Court upholds L&I decision to preserve all of Dilworth House

May 27, 2010

By Alan Jaffe
For PlanPhilly

A Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge has upheld a decision to deny a permit to raze the rear portion of the Dilworth House on Washington Square.

Judge Idee C. Fox wrote in her six-page opinion that the Board of Licenses and Inspection Review has the power to overturn the previous decision of the Historical Commission to allow the alteration of the building, which critics say is, in effect, a demolition of the building.

Richard C. DeMarco, an attorney representing a group of neighbors calling themselves the Concerned Citizens in Opposition to the Dilworth Development Proposal, said the court’s ruling “leaves in place that the L&I review board is not just a rubber stamp of the Historical Commission, and that it has to have power to reverse decisions.”

The property at 223-225 South 6th Street is owned by John and Mary Turchi, who hired renowned Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi to design a 16-story condominium tower that retains the façade of the Colonial Revival structure. The house had been built in the 1950s by former mayor Richardson Dilworth to stimulate the revitalization of Society Hill.

In November 2007, the Historical Commission approved the Turchis’ application to develop the site. The Concerned Citizens, the Society Hill Civic Association and other individuals appealed that decision to the L&I review board, which reversed the Historical Commission’s decision in November 2008.

The Turchis then appealed to the Court of Common Pleas, arguing that the review board applied the wrong standard of review and should have shown deference to the findings and decision of the Historical Commission.

In her opinion issued on May 20, Judge Fox wrote that, according to the City Charter, “the board is clearly empowered to take evidence and to overrule and reverse decisions by the commission. … This court rejects the Turchis’ argument that the commission’s decisions are entitled to strong deference.”

She later writes: “Clearly, the board plays a supervising role over the commission subject to this court’s review. Further, the board hearings are consistent with due process as a record hearing with a stenographer present and evidence presented with the right of cross-examination.”

The court opinion, DeMarco said, affirms that the review board is “an independent board, free to hold hearings with due process. The Historical Commission meetings are not held that way. This allowed the L&I review board to do what they see is fit.”

The residents groups have argued that the Turchi tower project is not compatible with the size and architectural features of the Dilworth House or its next-door neighbors, the Athenaeum architectural and design library and the Lippincott Publishing Building, which is now a condo building. The property is within the Society Hill Historic District, and the Historical Commission has classified the Dilworth House as a “significant” part of the district.

Historical Commission executive director Jonathan Farnham said he had no immediate comment on the court decision and it is up to the Turchis to appeal it.

John Turchi did not return a call for comment Thursday.

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The mid-century structure sits between the Athenaeum design library and the Lippincott Publishing Building, which now houses condos.

Turchi Properties has described the tower project this way: “The Venturi design honors both the scale and magnificence of the square. The building will complete the composition of the square’s east side, aligning the building with the streetscape. The materials of the façade complement the buildings of the square with brownstone and limestone, and replace [designer Edwin] Brumbaugh’s Colonial Revival brick and marble. The Dilworth House is designed to preserve light in the Atheneauem’s great stair and rear garden.”

DeMarco said the Turchis will probably appeal the court decision within the 30 days allowed.

Previous coverage

Contact the writer at alanjaffe@mac.com.

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