PlanPhilly

Last call for the region's most endangered sites?

    • The Cruiser Olympia will be the topic of a summit meeting early next year to find a new steward for the ship.
      The Cruiser Olympia will be the topic of a summit meeting early next year to find a new steward for the ship.
    • The Laverock Hill Estate in Cheltenham Township is the site of a planned, age-restricted community.
      The Laverock Hill Estate in Cheltenham Township is the site of a planned, age-restricted community.
    • The Laverock estate includes greenhouses, carriage house, tennis courts and caretakers' cottages.
      The Laverock estate includes greenhouses, carriage house, tennis courts and caretakers' cottages.
    • Ellen Biddle Shipman designed the formal gardens around the Laverock mansion.
      Ellen Biddle Shipman designed the formal gardens around the Laverock mansion.
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The final days of the year are when we take an accounting, including preservation organizations that compile their lists of those structures that may be facing their final days.

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia announced its eighth annual “Endangered Properties List” this month, focusing on seven properties that have lingered on the list and are now threatened by chronic neglect, in addition to three sites featured for the first time.

Preservation Pennsylvania, the statewide non-profit organization dedicated to protecting historically and architecturally significant properties, issued its “Pennsylvania At Risk” list of 11 endangered resources on Dec. 16.

This year, two historic resources appeared on both lists – a heroic warship on the Delaware River waterfront with a weakening hull, and a sprawling, Gilded Age estate and landscape just outside Philadelphia that may be the site of new development.

A summit for the Olympia

The Cruiser Olympia has received local and national attention since the U.S. Navy and the Independence Seaport Museum, which took possession of the ship in 1996, announced they couldn’t afford the $20 million needed to tow her to dry dock and repair the deteriorating hull, which hasn’t been out of the water since 1945. Museum officials have said the ship would likely be reefed off the coast of Cape May, and had planned to close the floating museum last November.

The Olympia has since been issued a temporary reprieve. The museum board has found funds to make “interim repairs,” support the regular maintenance program, and keep the ship open for tours on a reduced schedule through December. Spot repairs to the ship’s hull will not resolve the need for more extensive work, however.

A summit of museum partners and interested parties – including the Navy, Naval Sea Systems Command, National Park Service and the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission – will be held next year, possibly in February, to explore “transfer options” for the Olympia.

Leaders from historic preservation agencies, maritime museums, government, economic development, and tourism, the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia and potential funders will be invited to participate in the hope that “a responsible candidate will emerge from the process” to take over ownership and stewardship of the Olympia, according to a statement from John Gazzola, president of the Independence Seaport Museum.

Glenn Porter, a retired Navy officer who is trying to rally support for a fundraising naval gala to cover repairs of the Olympia, believes the National Park Service could be the best caretaker of the historic ship. The Park Service already has a strong presence in Philadelphia and could provide “consistency over time” in maintaining the Olympia, he said.

Launched in San Francisco in 1892, the Olympia was Commodore George Dewey’s flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay, where he gave his famous order on the ship’s bridge: “You may fire when you are ready, Gridely.” The Olympia devastated the Spanish fleet and lifted the U.S. up as a world power. The ship has been designated a National Historic Landmark and National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. She is on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of the Save America’s Treasures program.

House and garden

The other site that appears on the local and state endangered lists is the Laverock Hill Estate in Montgomery County.

Architect Charles Adams Platt, who designed the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., worked with renowned landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman on the creation of the 42-acre site for socialite Isaac T. Starr in 1915. The Tudor and Colonial Revival style mansion at 1777 Willow Grove Ave. in Cheltenham Township has a small community of outbuildings, including a carriage house, stable, greenhouses, and caretakers’ cottages.

According to the Preservation Alliance, the buildings and formal gardens are among the few intact Platt-Shipman collaborations in the country.

Hansen Properties bought the estate in 2008 and plans a 55-plus housing community. The initial plan kept the mansion as a community clubhouse, but in 2009 Hansen presented new plans that called for the demolition of the house and gardens to accommodate eight, four-story buildings. A Cheltenham Township historic preservation overlay district that would have protected the property exempts age-restricted developments.

Neighboring families have formed Save Laverock Hill and is partnering with local preservation groups to fight the demolition application and find an alternative plan for the property when the township considers Hansen’s proposals in January or February. Scott Laughlin, a spokesman for Save Laverock Hill, said the developer has indicated to neighbors that he would prefer to build a townhouse community that preserves the house but hasn’t submitted such a plan for official review.

In the meantime, Hansen is not maintaining the buildings and grounds, resulting in their deterioration, according to Preservation Pennsylvania.

New sites in danger

A home on the nation’s oldest residential street, Elfreth’s Alley, is among the new sites on the endangered list announced by the Preservation Alliance this year.

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Old City, Elfreth’s Alley dates to 1702, is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and is a National Historical Landmark. But the trinity house at 109 Elfreth’s Alley, built around 1811, was abandoned by its owner in 2008 while in the process of building a rear addition. The property has been vacant since then, and has suffered severe water infiltration, mold and vandalism.The house was foreclosed in 2010 and is currently uninhabitable.

The other new site on the Preservation Alliance list is the Henry Pierce House, 67 Station Rd. in Glen Mills, Delaware County, a fieldstone farmhouse erected in 1769. The building was recognized as a local landmark under the Concord Township Historic Ordinance and is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Toll Brothers bought the house in 2005 as part of a plan for a 47-home subdivision. The preservation ordinance required the builder to restore the house, and Toll began by removing windows and interior partitions. But the developer stopped the restoration work and announced this year it intended to demolish the house, citing structural deficiencies that developed after restoration was abandoned.

Toll has offered to fund other historic preservation projects in the township in lieu of restoring the Pierce House. The Preservation Alliance warns that such an agreement would set a dangerous precedent and compromise preservation ordinances across the region.

Ongoing battles

The Divine Lorraine Hotel, 699 North Broad St., remains at the top of the Preservation Alliance endangered list. The building designed by Willis Hale in 1893 as one of the city’s first luxury high-rises has been the victim of vandalism, small fires, and neglect.

But there were reports of progress last month. The current owners, a Dutch development firm, have applied to the state for low-income housing tax credits to rehabilitate the building. Paul Chrystie, a spokesman for the Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development, said the city would work with the developer to turn half of the Divine Lorraine into affordable housing.

The Alfred E. Burk Mansion, 1500 North Broad St., is a Beaux Arts jewel designed by Simon & Bassett in 1907. The building has been owned by Temple University since 1971 but has been vacant since a fire in 1995. The mansion “continues to languish without a clear preservation strategy,” according to the Preservation Alliance.

The Provident Mutual Life Insurance Building, 4601 Market St., was built by Cram and Ferguson in 1926. The building is owned by the city and is being considered for new police headquarters, but funding and its preservation remain in question.

The Dilworth House, 223 South 6th St., was built by George Edwin Brumbaugh in 1957 for Mayor Richardson Dilworth. A developer has been fighting to demolish the rear portion of the house as part of a condominium tower project. The long court battle has taken a toll on the condition of the vacant property.

Germantown Town Hall, 5928 Germantown Ave., was designed by John P.B. Sinkler in 1923. The building is owned by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, which has not been able to secure a new use for the vandalized landmark.

Lynnewood Hall, 920 Spring Ave. in Elkins Park, was one of several late 19th-century estates designed by Horace Trumbauer for the Widener family. The estate, dubbed the “American Versailles,” has been vacant and crumbling since 1993.

Suburban sites

Other sites in the Greater Philadelphia region that appear on the Preservation Pennsylvania list:

Schuylkill School, Schuylkill Township, Chester County, was designed by Davis and Dunlap in 1930 and became a distinctive township landmark. The building has been closed since 2003, and the Phoenixville Area School District applied and received permission to demolish the building this year.

122-124 and 126 West Miner Street, West Chester, Chester County, were built in the mid 19th century are contributing elements to the West Chester Historic District. They are owned by the adjacent First Presbyterian Church, which plans to raze them and build new facilities.

To view the Preservation Alliance endangered list, go to http://www.preservationalliance.com/advocacy/endangered.php

To view the Preservation Pennsylvania list, go to http://www.preservationpa.org/

Contact the writer at ajaffe@planphilly.com.



About the author

Alan Jaffe, Historic preservation reporter

ajaffe@planphilly.com

B.A., Temple University

Alan Jaffe writes about historic preservation issues for PlanPhilly and focuses on often overlooked built landscapes in his column, “Look Up!” He
was a writer and editor in the newspaper industry for nearly 30 years, including eight at the Philadelphia Inquirer and nine at the South Jersey Courier-Post. He is currently the director of communications for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. He is also an antiques writer and collector and the author of “J. Chein & Co.: A Collector’s Guide to an American Toymaker.”


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