Icon of Chinatown overlooked no more

If you’ve walked down 10th Street in Chinatown you’ve seen Philadelphia’s version of a Mandarin palace, the Chinese Cultural and Community Center.

The building’s carved stone entryway, red balconies, “cloud-shaped” brackets, multicolored wood panels, and green glazed tile roof make it pretty hard to miss even on this lively block.

On Friday the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted to list this Chinatown landmark in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, adding measure of protection for this vacant, but iconic, building.

The Chinese Cultural and Community Center’s elaborate façade was fabricated in Taiwan and applied in the early 1970s to a building dating from the 1830s. It was then, and is now, a bold expression of Chinese identity in the heart of Chinatown, built more than a decade before the Friendship Gate was installed at 10th and Arch streets.

“Chinatown has a relatively high density of Philadelphia Register listed properties, but none of them were listed for their association with Chinatown,” said the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s Ben Leech. (The Alliance sponsored the nomination.) At the time of those earlier designations in the 1970s, Leech notes, the applied Chinese façade was freshly installed and the property was overlooked.

Markers in the recessed entryway for the Chinatown YMCA and the Chinese Cultural Center
Markers in the recessed entryway for the Chinatown YMCA and the Chinese Cultural Center

But years before the richly ornamented facade was applied, the building at 125 N. 10th Street was an important cultural hub for Chinatown residents. In 1955, T.T. Chang opened the Chinatown YMCA on the second floor of this building, and ultimately purchased the property in 1966. He subsequently turned the Chinatown Y into the Chinese Cultural and Community Center, offering the Chinese community supportive services like English classes. But the center also evolved into a place that helped foster cultural exchange by inviting Philadelphians from beyond Chinatown to learn about Chinese culture, particularly through an annual banquet series.

Recent decades, however, saw the center’s use decline. The Chinatown Cultural & Community Center closed in 2007.

While PennDesign historic preservation students were working on the Chinese Cultural and Community Center as a studio project last fall, I was able to go on a walkthrough of the property. Up close, many of the facade elements are fragile or missing. Several of the more decorous public rooms remain intact, but much of the building is in raw shape.

Here’s a look inside:

The building is owned by the Chinatown Building and Education Foundation, a nonprofit that lists Victoria Chang (T.T. Chang’s elderly widow) as the sole officer. In a conversation with Mrs. Chang last year, she expressed reluctance about selling the building, though many have asked.

Mrs. Chang said she hopes that the building could once again become a place for cultural exchange, and that she could forsee a restaurant opening on the first floor. But despite Mrs. Chang’s desire to restore the building and put it to new use, nothing has materialized. 

Given Mrs. Chang’s age and ability to care for this building, its future is uncertain. The hope among preservaiton advocates is that listing it in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places could help safeguard this important piece of Chinatown’s cultural history and identity.

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