The Executive Director of the Historical Commission defends the city’s record on protecting historic buildings and explains the challenges of the city agency.

PlanPhilly sat down on Jan. 23 with Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, to discuss challenges facing the Commission and to discuss recent concerns and comments from the preservation community about several historic structures that face demolition.


Farnham received his M.A. in Art History from the University of Massachusetts and his M.A. in Architecture and Ph.D. in Architectural History, Theory, and Criticism from the School of Architecture at Princeton University. He also has served as the president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians. He lectures nationally on Philadelphia’s architectural, engineering, and city planning histories. He has published several articles on these intertwined histories, including essays in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Technology and Culture, and Grey Room.


PlanPhilly: How do you respond to recent comments from University of Pennsylvania assistant professor Aaron Wunsch [PlanPhilly, Dec. 26] that Philadelphia is not thinking creatively about preservation and adaptive reuse of its historic buildings and has created a “culture of despair” over its historic resources?


Jonathan Farnham: I was very surprised by those comments. There’s no feeling of despair among the staff here, among the Commission members and the members of its committees.


I think there are three complex appeals out there, at the Board of Licenses & Inspection Review in one form or another for quite a while. It’s unusual that the appeals process at the Board level is so lengthy, and I think that’s what’s creating the impression that there are more demolition approvals being granted by the Historical Commission today, and that there are more appeals of demolition approvals. In fact, I would say that both of those are absolutely untrue.


Regarding Aaron Wunsch’s comments specifically, we would love for him to participate in a constructive way in the preservation discourse in the city. I think it would be wonderful if University of Pennsylvania preservation students and faculty were more involved in preservation in Philadelphia.


He’s essentially new to Philadelphia, and new to this discourse. And I think he’s grossly uninformed. I really regret what he had to say, because we just don’t think that it’s true, and he ought to do his homework before he makes such outlandish accusations.

We went through our Historical Commission records after we read the Dec. 26 interview and learned that Aaron Wunsch has attended one public meeting of the Historical Commission. The Commission has at least 24 annually.


I think his comments were uninformed. If you actually look at the record, you’ll see that the number of approvals of demolition permits has dropped, and continues to drop.


I did some research about the actions the Historical Commission has taken relative to demolition over its history. If you look at the period from 1985 to 2012 — 1985 being the point that the Commission was given the authority to actually deny demolitions. Prior to 1985 and going all the way back to 1955, the Historical Commission only had the authority to defer demolitions up to 6 months, but didn’t have the authority to prevent demolitions. So if you look at the period 1985 to 2012 — and I broke it down into 7-year periods — in the first period, 1985-1991, the Commission approved 12 demolitions. The next period, 1992-1998, there were 7 demolitions; 1999-2005, 8 demolitions; 2006-2012, 7 demolitions.


What we see looking at the different types of demolition approvals is that the approvals with no finding of hardship or public interest – the Historical Commission by its ordinance can only approve demolition if it finds that the demolition is necessary in the public interest or that the demolition is the only way to relieve the financial hardship, in other words, that the building in question cannot be adaptively reused in any reasonable or feasible manner — we see that the number of approvals drops off significantly from the first period. And that makes sense because the rules and regulations were put in place in the end of this first period in 1991. Obviously the number of approvals with hardship findings or public interest findings climbed slightly, and that offsets the number of approvals with no findings. And we see that the average per year has been consistently since 1992 about 1 demolition approval per year.


So any claim that the number of demolition approvals that the Historical Commission is granting has increased is completely erroneous.  It is not based in fact.


If we factor in the number of designated sites, and we look at the number of demolitions, then as you would imagine the number of designated sites since 1985 has grown significantly, we see that the demolitions per designated site drop off pretty steeply, and they continue to drop off. So we’re at the lowest point ever.


Prior to the ordinance that we currently operate under, prior to 1985 when the commission was given the authority to deny demolitions outright, we saw a huge number of demolitions in this city of historically designated sites. The Historical Commission was essentially an advisory board. Between 1955 and 1985, as well as we can tell because the records are not complete, we’ve identified at least 500 demolitions of designated sites, and that’s a very large number. Annually that averages out to .66 percent of buildings on the Register that were demolished in that period. With the institution of the new ordinance that grants the Commission the authority to deny demolitions outright, the number of demolitions dropped off very, very steeply. From 1985-1991 we see about .031 percent of properties approved for demolition.


After the institution of the rules and regulations, the Commission had stricter processes to follow, and we see that the number drops again in half from 1992-1998; drops slightly from 1999-2005; and 2006-2012, .010 percent sites on the Register are approved for demolition annually. That works out to about 1 in 10,000.


I looked for data from other cities to compare demolition rates there. No one is publishing data like this. We’ve never actually generated it in this sort of numerical form prior to this point. It’s a very, very small number. So 1 in 10,000 to 11,000 annually. It will never drop to zero; I think that it’s just part of the preservation business that there will always be some demolitions. But it’s been reduced to a very low number. And I think that the reason that it’s been reduced to that is because we have a strict ordinance here in the city of Philadelphia. Not every other city has such a strict ordinance and strict set of rules and regulations. And the commission applies them judiciously, and almost all demolitions are prevented or precluded. We work very hard with property owners before they get to that point where demolition is an option, or one of the options that they’re faced with. So any claim that demolitions have increased is simply false.


PP: I don’t think Aaron Wunsch said the number of demolitions has increased, but that it is an ongoing problem in this city.


JF: There have been demolitions of historically designated properties, and there will be in the future, I’m sure. It’s part of the business of regulating private property for preservation purposes that the Historical Commission has to allow and must allow demolitions in very specific circumstances to operate constitutionally, to operate lawfully.


One of the aspects of this ongoing debate, and it is a debate of a very few number of people. [Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic] Inga Saffron has entered into it. Aaron Wunsch is the torchbearer in it. And there are a couple of others. My response to them is, the Commission must act lawfully, it must act constitutionally. It must allow for a demolition when there is no other feasible adaptive reuse for a building.


And that’s the circumstance we find ourselves in the Church of the Assumption case and the 400 South 40th  Street case.


I certainly will be very sad if the Church of the Assumption is demolished. We worked very hard in this office, and the Commission designated it very quickly because the Commission wanted to have a fair hearing for that building and to determine if there was a feasible adaptive reuse. If you look back at the history of the nomination you’ll see that the property owner had gone to great lengths prior to the designation of the building to determine if there was an adaptive reuse. It had concluded that there was no feasible adaptive reuse for the building. The nonprofit had a demolition permit in hand before the Historical Commission had even received a nomination for that building. The Commission designated that building because it was very significant, but also to provide an opportunity, to provide a process for a review to determine whether or not the nonprofit’s conclusion that there was no adaptive reuse was based in fact and was an appropriate conclusion. The Commission said as much during its designation hearing, individuals members said as much, that what they were doing was providing a process to determine whether there was a feasible adaptive reuse.


So I think we all went into that designation knowing two things: That the building was very significant historically – the Historical Commission has never disputed that – and that an adaptive reuse may not be possible. The commission reviewed a great deal of evidence and determined, I think very reasonably, that there was no feasible adaptive reuse for that building. For the commission to make that determination — and I think it was the right determination; it is an unfortunate determination – and then to prevent the demolition of that building would be unconstitutional. As a city agency regulating both public and private property, the Historical Commission has to act first and foremost lawfully and constitutionally.


There have been implications in the press, and made by preservation advocates, that the Historical Commission is pushing for the demolition of that building. The Historical Commission would be very happy to see a white knight come in and save that building. But the Historical Commission cannot use its regulatory authority in an unlawful manner and compel that property owner to preserve a building that has no adaptive reuse. To do so would be a taking – it would be unconstitutional. The city would be faced with either acting unconstitutionally or compensating that property owner for an unjust taking, which it is not in a position to do, and simply cannot do.


PP: Let’s move on to something else Aaron Wunsch said — that the Historical Commission is too concerned with “small stuff,” like maintaining historic windows, correct paint colors, and proper signage in historic districts, which discourages property owners from seeking historic designation. Why are those things so important?


JF: I think, again, if Aaron Wunsch was truly involved in the discourse here at the Historical Commission, attended the Commission meetings as many advocates do …  John Gallery, the now-retired director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, attended every committee meeting and every Commission meeting, and he often criticized the Historical Commission. We sometimes disagreed. But I think he had a basis for making those criticisms.


I think here, Aaron Wunsch essentially creates a caricature of the Historical Commission because he doesn’t understand what we do day to day.


The Historical Commission, in fact, does not regulate paint colors except in those instances when the painting of a historic fabric or historic materials would have a detrimental effect, would in some way a create a conservation problem. For example, certain kinds of paint will trap water in masonry, and  that water won’t be able to permeate through the masonry, and eventually the face of the masonry will spall. In those instances, and we’re addressing a clear conservation problem, the Commission does regulate painting. You can paint the wood trim of your house, or the metal trim, any color you want, without ever setting foot in this office.


We occasionally review a paint application, we review many sign applications, bound by our rules and regulations to apply the Secretary of Interior’s standards whenever we review a building permit application. And those standards address paint, address signage, and we’re bound to follow those.


We are not spending the majority of our time, or even a significant minority of our time, looking at paint and signage.


The Commission had extensive discussions about the signage for the Lit Brothers Building on the 700 block of Market Street recently. That was an unprecedented application and deserved significant time devoted to it. But the vast majority of signage applications we’re reviewing administratively here in the office, at the staff level, and 98 percent of them are not ever referred to the Historical Commission at its monthly meeting. That’s an expedited process; it takes no more than five days. And it takes a very small amount of time overall for the commission to invest. And I think it invests it wisely because a historic building and a historic district is a collection of an enormous number of details. If we don’t watch those details, then we lose that historic character.


Regarding windows, I think this criticism might have been appropriate 10 or 15 years ago. The Historical Commission has done a great deal to streamline its window process to open up its approvals to many more types of windows. We’re looking to maintain the historic appearance of a window from the public right of way. We understand there are many commercial buildings, buildings occupied by homeowners, and small business people in historic districts, and that those buildings are not museum objects, and we don’t treat them like museum objects. We try to run a process that is not onerous, that does not compel owners to spend any more money than they would maintaining buildings without the historic designation.


Where there have been problems where we were distracted by details has been worked out, especially through amendments to the rules and regulations over the last five years or so.


PP: There are several battles going on now over buildings that had been listed on the Philadelphia Register and are now under threat because the Historical Commission granted demolition permits to the owners. How do you respond to concerns that there is more consideration given to developers and owners than to preservation?


JF: My response again is that our first and foremost goal here is to comply with the law. In some of these instances we’ve been asked by appellants to simply ignore the law to preserve the historic building. The Historical Commission is a government agency; it can’t do that.


This agency advocates for preservation. But first and foremost it is a regulatory agency. We are the disinterested arbiters of these questions, and we can’t act based on emotion. We have to look at the facts and make the best decisions we can from the facts.


This claim that the Historical Commission is beholden to developers is completely unwarranted. If you look at the Church of the Assumption case, there’s no developer involved in that case. There’s no development project if that building is demolished. It’s not as if we’re looking to replace the Church of the Assumption with a new building that will generate more tax revenue for the city. There is no proposal there. This is merely a constitutional question when it comes to the Church of the Assumption. No one’s denying that it’s historically significant. The Historical Commission’s opinion is that it must comply with the law.


If we look at the other two demolition approvals that are on appeal right now … The Episcopal Cathedral approval, which was approved on the basis that it was necessary in the public interest, there’s a developer involved there. But fundamentally the question is, how do we help the Episcopal Cathedral maintain and preserve its very important church building? It’s a difficult tradeoff to make: to allow it to demolish another building of much less historical and architectural significance, but admittedly some significance, to guarantee the long-term sustainability of the much more important church building which is now used for a cathedral. There’s a developer there, but the development project that it will generate, the income stream will help the cathedral preserve its important building, is secondary. The question before the Historical Commission there, and this is one of, if not the most pressing preservation question in the city, is how do we help private property owners preserve very important churches and other houses of worship? We’re facing a crisis in preservation when it comes to religious complexes, religious buildings. The Historical Commission made the decision it did, I believe, because they understand this crisis and they’re working toward a creative solution. In this case, the creative solution is to allow the one building to go to preserve the much more important building.


To claim that the Commission or the city is beholden to developers, in this case again, I think the facts just don’t bear that out. This is not a case about development; this is about maintaining a historic building and a historic institution.


The third case is 400 S. 40th St. Again, there is a developer involved, but the developer is really tangential to this. This is a nonprofit – the University of Pennsylvania owns the building – and we have now gone through many, many, many months of appeal. The Historical Commission granted the approval for the demolition of this building in May 2012, after hearing the advice of its independent consultant it hired to evaluate the building and determine if there was feasible adaptive reuse. The consultant looked at this question and made the determination that there was no feasible adaptive reuse for the building.


We have a constitutional question here. The Historical Commission looked at the evidence, and the University of Pennsylvania and its development partner presented mountains of evidence, and made the decision. That decision was appealed to the Board of Licenses & Inspection Review, where all permit appeals go from the Historical Commission. It’s been on appeal at the board; the first hearing was held in July, there have been hearings at least once a month. We’re still involved in this appeal; it’s one of the most protracted hearings before the board that I’ve been involved in. And I can say in my opinion, the appellants, who have the burden of proof, have not placed one iota of evidence on the record that in any way contradicts the decision that the Historical Commission made.


In my opinion, in the 400 S. 40th Street case, the evidence is incontrovertible. It’s overwhelming, and I think the appeal, frankly, is frivolous. I think it’s a crusade that has nothing to do with that particular property, that has a lot to do with the preservation discourse in this city. I don’t think it’s a positive way to participate in this discourse, and that appeal has used more resources of the Historical Commission than any other individual activity in the last year.


PP: What kind of discourse should be going on? Where is the proper forum?


JF: I think that if you look at the way the Preservation Alliance has involved itself with the Historical Commission, and of course individuals can’t expend that level of time and resources and energy. I’ve disagreed with John Gallery countless times. The Commission has disagreed with him. But he has been a good partner to the Historical Commission. He has compelled the Commission to question itself in very positive constructive ways. I think the Preservation Alliance has really set the standard for involvement in the preservation discourse.


The Design Advocacy Group occasionally has been involved in preservation in the city. They do it in a very responsible way. DAG recently held a forum to discuss what is necessary in the public interest as it appears in the preservation ordinance and also as it relates to signage in the city.


We would be very happy to have Aaron Wunsch and the students participate here. We, like all city agencies, have resources that are limited, and they have become more limited since 2008 and the financial crisis. So we have limited resources to direct toward designation. We could certainly find ways for University of Pennsylvania students to assist us with the writing of nominations, or even surveying. There are lots of ways that they can participate constructively and creatively.


We’d like to see people attend Historical Commission meetings so that they know what the Commission is actually doing. I think that the Commission members are very responsible. They work very hard, and we should never forget that they are volunteers. They give up one day a month, and some of them two days a month. They devote their time in the service to the city of Philadelphia and to its historic preservation. There are ways to participate in those sorts of ways as well.


I think that we need to bear in mind that the Historical Commission has to act lawfully and we are a regulatory agency. We can’t regulate ourselves out of problems either. There’s a belief that if a building becomes designated that the problem is solved. That’s just the first step in ensuring long-term sustainability and preservation of any building or site. Designation alone cannot guarantee preservation. It requires resources from many different places and assistance from many different parties, governmental and private.


PP: There’s a lot of talk these days about Mid-Century buildings and there are national and international movements under way to protect significant Modernist buildings. The Philadelphia area has many of these that may not be old enough for inclusion on the Philadelphia Register. Are these buildings of concern to the Historical Commission, and what steps can be taken to protect them?


JF: First, to correct a common misperception: There is no age requirement for eligibility to be included on the Philadelphia Register. The National Register requires that buildings be at least 50 years unless they have exceptional importance. There is no such requirement in the Philadelphia ordinance.


That said, we are at that point right now that buildings of the 1950s and early 1960s are reaching that 50-year age, so I think it’s natural that we’re evaluating those buildings for their historical significance. We have enough historic perspective to do that. I disagree with comments that considering these buildings is merely a fad. I think it’s important that we look at these now.


About two years ago the Historical Commission staff looked very carefully at our stock of Modernist buildings, and we have some designation priorities. We’re moving forward, admittedly very slowly because we have very limited staff here. But it is our intention to designate a series of these buildings every year, whenever we have the opportunity to look at individual designations. We’re also accepting designations from outside parties.


The Historical Commission has nominated a few modernist buildings recently; the nominations come primarily from the Preservation Alliance. Some were initiated in-house. For example, the nomination for Guild House, the Robert Venturi building, was written here.


We have very limited resources to address nominations and to survey work that goes behind those nominations. We have four preservation planners here, in addition to myself. With those four planners, I would say three devote almost full time to building permit review, which we’re required to do by the ordinance within set amounts of time. We have 60 days to move applications through the full Historical Commmission process. We have only five days to complete staff-level reviews. So we’re required by law to undertake those reviews in a timely fashion. We do that work first.


Unfortunately, the designation work is deferred.


The fourth planner, who does most of our preservation work, is still required to do a significant amount of work in the building permit application review area. She’s able to devote about 25 percent of her time to designation work. Most of what she’s doing these days is reviewing nominations that are submitted from the outside, from community groups, from interested individuals.


So there’s almost no time for writing nominations in-house. We try to coordinate with the Preservation Alliance. We inform them of our designation priorities. They try to match those priorities with members and interested people who might write nominations.


In terms of survey work, several years ago the Preservation Alliance launched a very ambitious, exciting effort to create a comprehensive preservation plan for the city of Philadelphia. The initial results from that were very promising, but unfortunately the funding for that, which came from outside foundations and institutions, has not been available for the last couple of years. So that comprehensive preservation plan, which we had hoped to essentially adopt as our preservation plan, because of a lack of funding has fallen by the wayside.


As a poor substitute for that, in approaching surveying a city which has about 600,000 tax parcels, the way that we’ve approached that is that we’re now partnering with the City Planning Commission as it generates the Philadelphia 2035 comprehensive plan for the city. We don’t have many resources to devote to it, but we found that working with the Planning Commission we’ve been able to take significant strides, especially in the Lower Northeast district. We’ve created a preservation plan for the Lower Northeast planning district. In consultation with the Planning Commission, we identified numerous until then unknown historic sites that we’ve now placed in our nomination queue. It’s our intention to work with the Planning Commission as they move around the city and develop  these district plans over the next several years, and through that create a comprehensive preservation plan for the city on the cheap. It won’t cost us very much, but we think we’ll get a lot out of it. The Lower Northeast plan was very successful.


The Planning Commission is taking the recommendations that come out of our preservation plan for their planning districts and incorporating them into the district plans.


PP: What are the challenges that the Historical Commission faces this year and in the immediate future in protecting the city’s historic resources?


JF: I think the greatest challenges for the Historical Commission is the greatest challenge for every city agency. We’re trying to do more with less money. The Historical Commission has been very lucky in the sense that since the financial crisis of 2008, most city agencies have undergone significant budget cuts. The Commission has been spared from almost all of those cuts. We pretty much have the budget now that we had at the beginning of this financial crisis. We may be the only city agency that can say that.


But that said, we’re trying to do a lot, we’re trying to regulate preservation for a large, diverse city geographically, with a large population, with a relatively small budget. The budget this year is about $386,000. It looks like the budget for next year and into the foreseeable future, mapping out for about five years, looks to be essentially unchanged. So we will not have more in-house resources.  We need to find ways to partner with others. Our priorities are always going to be those priorities that are set in the preservation ordinance for us.


PP: Is there anything more you’d like to add?


JF: The Historical Commission welcomes input, welcomes criticism, provided it is constructive. The Commission functions better when people participate in the process. When property owners do, when community members do, when individuals and preservation advocates do, that’s when the Commission works best.


To participate constructively, you need to understand the limits of the Historical Commission, you need to understand its ordinance and regulations, and the limits of its authority.


The vast majority of criticisms that I’ve objected to in the recent past of the Historical Commission are the critics asking the Commission to exceed its legal authority. And it can’t do that. It can’t rightly do that and it never will do that.


I see my primary job here at the Commission as to ensure that the Commission, the staff members and everyone involved in the Commission complies with the law. That’s my fundamental job here.


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