Panel OKs 3 demolitions on Sansom The Historical Commission also approved a multiuse development in the same area near Rittenhouse Square.

Posted: September 24, 2003

The Philadelphia Historical Commission voted yesterday to allow the destruction of three historically designated buildings to make way for a multiuse development in the 1900 block of Walnut Street, near Rittenhouse Square.

The buildings in question are the former Rittenhouse Coffee Shop at 1904 Sansom St., the old Warwick apartments at 1906-16 Sansom, and the former Oliver H. Bair Funeral Home at 1918-20 Sansom.

In a second vote, the commission voted to approve the development plan, proposed by the Philadelphia Parking Authority. The plan includes an 8,200-square-foot restaurant, an eight-screen movie theater with two smaller screening rooms, a 500-plus space parking garage, and street-level retail on Sansom Street. The development was designed by Richard W. Huffman, principal architect of Wallace, Roberts & Todd. Architect Robert Geddes, dean emeritus of architecture at Princeton University, designed the theater.

In conjunction with approving the design, the commission requested one alteration. It asked that the facade of one of the historic buildings - 1904 Sansom, the former Rittenhouse Coffee Shop - be incorporated into the design. That building had been designated as historically "significant" in the Rittenhouse-Fitler Residential Historic District.

Despite recommendations from both the Historical Commission staff and the commission's Architectural Committee that the demolition request be denied, the 6-5 vote in favor of knocking the buildings down came quickly after nearly five hours of testimony from almost two dozen witnesses.

Joanne Phillips, an attorney for the Parking Authority, told the commission that the $35 million development project would create 400 to 500 construction jobs for about 18 months and 75 to 80 jobs after the project is completed. In addition, the garage, theater and restaurant will provide hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue, she said.

Susan Schwartz, owner of the upscale Sophy Curson women's clothing store on 19th at Sansom, told the commission there was no need for additional parking in the area.

"I have never had a client tell me that she can't find a parking space," Schwartz said.

John Andrew Gallery of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia said that the buildings in question were valuable and fit for use.

"We all agree that these historically designated buildings are in good condition, can be economically rehabilitated, and that there is a market for their use," Gallery said.

In the crowd that gathered at City Hall for the hearing, the mood seemed to be that approval of demolition was inevitable.

"I'm disappointed; I wasn't surprised," said David S. Traub, a Center City architect who waited about four hours to testify against the demolition.

The vote in favor of demolition was carried mostly by members of the commission who represent the various city departments such as Commerce, Housing and Community Development, Licenses and Inspections, and Public Property, as well as the Planning Commission. The sixth vote in favor of demolition was cast by a representative of the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons Union, an appointee of Mayor Street's.

Two people were absent from the 14-member commission, and the chairman, Michael Sklaroff, recused himself. Sklaroff is the lead attorney representing the Parking Authority.

The five who voted not to demolish were Street appointees.

Thomas J. Sugrue, a University of Pennsylvania history professor, conducted the hearing in the absence of Sklaroff.

Phillips argued the Parking Authority's case on the ground that destroying the buildings and replacing them with the multiuse complex was in the public interest.

The decision of the Historical Commission can be appealed to the Department of Licenses and Inspections Review Board.

Opponents said yesterday that they would consider an appeal.

Contact staff writer Linda K. Harris at 215-854-4417 or

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