Historical Commission approves Drexel Project

The March meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission sped by in less than an hour on Friday morning. It was made expeditious by the fact that a much-anticipated discussion of proposed changes to the Commission’s rules and regulations had to be postponed due to the absence of Chair Sam Sherman.

Co-chair Sara Merriman led the meeting, which was comprised of two applications pertaining to private homes in the Rittenhouse Fitler district, as well as an application from Drexel University for its planned $10 million renovation of an individually designated historic property at 3509 Spring Garden Street.

The buildings will serve as part of a new complex called the Dana and David Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships, with the application calling for masonry repair, window replacement, and the removal of a fire escape and non-historic shed addition on the house. A one-story connector between the mansion and carriage house would be removed and a connecting structure with an elevator and stair would be constructed to provide Americans with Disabilities Act mandated access and egress for the complex.

At its meeting last month, the Commission’s Architectural Committee recommended denial due to incomplete and inconsistent documentation, but authorized Committee Chair Dominique Hawkins to update the vote at the Commission meeting if she deemed the new presentation adequate.

Commissioner Hawkins did commend the applicants for their new plans, particularly because they had switched the fenestration on the proposed links to a vertical orientation more in keeping with the rest of the building. But she wondered why the panels that would connect the link to the buildings were solid metal, suggesting that the mix of design vocabularies was jarring.

Commissioner Robert Thomas thought that the solid areas might work by providing a counterpoint to the glass, while Commissioner David Schaaf asked if it was practical or allowable that the panels be glazed. In the end, however, a motion was put forth and seconded to go with the project as presented. It passed, with Commissioner Hawkins the sole opponent. (Commissioner RIchardson Dilworth III recused himself from the discussion because he is affiliated with the University.)

Commissioner Hawkins was also the lone hold-out in a case concerning the construction of a basement entry and the replacement of a stoop railing on an 1865 individually designated house on the 2000 block of Delancey Place. Neither the Commission nor the Architectural Committee had a problem with the new basement entry, so debate centered on whether or not the existing railing is historic — with Commission executive director Jonathan Farnham expressing doubts that it was and the applicants suggesting that its tracery design wasn’t compatible with the bulkier cast iron railings typical of the Civil War era. Both the railing and the basement entry received the nod from the Commission.

The final case concerned the construction of a deck with stair enclosure on a similar house around the corner on the 2100 block of Pine Street. The applicants demonstrated that they had followed the Architectural Committee’s request that a mock-up be placed on the roof and that the deck would not be visible from Pine Street. Given that, the Commission granted its unanimous approval.

The meeting concluded with Dr. Farnham reminding the Commissioners that the rules and regulations discussion would be scheduled for a future meeting, and with his welcoming of the new executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Caroline Boyce, who was present in the audience.

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