Committee supports 6 historic nominations, from Lancaster Ave to La Salle’s campus, 6 requests for continuances

The nominations of two Jewelers’ Row buildings as historic took top billing at Friday’s meeting of the Historical Commission’s Committee on Historic Designation, which voted to support their designation. After hearing the Jewelers’ Row cases, the packed room cleared out and the committee proceeded with the day’s undercard: Twelve other nominations. Of these two were withdrawn from consideration, four were heard, but review of six were postponed.

Two historic houses on La Salle’s campus – the Mary and Frances Wister House and Little Wakefield – were given enthusiastic support by the committee. As was a nomination for the Mifflin-Cope House on East Penn Street in Germantown and a complex buildings clustered on a single large tax lot at 35th Street and Lancaster Avenue – Greenville, Mission house of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Pennsylvania Working Home for Blind Me, and the Old Quaker Building. In evaluating each of these cases committee members relished in discussing research details and various connections to threads of Philadelphia history, and offered recommendations to strengthen the nominations.

That level of review will have to wait for six other nominated properties. The committee voted to support requests to postpone review of these nominations, largely at the behest of property owners wanting to better understand the consequences of designation. Under the Historical Commission’s rules it must give at least 30-days written notice to property owners that it is considering a nomination.

In a strict sense the Historical Commission’s rules do not empower the committee to postpone or table review of a nomination itself; that has to come from the full commission. The Designation Committee’s role is, rather, to review and refer nominations to the commission with a recommendation to designate or not. In cases where a continuance is requested, it has been their practice to recommend that the full commission vote to grant a continuance of the review, remanding the case back to the Designation Committee. 

Pending review of a nomination – continued or otherwise active – places a property temporarily under the jurisdiction of the Historical Commission as thought it were designated.

A three-part nomination of the Rohm & Haas building at 6th and Market streets was delayed at the request of the owner, Keystone Property, and the nominator, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, so conversations about the implications of designation could be further explored.

An attorney representing First Colored Wesley Methodist Church, which owns the Samuel Sloan-designed Tabor Chapel at 17th and Fitzwater streets, requested more time to evaluate how the nomination might affect a pending sale of the church building. The committee voted to recommend review of this case at its December meeting.

Church of the Living Word, built as Fifth Reformed Dutch Church, on Susquehanna Avenue expressed similar concerns about a nomination scaring off buyers. The congregation has dwindled to 11 members, and Ethel Weeden, wife of the Rev. James Weeden, told the committee she doesn’t want to see the church demolished but they have liability concerns and insufficient funds to pay its bills. The committee recommended that the Historical Commission vote to continue review of the nomination, and requested revisions by the nominator, the Keeping Society of Philadelphia, within 30 days.

In the case of the Amos Barnes House in Wissahickon, the family who owns the property said they were surprised by notice of the nomination and wanted to postpone so they better understood the implications of designation. The committee recommended postponement here too.

Attorney William Martin represented the owner of the nominated Harbisons’ Dairies complex in East Kensington, complete with its milk bottle-shaped water tower, in requesting a continuance. He said the owners have retained engineering consultants to studying the condition of the water tower. The committee recommended a request for continuance to the first committee meeting in 2017.

But the case of Byberry Township Public Burial Ground in Crestmont Farms was different: The continuance was requested by neither the property owner (the Department of Public Property) and opposed by the nominator (Joseph Menkevich). It was requested by an attorney retained to represent a handful of adjacent Crestmont Farms property owners. There is scant precedent for continuance requests not coming from the nominator or the property owner, but the committee supported the request nonetheless.

A nomination earlier this year for the former Penn Fruit Supermarket on Frankford Avenue was continued at the request of the Frankford CDC, who is not the property owner, with no opposition from the nominator, the Preservation Alliance. The CDC said it wanted to study a broader development plan for the area. The owners purportedly wanted more time to consider the consequences of designation as well.

Emily Cooperman, an architectural historian who chairs the Designation Committee, reminded those present that the committee doesn’t get to set its own rules. In a motion to recommend a continuance, she requested guidance from the commission on when these requests should be honored.

The Historical Commission will take up these cases at its next meeting on November 10.

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