Historical Commission approves Memorial Hall work, Reading Terminal sign

    • Dome protection sample
      Dome protection sample
    • Memorial Hall dome
      Memorial Hall dome
    • Commission members, Jan 2013
      Commission members, Jan 2013
    • Sign options for Hard Rock Cafe
      Sign options for Hard Rock Cafe
    • Proposed LED Sign
      Proposed LED Sign
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After a 40-minute executive session concerning its controversial decision on the proposed demolition of the Church of the Assumption, the Philadelphia Historical Commission Friday sped through a relatively short agenda during its regular monthly meeting.

Proposed changes to two of the city's most iconic, individually designated structures served as highlights. Philip E. Scott of KSK Architects Planners Historians began by presenting a sample of a waterproofing system (a transparent mesh-reinforced epoxy known as Decothane) that will be installed to protect the perennially-leaking dome of Fairmount Park's Memorial Hall.  

Commissioner Dominique Hawkins, speaking as chair of the Commission's Architectural Committee, noted that the committee had overall been in support of the concept. At its December meeting, the Architectural Committee requested both a sample and an in situ mock-up be offered before any final approval was granted.

Commissioner Sara Merriman, designee for the Deputy Mayor of Commerce, had a few questions, though, concerning the life of the material. Scott said it came with a 20-year-warranty and that it could be easily recoated after that. Merriman followed up by wondering how often recoating could occur before the material would have to be stripped and reapplied. Scott said he didn't know if stripping was even "feasible."

When the Commission's executive director, Jonathan Farnham, asked Theresa Stuhlman, a historic preservation specialist for Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, to come to the microphone, she, too, made mention of the idea of the product's reversibility, citing it as the city's only blip in its overall support of the proposal. The discussion petered off, however, and Hawkins offered a motion for in concept approval with further review by staff and the Architectural Committee. That motion received unanimous support.

The morning's lengthiest discussion  — and its most confusing — was reserved for a proposal to update some of the Hard Rock Cafe signage now at the 12th and Market corner of Reading Terminal. The applicants presented two types of LED signs — one of backlit acrylic and one with a digital display (figuring out the difference was the confusing part) — that it said would contain accessory-only messages pertaining to, say, what band might be appearing in concert at the restaurant. Hawkins noted that this should be considered a new proposal than the one put before the Architectural Committee, but noted that ultimately the question came down to whether or not any lit sign was appropriate.

She also emphasized that no one could guarantee what messages would ultimately appear, and suggested that the proposed sign is not consistent with the Terminal or the PSFS building across the street. Commission Chair Sam Sherman and Farnham took pains to distinguish this effort — the second essay to introduce a lighting scheme to an historic building in response to the newly-created Market Street East Commercial Advertising District — from an earlier one at the Lit Brothers singularly because of the promised relevance of the messaging.

When Sherman suggested that the applicants go back with this new proposal to the Architecture Committee, they balked, saying that they'd be willing to go ahead with the original one, which they said had been approved by staff last February. The debate ended with approval of a motion to deny this application, but to invite the applicants to work with staff on a satisfactory alternative that they can approve without bringing the matter back to the Commission.

The remaining agenda represented a hodge podge of applications.

After applicants presented new drawings that followed up on suggestions made by the Architectural Committee, the Commission unanimously agreed to recommend that an in-fill house to be constructed in the Society Hill Historic District move ahead. And in Old City, a revised application — that also hewed to the Committee's recommendations — from Grossman's Furniture to update its signage received unanimous approval.

Two other applications were denied, as presented, but with the caveat that they'd be approved if the applicants agreed to recommended alternatives.

In the case of the Coronado condo building in the Rittenhouse Fitler district, the Commission denied an application to replace an irreparably damaged pressed metal cornice with a fiberglass one, but it approved the installation of a new metal one provided staff closely examined it for details.

And in considering a request to replace steel windows with more weather-resistant aluminum-clad ones in a Tudor Falls home, Sherman introduced the notion of someday setting a standard for acceptable replacement windows; that thought was seconded by Commissioner Robert Thomas.  

Staffer Randall Baron then pointed out repairing historic windows should always be the first option, and that in this case, the steel windows are a "character-defining" element of the neighborhood.

Merriman questioned, though, whether they could ever be satisfactorily weatherized and Hawkins countered that while they certainly brought with them frustrations, installing storm windows remained a viable way to save them.  

Commissioner Richardson Dilworth, always sympathetic to homeowners, then made a motion to approve the installation of the new windows, with staff to review details. It passed, with Hawkins and Commissioner JoAnn Jones voting in opposition.

The meeting concluded with the Commission unanimously endorsing two nominations to the National Register of Historic Places: the Joe Frazier Gym on N. Broad Street (cited under the Social History criteria) and the John Wilde Mill in Manayunk (cited under the Industrial Development category). Before adjourning, Commissioner Dan Quinn, the current designee for the Commissioner of the Department of Licenses and Inspections, announced that he has officially retired and this would be his last Commission meeting.

About the author

JoAnn Greco, writer

JoAnn Greco writes about parks and recreation, preservation, public space, and architecture for PlanPhilly. Her articles on design, cities, and the built environment have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Washington Post, Canada's Globe and Mail, National Parks, Metropolis, Interiors, Art & Antiques,, Planning, Next American City, Urban Land, and Hospitality Design. In addition, she has written for dozens of other consumer, custom, and trade outlets, from Brides to The Wall Street Journal, from AARP to Wine Enthusiast. She also owns and edits, an online magazine dedicated to urban destinations.

JoAnn was born in Brooklyn, New York and moved to Philadelphia in 1991. She has lived in Rittenhouse Square, Old City, and now owns a home in Bella Vista.

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