Historical Commission drills deeper, examines materials

What looked to be a relatively uneventful lineup at Friday’s meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission turned into a series of thoughtful discussions on the significance of materials to the historic fabric.

Gone were the usual mundane debates over windows and decks — and in were in-depth looks at the critical roles that Wissahickon schist, red brick, and hairpin fencing play in the city’s vernacular architecture.

The morning’s longest discussion had to do with that last element — an iron fence whose u-shaped run resembles an assemblage of  upside down bobby pins, often used as a cemetery surround (as in this case). The applicants, the current occupants of the Trinity Lutheran Church at Germantown Avenue and Queen Lane in Mt. Airy, have already removed and replaced some portion of the 400-foot run with new aluminum fence. Two buildings on the complex date to the mid-1700s, although Historical Commission staff hasn’t been able to ascertain the age of the fence.

Also unclear to just about everyone in the room: how much of the fence had been replaced, gone missing, and been repaired. And: were the cost estimates the Church had received for repair, replacement, or both? And: was the property in a district that’s designated historically and/or architecturally significant, and if so, what did that mean?

When all was said and done, however, the Commission agreed with its Architectural Review Committee: continuing to install new fencing was not acceptable. Several sympathetic commissioners encouraged the Church to submit an application pleading financial hardship. The Commission then unanimously approved a motion, put forth by Commissioner Dominique Hawkins, to deny the current application seeking legalization of the replacement fencing.

The process, and the result, left everyone smiling, a rarity during these kinds of situations.

Another application in this neck of the historic woods also sought to legalize prior work, in this case the reconstruction of a retaining wall in the garden of a Tudor-style rowhome in a small sliver of East Falls designated as historic just a few years ago. The home’s owner explained that last year she had repaired the wall using its original material, the schist; but when this year it again needed repairing, she opted for a different material, sandstone.

She and the Commission butted heads over questions of whether the material, or its installation, was at fault for the deterioration. She also insisted that other homes on her block had walls built of materials other than schist.

An increasingly silent Commission indicated to close watchers that these arguments weren’t compelling. At last, Sara Merriman, Deputy Mayor Alan Greenberger’s designee, once again played good cop to Commission Chair Sam Sherman’s bad, and gently pointed out the “stark” differences between the accepted and new material. Commissioners unanimously denied the application.

The repeated admonishment of Commissioners to applicants that historic standards call for replacement materials to match those present at the time of construction came up in the morning’s final case, as well. In this instance, the question revolved around a painted brick facade in Washington Square West.

Unhappy with the current gray paint job, the applicant is seeking to paint the facade of her 840-square-foot home yellow. Since unpainted red brick is the standard, the only acceptable options are to remove all paint or to repaint the brick in a dark red that resembles the natural brick.

Here, too, the applicant pleaded that many neighborhood homes, including five on her one small block, had been painted in colors other than the preferred red. And, she even brought along a photo of New York’s venerated Fraunces Tavern, pointing out that it was faced in actual yellow brick, quarried from the Netherlands. The Commissioners seemed duly unimpressed — whether or not they realized that the restaurant is almost a total reconstruction of its 1719 self.

Commissioner Richardson Dilworth III played devil’s advocate and ragged the Commission about overstepping itself with its suggestion that an owner seeking merely to repaint her facade might have to pay thousands to strip it instead. Hawkins appeared dumb-founded at his questioning, while Commission executive director Jonathan Farnham patiently explained the situation. “The choice was made in the 19th century,” he said, “and the choice was red.” The fact that other natural or painted brick colors may have existed then, he added, was irrelevant.

At last, Sherman declared “this conversation has now begun to get — circular,” and called for a motion. A majority of  Commissioners voted to deny the application, with four, including Sherman and Merriman, opposing the denial.

The decision ended the meeting on a sour note. It also brought home the fact that many, many owners — from churches to residents — are unclear about the responsibilities attendant when they purchase an historic property.

Contact the reporter at jgreco@planphilly.com and follow her on Twitter @joanngreco

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