In many areas on the periphery of Greater Center City, there has been little effort to identify – let alone protect – significant historic buildings. Some neighborhoods have fewer than five structures designated on the local or national historic registers.
A small team from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has been visiting those areas since January to lead Neighborhood Preservation Workshops, which are both preservation tutorials and listening tours.
The pilot program, supported by a grant from the Samuel S. Fels Fund, targets those neighborhoods where “development pressure may not be happening yet, but may be just around the corner,” said Patrick Grossi, advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance.
Grossi has taken the workshops to community organizations in Lawncrest, West Powelton, East Passyunk, East Point Breeze, and other areas. Before each workshop, he conducts a “windshield survey” of the neighborhood and compiles a list of good candidates for historic designation. When he meets with the groups, he identifies the handful of buildings that have been designated in the neighborhood and reviews the list of possible nominees. He then explains the nomination process, how to apply for historic tax credits for renovations, the implications of designation, the responsibilities of property owners for historically designated buildings, and the role the Preservation Alliance can play in helping neighborhoods achieve their goals.
“But the most productive part of the meeting is when we open it to questions,” Grossi said. “It’s great to hear the enthusiasm they have when they learn about their historic properties.”
Last spring, Grossi brought the workshop to the Cobbs Creek Neighbors, whose area has no buildings currently listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Structures designated on the Philadelphia register are significantly harder to demolish, whereas designation on the national register qualifies a building for some tax breaks.
The Cobbs Creek group is only two years old, and historic preservation has not been a top priority yet. But the formation of an advisory board is underway and nominations for a preservation committee are being planned.
Larissa Mogano, cofounder and acting president of Cobbs Creek Neighbors, said the workshop inspired residents to think of the buildings they value and the stories behind them. They include the former Locust Theatre, built in 1914 as a vaudeville stage and now known as Bushfire Theatre of Performing Arts, and the former Ambassador Theatre, erected in 1921. “And there are many churches with historical relevance here,” Mogano said.
The workshop also provided new tools for neighborhood planning. “I appreciated knowing that as we’re looking at development coming our way, the preservation aspect may help us in keeping the historic look and feel of this neighborhood,” she said. “We want to preserve the history that is here, and keep those structures intact. And we don’t want large-scale development that is incongruous with the rest of the neighborhood.”
In September, the preservation workshop traveled to Grad Hospital at the invitation of the South of South Neighborhood Association, which had been in contact with Grossi regarding the demolition of a church that caught neighbors by surprise.
“We wanted to figure out what sort of dialogue we should be having and how to partner with neighbors,” SOSNA board chair Kevin Brown said. “We wanted to learn more about the preservation process and understand what can be done, and what resources are available.
During the workshop, Grossi noted the historic treasures in the area that have been protected, such as the Marian Anderson House.
“Then he presented nine other buildings that he thought could be considered for preservation on the Philadelphia Register. A lot of those buildings we pass every day but hadn’t thought much about,” said Nicole Koedyker, SOSNA’s program manager. “It was fascinating to see what he saw coming into the neighborhood. It was really eye-opening for the people at the workshop.”
As they listened to the stories of the buildings and previous residents of their blocks, they also realized there is an “underlying context and history that people don’t know about,” Koedyker said.
Transition and development pressure are not new to the neighborhood clustered around the western stretch of South Street, and preservation issues have been addressed in the past. Brown said the transformation of the former Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church at Fitzwater Street and Grays Ferry Avenue into the residential Sanctuary Lofts was an example of successful and sensitive reuse. “It’s one example of neighbors, developers and others working together to protect a building. We’ve made some progress, but other buildings have been lost. It’s a balancing act,” Brown said.
The neighborhood workshop will help guide SOSNA’s future conversations on preserving buildings and blocks and maintaining the architectural style that defines the South Street neighborhood. “This meeting was insightful for neighbors. Now they know they have the ability to look at these buildings and if they want to work toward preservation, they have the tools to do it,” Koedyker said.
“We would also want to consider the current status of the owners and what their needs are,” she added. That conversation has to include all the stakeholders and “an understanding of who came before us and what they created here. We want people to want to preserve the buildings for a reason and a purpose, and understand why we are doing it.”