The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Breweries, Modernism focus of 2012 Endangered Properties List

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The long abandoned Gretz Brewery, Germantown Ave. & Oxford St.

As the cool kids in town raise a Brawler or Kenzinger to good vibes and authenticity in their rapidly changing neighborhoods, what was once an obvious truth has come back to the forefront: Philly is a mecca for beer lovers. These days, though, the aforementioned poisons are the exception to the new reality: that Philadelphia does a much better job of consuming the best beer on the market than it does of actually making it.

Sure, Yards, PBC, and Dock Street are all great. But before Prohibition, the city had hundreds of breweries, even a Brewerytown that hosted much of the brewing madness. Today, that era is history — and we’re in danger of losing the very last of it.

The Red Bell Brewery (aka Poth Brewery) on North 31st Street in Brewerytown

The Red Bell Brewing Company (aka Poth Brewery) on North 31st Street in Brewerytown

Three of the city’s surviving breweries are cited in this year’s List of Endangered Properties, published annually by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. (The whole report can be read here.) They are Ortlieb in Northern Liberties, Gretz in Ludlow/Old Kensington, and Poth (aka Red Bell) in, yes, Brewerytown. The original Ortlieb complex is already slated for the wrecking ball, so it remains to see what will come of the other two. Gretz has been empty for 50 years yet somehow remained standing, and Red Bell, once envisioned as part of an ambitious redevelopment plan for the neighborhood, continues to sit in neglect amid the few spurts of activity in the blocks below.

These days, the norm for industrial reuse is lofts, so if either of these buildings is to receive a new lease on life, expect more artists and bohemian types to soak in the memory of the suds.

Also on the endangered list are a pair of nifty modernist structures that, owing to their, well, relative newness, each have their fair shares of detractors: the Police Administration Building, better known as the Roundhouse, in Franklin Square, and the District Health Center at Broad and Lombard.

Why would the City vacate each of these spots? Ironically, to consolidate its office space in another historic building that the Preservation Alliance previously called attention to: the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Building in West Philly. The deal has yet to go through, but to most tastes, it’s a trade-off worth making. That leaves these modernist staples at the mercy of private development. With the recent loss of the Sidney Hillman Medical Center to clear the way for a high-rise, the value of modernism is something worth making a stronger case for.

Capping this year’s list, interestingly, is not a building or a place but a government policy, namely federal historic tax credits. Yes, it’s easy to dismiss these as public subsidies for wealthy real estate tycoons, but the fact is that the tax credits work. Tax credits are a bipartisan reality in Washington today. We can certainly have a debate on their relevance to preservation, but it bears stressing that historic restoration consistently generates more tax revenue than the cost of applying the credits in the first place. (Please, have a look at this establishment currently undergoing rehab and tell me it’s worth gutting a whole federal program to let it sit and rot.)

In all, it may feel like a quick list. Then again, the drama of the past always seems to be spilling into the present, still pending resolution. Projects to save monuments to John Coltrane, Joe Frazier and Dox Thrash are in the works; the Church of the Assumption has received yet another stay of execution; and who knows what the blueprint looks like for the Divine Lorraine?

Just another year in the life of a preservationist. Have a Kenzinger for all that hard work.


Written by cwmote

December 13, 2012 at 2:58 pm

One Response

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  1. […] windows and fuzzy brutalism in action. We imagine few Washington Square West residents (or even modernism enthusiasts) will regret watching this 1969 monolith go. Even those who do miss it can only fault the […]

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