How local historic preservation works

Jan. 5, 2010

By JoAnn Greco
For PlanPhilly

On Dec. 11, James L. Brown IV scored a major victory. After winning national historic designation more than two decades ago for a 105-acre swath of the Parkside neighborhood, he achieved the even more difficult task of securing local protection for a much smaller portion.

It was a notable feat. Sorting out Philadelphia’s various preservation players and lengthy nomination processes has never been easy. And, with limited staffing and funding, a backlog of proposals, and a weakened economy, it’s even tougher nowadays. Throw in an assortment of designations —from buildings and districts, to sites and objects, to even, beginning this month, historic interiors — and it’s amazing that we save and protect as much as we do.

Any individual or group can nominate a “place.” Convincing the Philadelphia Historical Commission that a property meets any one criteria — enumerated in the 1955 ordinance of the Philadelphia Code which established the Commission — allows it to be added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The criteria range from possession of “significant character, interest or value” to “distinctive architectural style” to a “singular physical characteristic.”


Something like, say, the Marian Anderson home in South Philadelphia has made the register, then, even though it’s an undistinguished row home. “It represents the physical embodiment of an important aspect of our history, and it’s home to an important historical figure,” comments John Andrew Gallery, executive director of the nonprofit Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which often lobbies for designation. “It should be preserved.”

Gallery praises the Commission’s criteria as “much better than the narrower criteria used in other cities, including New York, which places the greatest emphasis on architectural significance.” And while the 14-member body — required by city ordinance to include real estate developers, architects, community representatives, historians, as well as certain city department heads — features a plethora of agendas, politics, expertise, and sympathy for or resistance to development pressures, its diversity also ensures that lively debates lead ultimately to consensus. Says Gallery: “I think the criteria and their interpretation over the years has worked very well.” He also points out that the Designation Committee, a separate advisory group that vets nominations, has “real historical expertise.”

Once the Commission agrees to consider a nomination, then, the process, contentious or not, is clear and transparent. It’s the getting there that confuses people. “There’s always room for improvement,” concedes Randal Baron, a historic preservation planner on the Commission’s staff. “But we have been working hard on a lot of things, including updating the historic register to make it compliant with Board of Revision of Taxes information, and making sure we’re ready to start receiving nominations for the interiors designation.”

The creation of the Parkside Historic District, Philadelphia’s most recent neighborhood district, demonstrates that navigating the system is do-able, says Johnette Davies, a historic preservationist with Kise Straw and Kolodner. Five years ago, she worked on a submission for a community group in Overbrook Farms. For a fee of $25,000 or so, Davies and her associates fleshed out the extant research for the district’s national designation, worked on a statement of significance, performed map research, and conducted a field survey that met the Commission’s prescribed method of describing the building’s elements, materials, landscape, and outbuildings.

As per the ordinance, which was amended in 1985 to include district designations, each property also needed to be evaluated as significant, contributing or non-contributing. “Significant” properties could conceivably qualify for individual listing; while “contributing” ones, even though they demonstrably reflect the character of the district through history, architecture, design or plan, would not. “Non-contributing” are deemed to have no relationship to the district’s character. Covering hundreds of homes, the application is still under consideration by the Commission.

“The staff time required to verify the survey, including to photograph each property, and hold public meetings is an issue,” says Davies. But, the substantial workload that a large designation promises for the future, in terms of the required prompt turnaround of permit reviews, is also a concern. Parkside’s relatively quick success, then, offers a valuable lesson: don’t be greedy. “Pursuing district designation [rather than nominating individual buildings] is always a good idea because it protects the greatest amount with the least effort,” Davies says. “But since designation brings with it regulatory responsibility, a smaller area with a lot fewer buildings makes a lot of sense.”

Brown knows that his group was fortunate to be able to isolate a portion from the nationally-certified district. “It’s unusual that you can find so much of a story in such a little section,” he says. “These blocks say a great deal about Parkside in general, as well as about Philadelphia and its culture during the time these houses were built.” A former historical commissioner who also once worked for the city’s Redevelopment Authority, Brown claims to have been inspired to save his neighborhood by Edmund Bacon, who exhorted him to “do something about” what he saw happening as neighborhoods underwent sweeping redevelopment.


The three sections of the Brentwood are connected by a terra cotta porch supported by ornate columns.

A smart man, Brown first “did something” by seeking national designation in the 1980s: he knew the economic benefits to be reaped in the form of tax credits would come in handy as he redeveloped the area. But not all developers look as kindly on national or local historic certification. In fact, blindsiding them with a call for protection will not sit well, points out Davies. (Developers have in the past sued over this, calling such moves a “taking” of private property.) “Being proactive before a property is threatened puts the community in a much more positive light,” she says. “That way, it’s not all about ‘we’re going to fight your development’.”

Lesson number two: Protect buildings before they are under any threat. As soon as an application has been deemed technically and substantively correct and complete, its subject is considered under the protection of the Historical Commission. Should a developer ask for demolition permits, for example, Licenses and Inspections should (theoretically) kick the paperwork over to the Commission.

Architect Shawn Evans learned this lesson the hard way when he and other neighborhood architects found themselves involved in an effort to protect a lot that appeared on the market in Queen Village. Featuring fifteen alley trinities from the 1830s and two street-facing homes, the parcel was advertised as being developable, a potential sign that the two homes might be targeted as teardowns, says Evans. “We checked the Historical Commission’s web site — now they encourage you to phone the office instead — and found that the properties weren’t listed,” he recalls. “So we set about doing the research needed to place it under consideration.”


Ghost wall remnant of Queen Village home circa 1768

Before they got much further, the property was sold. “It appeared that it was going to just be a standard renovation,” says Evans. But, one day, the smaller of the two houses on the street disappeared into a tidy pile of rubble. Evans and his associates had dated it as circa 1768, noting that it retained about 90 percent of its original exterior masonry. In its place: a patch of green grass, later surrounded by a plastic white picket fence. Not quite the stuff of Colonial Philadelphia.

“You want to have as much time as possible to save things,” says the Commission’s Baron. “Sometimes we take things for granted as being safe, but we don’t always know the economic stability of owners and organizations. A company might go out of business, a museum might find it doesn’t have the resources to take care of an asset. Then suddenly something is put up for sale and the next day it disappears.

“Knowledgeable and concerned people in the neighborhoods should think about becoming watchdogs,” Baron continues. “Just as you might call in a sinkhole to the Streets Department.”

Which leads us to point number three: the Historical Commission is not technically charged with identifying potential candidates for protection. For nominations, it relies primarily on the public. “Although we do sometimes nominate, we’re doing less and less of it at this point because more of our time has been taken up with design review [assessing proposed changes in properties that have already received designation] and because we have a lot of nominations coming in, anyway,” says Baron.

Enter, for one, the Preservation Alliance, happy to assume that watchdog role through advocacy and outreach, as well as to act as nominator. “I see us as working on a wide range of tasks that are complementary to the Commission,” says Gallery. “Our presence and that of other nonprofits gives Philadelphia a very strong preservation climate. Preservation isn’t just about fights, it’s also about supporting good efforts.” He cites, as an example, a recent proposal to convert the late-Victorian Keystone National Building on the 1300 block of Chestnut into a hotel.


Keystone National Bank building / Seth Gaines

The Alliance has published guides and presented workshops for property owners and communities on navigating the historical review process, making nominations, and caring for designated properties. Future projects include developing a strategy for conducting an inventory of Philadelphia’s still-unprotected treasures, and creating an overall preservation plan, dubbed Historic Preservation in 2020, for the city and its environs.

Each year, the Alliance solicits nominations for an “Endangered Properties” list, which shines a spotlight on properties (many already certified in one way or another) that are threatened in some way. The new list, to be released shortly, includes several deteriorating 19th-century neighborhood churches, the Divine Lorraine, the cruiser Olympia, and several thematic offerings, such as “historic windows” and “cast-iron subway entrances.”

The Alliance also maintains an active presence at Commission hearings. “I think our bells go off over the combination of a building with multiple significances and potential dangers, or buildings that are just so exceptional that they deserve the honor as well as the protection that listing provides,” says Gallery. Although it’s earned a reputation as a fierce fighter for the city’s architectural heritage, it tries not to be knee-jerk. Take the public outcry over the demolition of the smoke stack near 30th Street Station, for example. “I don’t consider that as having slipped through the cracks,” says Gallery. “It was a structure that would have been a challenge to design around.”


Steam plant demolition at 30th Street Station

The remaining structures on the lot — a steam plant and dormitories used by African-American Pullman porters — had a greater case and the Commission did request that they be spared. When the property’s owner, Amtrak, bucked, the matter was dropped. Although nationally-certified, the buildings have yet to receive local designation.

Ahh, lesson four: For the most protection, think local. To list a property on the national register, applicants must work through the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission, which acts as the State Historic Preservation office. Currently, more than 500 Philadelphia places and about 50 districts are on the national register. But, national certification offers limited protection. “A nationally listed property can be blown up, knocked down, or painted purple — unless they’ve used federal or state funds [such as rehabilitation tax credits],” says the Alliance’s Patrick Hauck.

To begin the local process, start by talking with the Commission’s paid staff. “They make the preliminary evaluation and try to help the applicant make their best case,” says Baron. The Designation Committee (there are also advisory committees on architectural review and financial hardship) only meets on an as-needed basis — another reason not to wait for an emergency.


Remains of Garrett-Dunn House

Day-to-day, the Commission is much more caught up with the review of proposed alterations to the 3,800 buildings, 13 districts, and assorted other structures, sites, objects, and, soon, interiors under its protection. Once such protection is granted, alterations and even demolition are not impossible or forbidden. But a process that includes public hearings, and specific, carefully-written guidelines, are designed to make them difficult.

“There’s this perception that developers are able to get away with a lot of modifications and demolitions,” says Evans, who sits on the Commission’s architectural advisory committee, which reviews proposed design changes to designated buildings.  “Maybe that was so in the past,” he adds. “I have not found that to be the case during my time.”

The 43-page manual for the Old City Historic District, for example, delineates all kinds of changes —  repairing masonry cracks, installing or removing exterior window shutters, replacing solid door panels with transparent materials, and altering storefronts — that are required to be approved by the Commission. When such work reaches the desks of L&I, an automatic flag is supposed to be raised and the Commission alerted.

Things don’t always work smoothly. “I’m a professional who has come before the Commission, and I actually was a Commissioner, but even I am flummoxed by the system at times,” says Harris Steinberg, executive director of Penn Praxis. “The general public can be pretty much of a deer in the headlights, and while I think the Commission is generally sympathetic to various applicant levels of, for lack of a better word, ‘sophistication,’ it’s still a bureaucratic hurdle. The amount of offices that have to sign off on any changes [is daunting], and then’s there always the issue of whether they are or are not communicating with each other.”

And, the work isn’t getting any easier. The Commission’s list keeps growing and changing (occasionally something may be actually removed). “It’s not like there’s a finite number of these things and we’re going to one day somehow get to them all,” says Baron. “That’s the nature of historic things — they’re gathering age and meaning all of the time. The best we can hope for is to increase the percentage of them that achieve certification before they are threatened.”

Randall Mason of the University of Pennsylvania’s historic preservation program at the School of Design, thinks we need to “rely on some of the other mechanisms out there, to find new ways to preserve. The new Zoning Code can do that,” he says, “and conservation districts, which governs new construction, such as the [only] one we have for Queen Village, can do that.

“I also think we have to start thinking beyond greater Center City,” Mason continues. “I recently brought a group of students into the West Fairhill neighborhood in North Philly and one of the things they were really struck by was the prevalence of corner stores with those distinctive center iron columns at the entrance. So, we need a flexible tool box — like increased use of conservation districts or more thematic protections — to preserve what’s unique about different sites.

“We have to open ourselves up to finding treasures in unexpected places.”

Contact JoAnn Greco, ASJA, SATW, at 215 413 3137 or

Check out her new online magazine, TheCityTraveler at

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