, who helped write the nomination with the Chestnut Hill Historical Society.

Patrick Grossi of the Preservation Alliance, which made a grant to Chestnut Hill Historical Society to work on historic preservation, supported the continuance. In the meantime, because the Commission’s designation committee voted to support the nomination, the building remains under the Commission’s jurisdiction. Nobody involved, including the owners, questions the building’s significance.

“There’s no disputing that this is a very, very, very important building,” said Jon Farnham, the director of the Historical Commission.

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