Opponents charge that Philly's Historical Commission choose developers over history

The Historical Commission in 2010 approved the demolition of the Church of the Assumption (above) after the nonprofit owner said it could not afford to maintain it. A neighborhood group objected and won an appeal, which now is being appealed by the owner in Common Pleas Court. AKIRA SUWA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
The Historical Commission in 2010 approved the demolition of the Church of the Assumption (above) after the nonprofit owner said it could not afford to maintain it. A neighborhood group objected and won an appeal, which now is being appealed by the owner in Common Pleas Court. AKIRA SUWA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: July 03, 2012

THE SPRAWLING white villa at 40th and Pine streets, on the fringes of the University of Pennsylvania, is a historic mansion in disguise.

Converted into a nursing home decades ago and later encased by concrete additions, the mansion has been a hulking, blighted eyesore for years, both before and after the Ivy League school paid $1.6 million for it in 2003.

Still, neighbors and historic preservationists are fighting to save it from the wrecking ball in a case they say shows that the city agency in charge of protecting historic buildings no longer actually cares about history.

Neighbors are appealing a ruling by the Philadelphia Historical Commission that gives Penn and its development partner, Jonathan Weiss — who owns dozens of campus apartments near Temple University — a "financial hardship" waiver that permits demolition.

"Philadelphia sells itself on its history, and now it's selling off its history to developers," said Mary Daniels, a member of the Woodland Terrace Homeowners Association, which has filed the appeal expected to be heard by the Licenses & Inspections review board on July 24.

The Historical Commission's 6-3 vote has sparked outrage among neighbors, as well as among several historic-preservation experts who say they are alarmed that a commission created to protect historic buildings has approved the demolition of several in recent years.

Other organizations have also filed appeals in continuing battles over the Richardson Dilworth House, on Washington Square, and the Church of the Assumption, at 11th and Spring Garden streets. And just last week, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia filed an appeal of the commission's June 8 vote to allow the Episcopal Cathedral of Philadelphia to demolish two historic houses it owns on Chestnut Street near 38th.

According to the city's historic-preservation law, the commission is supposed "to further historic preservation in the city, and to promote public awareness of the values of historic preservation."

"The commission is now failing to uphold this duty," Aaron Wunsch, who teaches historic preservation at Penn, wrote in an email. He wrote that the commission has "effectively swept away all meaningful criteria for hardship, opening the way not only to the demolition of these buildings [but] for many more in the future."

"If there's such a thing as a wake-up call in the world of Philadelphia preservation," Wunsch wrote, "this is it."

Alan Greenberger, deputy mayor for economic development and director of commerce, disagrees.

"I don't think there's a bad trend line going on here," he said. "These projects were all very tough calls that the Historical Commission was charged with making."

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Preservationists, and some neighbors, said they are especially disturbed that the commission approved the "financial hardship" waiver for Penn.

At its May 11 meeting, the commission agreed with testimony from Penn and Weiss that a planned five-story, 122-unit apartment project couldn't succeed unless the developer received a guaranteed 11 percent rate of return on his investment.

"When you look at the whole thing, they're talking about maximizing investments," said Mary Goldman, who lives about a block away from the mansion. "If I made a bad investment and it just didn't work out, then I'd take my lumps."

Michael J. Lewis, who commutes from Philadelphia weekly to teach an American art and architecture history course at Williams College in Massachusetts, said he has noticed that a number of historic-oversight commissions from New York to Philadelphia have "become increasingly toothless."

"The general trend has been to give less weight to historic buildings under the pressure of development," said Lewis, who also is author of a biography of acclaimed Philadelphia architect Frank Furness.

Lewis said the Philadelphia Historical Commission has compromised its integrity as "there is no hardship whatsoever," considering the university is the city's largest private employer with an endowment of more than $6 billion.

Sam Sherman, the chairman of both the Historical Commission and its financial-hardship committee, told the website Hidden City Philadelphia that the wealth of a building's owner isn't considered in decisions.

"When we look at a financial-hardship [case] we examine the project itself," Sherman told the website. "It doesn't matter if it's somebody with $8 million in the bank or somebody on a shoestring."

Sherman, the owner of a property-development company and the former president of the Building Industry Association of Philadelphia, didn't return several calls and emails from the Daily News seeking comment.

The Historical Commission is composed of 14 members, with eight appointed by the mayor. One of those positions is vacant.

"What is required is a strong, positive stand from people on the commission," Lewis said. "I think the tendency over the last generation is to become much more passive and much more a rubber stamp. I haven't seen them take a strong stand against developers."

In the eyes of architectural historic preservationists, the block with the mansion represents a layering of time periods from when the Spruce Hill neighborhood was first developed as a "horse-drawn streetcar suburb" for the newly rich and middle-class businessmen and professionals who began moving to the area in the early 1850s.

The activists fighting for the mansion said they fear demolishing it will destroy one of the last remaining "intact" neighborhoods with architecture of that period. For example, the 40th and Pine mansion began as an Italianate villa in 1856, but was expanded into the Colonial Revival style around 1902.

"Every person who turns that corner at 40th and Pine cannot help but recognize this neighborhood's connections from the 1850s to the present," said Matt Grubel, who earned a master's degree from Penn in historic preservation.

"The yards, the size and scale of the houses, the porches, the trees, all tell the story. One doesn't need to be a historian or expert to appreciate this."

Members of Penn's architectural and real-estate team said they were torn about asking to demolish the mansion, even though they say it is debatable whether it was designed by the noted architect Samuel Sloan, and whether the concrete additions have compromised its historical integrity.

Others in the Spruce Hill Community Association, which has been neutral on the demolition, said they aren't sure that the Historical Commission has documentation as to how the mansion was placed on the historic register.

David Hollenberg, who teaches architecture and historic preservation at Penn, spoke on behalf of the university at the May historical-commission meeting.

He said the university had tried to work with other developers to save the mansion, but proposed projects — including an 11-story extended-stay hotel that outraged nearly everyone in the Spruce Hill neighborhood — didn't work out. Penn also said it tried for a decade to find a university use for the mansion, but the costs were prohibitive.

Said Hollenberg: "This was not a decision we came to lightly."

Contact Valerie Russ at 215-854-5987, russv@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ValerieRussDN.

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