September 411, 1997
You Win Some and Lose Some In the Preservation Game
"For example, when I was on the Commission, Wanamaker's came to us. Now, the preservation law only applies to the outer skin: we don't have control over the insides. Wanamaker's said every time a window breaks it costs them $10,000, and they'd like permission to put in a dividing strip in the center so it costs half as much. We said, 'Okay, if you agree to certify Grand Court and Crystal Tea Room historic.' If that agreement had not been reached with the commission, those might be gone now."
Yet there have been a series of close calls and big disasters. Every preservationist has their worst disaster and their favorite save. Here are a few high- and low-lights.
1982. A developer buys a row of 19th-century houses on the corner of 17th and Locust. The properties are not historically certified "because of not enough staff," says Magaziner. The developer intends to raze them and build a glass office tower. Buoyed by public outcry, PHC swoops in and certifies the properties. The developer sues. "Rightly so," says Magaziner. "I would have too." The city settles but the developer sells, and the handsome properties survived.
1984. John Taxin, owner of Old Original Bookbinder's, Second and Walnut, owns a matched set of 18th-century houses, the McCrea houses, behind his restaurant. He wants to raze them to make way for parking. Besides the rare, original, late Georgian fanlight doors, they contain the oldest biscuit bakery in America. The ordinance at this time only allows for a six-month delay of the demolition permit. The Commission waives it, saying the houses are a fire hazard.
"I worked to get corporations in that part of the city to give money to buy it, and we raised the money," says Magaziner. "I went to Albert (John's son) and he said, 'It's okay with me, but you have to convince my old man.'"
After demolishing, Taxin sold the lot, though he'd claimed if he didn't have the parking space, he'd be out of business. It wasn't his first travesty. Magaziner says he'd previously torn down a gun shop at Second and Walnut where the first Caucasian child was born in Philly. "There was such an outcry," says Magaziner. "But it was too late."
1985. New ordinance increases the power of the Historical Commission.
1986. Temple University wants to raze its Baptist Temple, the 19th-century edifice after which the University is named, where the funds for the University were raised in the first place. The University worries it's a fire hazard. Observers suggest trying a sprinkler system. The PHC forbids the razing.
1987: Lit Brothers is saved. The cast iron complex that housed the department store at Seventh and Market had closed its doors a decade before. For the next decade, buyers seem ready to invest, then don't, ready to demolish, then don't, while the PHC issues and rescinds demolition permits. A constituency builds up around it, and with the help of the Historical Commission, finds an investor who won't tear it down, and rescues it from becoming one more parking lot 60 seconds before demolition begins.
1987. The Historical Commission stops Taxin from tearing down another building near his restaurant. "They were going to let him but then they discovered it had been in the Bouvier family."
1991. The city's preservation law is declared unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court after the PHC designates the former Boyd's Theater at 19th and Chestnut historic when United Artists wants to tear it down. Its art deco interior is one of the last in the city, since other even more gorgeous theaters had already fallen to the wrecking ball.
1993. The court overturns its own decision, deciding the PHC can make historic designations without the owner's consent, but only has control over the building's shell, not its interior.
1993. Taxin is at it again, this time going after the Elisha Webb Chandlery. For five years he's tried to get permission to knock down "a symbol of the lives of early working-class Philadelphians," as a city solicitor who blocked the PHC's approval for turning the building into another parking lot put it. The mayor wants to know what's so special about the building since there's one just like it around the corner. Then the solicitor withdraws the injunction, and the Webb house goes down. So, a short time later, does the house just like it around the corner.
1996. The Cannon Ball House, a centuries-old house which survived cannon battery during the Revolution, had been moved two decades ago to a platform at Fort Mifflin when its original site was bought by a sewage plant. It was a shell of its former self, having burnt to its walls in 1948, but the city in moving it made a commitment to restoring it. Claiming lackacash, the city never did. Finally, it's knocked down without permission or knowledge of the PHC, leaving everyone wondering, who's in charge? Is there anybody out there?
1997. Ongoing struggles: Eastern State Penitentiary. The bizarre, unique experimental Quaker prison, after fending off efforts to turn it into a shopping mall, is now a museum struggling for funds in a city that mostly wants to promote a cracked bell.
The Naval Home, Grays Ferry, and Victory Building, Ninth and Chestnut: separate cases, both hugely important buildings, both slowly being demolished by neglect. After years of wrangling, the Historical Commission has interceded on behalf of both and ordered that they stay standing. Now they sit in limbo. Deals are said to be in the works.
Rest In Recent Peace: Ridge Avenue Farmers Market. Sears Tower. And many many more.