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No about-face on facadectomies in Philly just yet: They’re still pretty rare here

On South Street, the front exterior of the Royal Theater still stands, encased in steel. The ornamented brick façade of the historic entertainment complex is all that is left of the 100-year-old structure. The rest was demolished by local developer Ori Feibush to make way for an apartment building and townhouses.

This variety of preservation, known as a facadectomy, is not the norm in Philadelphia. Historic-preservation advocates often think of it as a poor substitute for the protection of the whole building. Supporters of the practice in Philadelphia, however, have called for developers to consider it as a compromise that would save some fragment of the city’s vanishing historic footprint.

In the long-burning Jewelers’ Row controversy, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia repeatedly asked that Toll Brothers consider saving the facades of the endangered buildings. Mayor Jim Kenney even voiced his support for such a plan. More recently, neighborhood residents asked Feibush about the possibility of preserving the façade of the recently demolished Christian Street Baptist church.

One of the city’s leading preservation activists, Oscar Beisert, frequently gives speeches at Historical Commission meetings about the possibility of preserving at least the façade of soon-to-be-demolished Philadelphia buildings.

That’s because before moving to the City of Brotherly Love, Beisert lived in Washington, D.C., where façade preservation is common.

“I used to be upset about the facade-preservation approach (like a good preservationist), but living in Philly, where leveling a 200-year-old building happens weekly, I’ve come to appreciate facade preservation in the District,” Beisert wrote in an email.

A rendering of the new structure with the old Royal Theater facade in position | JKRP Architects
A rendering of the new structure with the old Royal Theater facade in position. |  JKRP Architects (JKRP Architects)

Facadectomies aren’t unknown in Philadelphia. The most famous is probably the award-winning Penn Mutual tower on Walnut Street, between Fifth and Sixth streets, which incorporates the façade of the 1838 John Haviland-designed Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Co. building. The almost 200-year-old white marble frontage is eye-catchingly framed by dark glass curtain walls, just behind Independence Hall.

Other prominent examples include the Rittenhouse Club, where Henry James used to quaff drinks. It was demolished in 2007 to make way for the 10 Rittenhouse development, but its limestone façade remains. The Lit Brothers building is entirely new construction behind the iconic shell, while developer Bart Blatstein’s new Rittenhouse Square mansion also preserves the historic streetscape. The Boyd Theater’s remnant on the 1900 block of Chestnut Street effectively constitutes a facadectomy as well.

“I think most preservationists would prefer to see full adaptive reuse of the existing building envelope,” said Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. “A facadectomy only preserves the streetscape and what the people see from the outside, so as a result facadectomies are seen as inferior to adaptive reuse of existing buildings. But in some circumstances, it’s better than nothing.”

Facadectomies are also quite expensive. An engineer is often required, as is a steel brace to support the façade during construction. The historic materials themselves are fragile and need maintenance.

Feibush said that his team originally budgeted half a million dollars to preserve the Royal Theater’s façade, but that the actual cost is much closer to a million.

“If you visit the site and see all the structural steel above ground, it’s important to recognize there is more steel underground,” said Feibush. “It’s an incredible feat of engineering. And the [$1 million cost] doesn’t include the costs associated with taking down the steel, the [alterations] required to tie that façade into our development, or soft costs like engineering.”

Feibush said the costs he’s experienced with the Royal Theater’s facadectomy mean that the process would really only make sense for large projects in Center City, where profit margins are higher.

That’s largely been the case in Philadelphia, although that may also relate to where much of the construction demand exists in the city. Even in cases where townhouse facades have been preserved, they are usually as part of a luxury housing tower or a major institutional project.

On the 700 block of Walnut Street, just around the corner from Jewelers’ Row, the developer of the St. James condo tower preserved the facades of the long-vacant, much-deteriorated, and historically protected townhomes of York Row. On the 700 block of Spruce Street, Pennsylvania Hospital maintained the facades of the several historic townhouses to mask new construction in the 1970s.

On Liacouris Walk, Temple University saved the facades of historic townhouses to give flavor to the expansion of the Fox Business School. Curtis Institute of Music  performed a facadectomy on a pair of townhouses while constructing a new dormitory and accompanying practice building on Locust Street.

 

Philadelphia’s scattered and limited use of facadectomies seems to be the norm in most cities. The oft-cited case of Washington, D.C., is unusual.

Historian Cameron Logan traces the strategy’s frequent use in Washington to the evolution of the preservation movement there, which evolved from a street-activism and lawsuit-happy 1970s-era group called Don’t Tear It Down, to the more accommodationist 1980s-era District of Columbia Preservation League.

The Preservation League decided to try to work collaboratively with real estate developers to save more buildings or, at least, the portions of them the public notices. Logan thinks the victories of that era resulted in facadectomies becoming commonplace and accepted practice embraced by both developers and at least some activists.

“To some extent, once you have a body of precedent in the city it becomes easy to argue that [façade preservation] actually is preservation,” said Logan, who is author of the book Historic Capital: Preservation, Race, and Real Estate in Washington, D.C. “The prominence and number of them in D.C. is more prevalent, I’m not aware of another city that’s taken that approach.”

The practice has become so widespread in Washington that the zoning overlay for the H Street area grants extra density to developers who preserve the facades of pre-1958 buildings.

Logan also believes the unique constraints of building in the nation’s capital have given a boost to the practice. In a 68-square-mile city with a universal height limit, there simply aren’t that many places to build office towers, so developers have to make accommodations with an ardent preservation community to build in inarguably historic areas.

None of those conditions exist in Philadelphia, where facadectomies are likely to remain rare and concentrated in the downtown core, or done on projects where the frontage is specifically protected, as in the case of the Royal Theater, where the Preservation Alliance holds an easement on the façade.

Asked whether he would pursue such a project again, Feibush said he has his doubts.

“I never say never, but most of the projects where developers discuss preserving the façade are quite small, at least for the scale of what it would cost to keep that façade,” Feibush said. “From the average consumer perspective, [people think it costs] 10 or 20 grand, but in reality its millions of dollars.”

A rendering of the new front exterior incorporating the old Royal Theater facade | JKRP Architects
( JKRP Architects)

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