Preserve Philadelphia’s Future

These are this year’s faces of endangered Philadelphia.

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s 2011 list of endangered properties came out earlier this month, highlighting nine buildings notable for their important social and community associations. Buildings like the Royal Theater, John Coltrane House, and Joe Frazier’s Gym are places where the spotlight is fading despite the charismatic personalities associated with them. But others are threatened by quieter obscurity, speculation, fragility, and vacancy.

Consider the Kensington Soup Society. It’s a plain brick building in Fishtown, that was a soup kitchen for those in need for 138 years. It was Philadelphia’s longest-running soup house, and the only one of three built as Soup Societies that is not listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Though not important from a design standpoint, it’s an incredibly important community fixture. If the Kensington Soup Society disappears, with it goes a piece of Philadelphia’s landscape of social reform, leaving us poorer for it.

Other properties on this year’s list are those whose owners have struggled to keep up. The Community Design Collaborative (CDC) worked with two of the buildings on this year’s endangered list: the New Frankford Y and the Chinese Cultural and Community Center. On CDC’s blog, they wrote: “Both projects illustrated the dilemma facing venerable nonprofits in the throes of rethinking their missions and programming: they lack the funding to maintain or improve these heritage buildings, which prevents them from generating new activity and revenue.” It’s an all-too-common problem.

Of course, these are not the only threatened places in Philadelphia. I would argue the problem is deeper than lists like these let on.

Philadelphia is overwhelmed by its heritage. I don’t mean that in the sense that our city’s amazing history is suffocated by tourists or that every property is regulated to within an inch of its life. No, we are blessed (and burdened) with a rich, older building stock. The upside: older buildings are durable, adaptable, and humane. The downside: old buildings can be white elephants that are challenging to maintain much less preserve. And there’s so much of both. But we’ll get nowhere by effectively pretending they don’t exist either as resources or challenges. And in the meantime, we’ll lose more pieces of our built heritage.

Hidden City Daily published its roundup of 2011’s lost buildings [part 1, part 2] last week, many of which were pieces of Philadelphia’s industrial past. Preceding the roundup, Hidden City’s Nathaniel Popkin lamented that when it comes to preservation, Philly is “still trashing” itself. Popkin points to several sorrowful reasons, not the least of which is his read on the Historical Commission, “so short of funding and so underutilized it wouldn’t even serve a small town and can’t come close to managing the city’s paltry few historic districts, let alone miles of jewels that live on by accident, or luck.”

So what is Philadelphia left with? Few historic districts, thin resources, and a reactive preservation climate.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Preservationists should take a cue from the lesson of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. Not that long ago, the Planning Commission was anemic and ineffective. But I believe we’ve turned a corner, and our city’s planning climate is improving thanks in large part to the Planning Commission’s rebirth under the Nutter administration. Next up should be the Historical Commission.

If I could give Mayor Nutter a new challenge for his second term, I’d add preservation to his plate to complement the important planning work of his administration.

I want to see the Historical Commission reborn as an empowered agency with real resources to survey, designate, and regulate our city’s built heritage. Without that we’re left with a down economy and slow development environment to thank for preserving Philadelphia through neglect. But what if, as anticipated, development is enabled thanks to a less obtuse zoning code? Our city’s vast collection of old and historic buildings sits largely unprotected waiting for something to change. If we’re not deliberate, careful, and inventive, that change could be jarringly destructive.

The less we understand the state of Philadelphia’s built heritage, the more we stand to lose. Instead let’s plan for preservation. Let’s rise to the challenges presented by our aging city, capitalize on our historic resources and older building stock by adapting or protecting them, instead of leaving that process almost entirely to chance.


All photos at top appear courtesy of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

  • Row 1 (l-r): Kensington Soup Society, 1036 Crease Street; John Coltrane House, 1511 N. 33rd Street; New Frankford Y, 4704 Leiper Street
  • Row 2(l-r): Chinese Cultural and Community Center, 125 N. 10th Street; Royal Theater, 1524 South Street; Joe Frazier’s Gym, 2917 N. Broad Street
  • Row 3(l-r): Spring Garden Post Office Mural, 1299 N. 7th Street; Stiffel Senior Center, 604 W. Porter Street; Dox Thrash House, 2340 Cecil B. Moore Avenue

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