Jan. 18, 2010
By Alan Jaffe
An aging warship, a tottering hotel, rusting subway railings, and vacant churches are among the eclectic group of historic resources named to the seventh annual Endangered Properties List compiled by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.
The “endangered” status does not ensure preservation or funding, but the Alliance hopes it will spur action on the part of property owners and developers and motivate communities to seek their protection and restoration.
One of the well-known and beloved resources on the list is the Cruiser Olympia, a longtime resident of the Delaware waterfront and favorite class-trip destination. Launched in 1892, she is the oldest steel warship afloat in the world. The Olympia earned her reputation in the Spanish-American War when she destroyed a fleet of enemy ships at Manila Bay. On her recently restored bridge, visitors can recall Commodore George Dewey’s words: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”
But the Olympia has not been out of the water since 1945. Her hull has thinned and is deteriorating. Since 1996, the ship has been under the stewardship of the Independent Seaport Museum, which, the Preservation Alliance notes, has made great strides in stabilizing the vessel.
“With any historic ship, it is a complicated arrangement with the Navy, which owns the ship,” explained museum president Lori Dillard Rech. The museum maintains the historic ships at Penn’s Landing and dedicates staff to keep them open for public visits. Save America grants and other funding sources have helped in that maintenance. “We have put $5 million into restoring the Olympia so far, including the bridge deck and pilot house,” Rech said.
“Two years ago, we identified it as having a critical need for going to dry dock. Luckily she’s in fresh water, which helps preserve her. But the years have taken a toll.”
The museum has sought support from federal, state and city sources, without success. “We’re looking for $6 million to $20 million to restore her,” Rech said. “Unfortunately, we were dealt a hard blow with the economy. And the museum itself has to survive in order to be a steward of these ships.”
Rech said the museum is “now in negotiation with the Navy to see what other options there are for the Olympia’s future.” Navy experts will examine the ship, and then a decision will be made, Rech said.
Another grande dame, the Divine Lorraine Hotel, also appears on the endangered list. Designed in French Renaissance Revival style by Willis Hale and erected in 1893-94, the building underwent various incarnations. She started as an apartment building featuring electrical and telephone service, became a luxury hotel, and in 1948 was purchased by the Rev. Major J. Divine. He christened her the Divine Lorraine and operated the elegant building as the city’s first racially integrated hotel and the center of the Divine Peace Mission’s civil rights, religious and business activities.
Father Divine’s followers sold the building in 2000, and it has been vacant ever since. A Dutch company owns the property and had proposed a residential complex at the site in 2006. It demolished much of the interior, removed historic elements, and then ceased construction. The company has demonstrated no interest in maintaining or protecting the building since that time.
The Preservation Alliance recommends that a local investor buy the Divine Lorraine for future development. “The hope is related to the site, not just the building,” executive director John Gallery explained. “There is a large piece of vacant land that is part of the property. The previous developer planned a supermarket and 800 housing units – that gives you an idea of the size of the potential development. Like the Naval Home site, the historic building may not be a big money-maker, but the total project could be.”
The endangered list includes categories of historic resources that appear throughout the city. Many are vacant religious buildings that have fallen into disrepair following the loss of their congregations.
The Church of the Assumption, 11th and Spring Garden Streets, has been a point of contention between the surrounding community, which wants to preserve the 19th-century landmark, and its owner, the Siloam social service agency. The nonprofit, which serves people and families living with HIV/AIDS, wants to demolish the building and reuse the site. The neighbors successfully nominated the church to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places last year. Siloam has appealed that decision, explaining that it can’t afford to renovate the existing building.
Other church buildings threatened by neglect and eventual demolition include Christ Memorial Church, 4233 Chestnut St.; Emanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1001 S. 4th St.; St. Boniface Church, 142 Diamond St.; St. Bonaventure Catholic Church, 2842 N. 9th St.; and St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Germantown, 6008 Wayne Ave.
The Preservation Alliance recommends the development of a pilot program, funded by area foundations and led by Partners for Sacred Places, that would explore the possibility of adapting religious buildings for other community needs.
Historic windows, from Colonial wooden windows to massive Modernist glass plates, are threatened by the trend toward energy-efficient replacements, according to the Alliance. The organization recommends proper maintenance and adding storm windows to increase efficiency rather than scrapping the old materials. It also urges the Historical Commission to require that owners maintain historic windows when applying for alteration permits.
The Endangered Properties List also calls for the protection of the cast-iron guardrails and signs built in the 1920s to ’50s around the entrances to the Philadelphia subway lines. Many have already been removed by SEPTA during its station remodeling, replaced with a blend of styles and materials. The remaining cast-iron entrances are rusting. The Alliance recommends their designation on the Philadelphia Register and proper restoration by SEPTA.
Replace or re-use?
Two Modernist structures appear on this year’s endangered list.
The Sidney Hillman Medical Center, 2116 Chestnut St., designed in 1950 by Louis Magaziner and Henry Polss, is now owned by the John Buck Company, of Chicago, which has received approval for its demolition in order to build a 33-story apartment tower. The Preservation Alliance has appealed that decision and the zoning variance that would allow for the proposed height. The Alliance recommends that the developer find a more suitable site for the project that would not raze a historic building or adversely impact a historic district.
William Penn High School, 1333 N. Broad St., designed by renowned Modernist architect Romaldo Giurgola, was threatened with closure last year by the School District due to declining enrollment and the cost of repairing its deteriorating underground pipe system. The community fought the closure, and the School District agreed to wait until June to close and reconsider its future. The Preservation Alliance recommends its renovation and reuse by nearby Temple University or another school or institution.
Viewed in 1908 as a model facility for the treatment of intellectual and developmental disabilities, the Pennhurst State School and Hospital in Spring City, Chester County, would later become a rallying point for improving the living conditions of the disabled. The institution was closed and has remained vacant since 1986. The 112-acre campus, with more than 20 Jacobean Revival structures designed by Philip H. Johnson, has deteriorated. In 2008, a developer purchased the central campus and planned to demolish the historic buildings and erect single-family homes. The surrounding community fought that plan and is working with the developer and the Community Design Collaborative on a feasibility study to preserve all or some of the historic structures.
The other resource that appears on the Endangered Properties List is the Deshong Mansion and Gallery Building in the city of Chester. The 1850 Greek Revival mansion and Renaissance Revival museum, dedicated in 1916, are vacant and under the care of the Delaware County Industrial Redevelopment Authority. But both buildings are deteriorating through neglect and vulnerable to subdivision and new development. The Preservation Alliance recommends that the Redevelopment Authority explore potential re-use of the buildings and strategies for preservation.
For more information on the Endangered Properties List, go to http://www.preservationalliance.com/advocacy/supportingdocs/EndangeredNewsWin10.pdf
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