Preservation news during the past year featured re-use, new leadership and historic battles

2013 Historic Preservation Review


It’s been an interesting year on the preservation front, with new challenges and new voices raised in defense of historic buildings. There was also renewed interest in restoration of some of the city’s historic landscapes, large and small. And there was the beginning of a creative exercise that is exploring new interpretations of historic preservation.


Reuse for the Roundhouse?


The year began with a plea to save a building known for its structural deficiencies, the Police Administration Building, better known as the “Roundhouse” at 700 Race Street. Plans to move police headquarters to West Philadelphia have raised the question of what happens to the Mid-century Modern structure designed by the firm of Geddes, Brecher, Qualls & Cunningham using an innovative, pre-cast, pre-stressed concrete system. The building was assembled from more than 2,000 pieces of pre-cast white concrete that integrated the structural and mechanical systems for heating and air conditioning.


A group of graduate students in the historic preservation department of the University of Pennsylvania launched a social media campaign to raise awareness of the building’s architectural significance and find a practical repurposing of the curved, gray whale.


New leader for the Alliance


In April, the preservation community welcomed a new voice, as Carolyn Boyce succeeded John Gallery as executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. Boyce, whose resume includes leadership roles at AIA Pennsylvania, 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, Preservation Pennsylvania, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, brings a strong background in building partnerships and finding common ground with stakeholders in the development and planning fields, as well as the needs and desires of neighborhood residents.


“There will always be a strong need in the preservation movement to do preservation for preservation’s sake; there are key buildings and sites out there that you can’t imagine not preserving just because of who designed them and what took place there,” Boyce said. “But there’s a whole other realm to historic preservation that is about people’s lives, and how they socialize, where they work, where they experience their cultural lives.”


Rescue sought for firehouse


The summer brought sad news for the Pennsport community, when the owners of the Engine 46 building posted demolition notices on the late-19th century firehouse at 1401 South Water Street. Representatives of Cedar Riverview LP, which owns the building, the nearby movie theater and surrounding properties, said a seven-year search for a new tenant for the distinctive firehouse building, which had found new life as a popular steakhouse for a decade, proved futile.


In an 11th-hour effort, Pennsport leaders are trying to find an interested tenant before the wrecking ball takes down the South Philly landmark.


Landscape restorations

There was better news in Northwest Philadelphia, where the historic Awbury Arboretum received a $300,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation to ensure a sustainable future for the 55-acre landscape. The funding will support a new stewardship plan for the Arboretum,which includes making the Chew Avenue Gateway more attractive; restoring and replanting sections of the central landscape park; expanding the agricultural component; improving the “Secret Garden”; restoring the meadow areas; and removing debris and restoring the watercourse and pond.


Another Germantown property that is central to the history of Pennsylvania – James Logan’s 1730 country mansion and farm, Stenton — is undergoing the first steps of a renovation that will reflect 100 years of change at the site and reconnect the property with the surrounding community. The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the group that has maintained the historic home and gardens, has hired landscape designer Claudia Levy to revive the greater landscape to its 18th and 19th century styles.

Battle of the Boyd

In the fall, a new suitor began courting the city and the preservation community with a plan to bring life back to the long-languishing Boyd Theater, 1910 Chestnut Street. The Florida-based iPic Entertainment company hopes to bring its plan for an eight-auditorium, luxury-seat movie complex before the Philadelphia Historical Commission in December. The plan would restore the Boyd façade to its original 1928 design, but the Art Deco auditorium and interior details would be lost in the makeover.

The Preservation Alliance and the Friends of the Boyd plan a wall of opposition to iPic’s plan. But the movie chain company says its proposal is the only financially viable alternative for the historic movie palace.

Exploring gray areas

A group of historians, architects and related professionals, who began innovative conversations about preservation in 2011 with funding from the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, have taken their academic experiment on the road. Under the name “Gray Area,” the team is now focusing on three buildings in Philadelphia as laboratories to explore the boundaries of historic preservation and its value to the neighborhoods.

The traveling experiment began this fall in Germantown, where the test subject was the Max Levy Autography Company building near Wayne Junction. By engaging neighbors’ concerns and hopes for the building, then overlaying design strategies that could repurpose and transform the site, the project hopes to create a toolkit that will protect the building and benefit the surrounding the community. The next phase of Gray Area will look at Hawthorne Hall, a commercial building in West Philadelphia, and the Bromley-Garsed Mansion, the former YMCA in Frankford, as the program continues through July 2014.

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