The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Germantown YWCA: hope for restoration?

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Germantown thrills and frustrates in equal measures. Few neighborhoods in Philadelphia (few in the U.S., at that) can boast such a wealth of historic properties, yet fewer have had to struggle so much to keep their history from falling into ruin.

The dissolution of the Germantown Settlement Community Development Corporation, whose massive landholdings led to its falling into a black hole of debt, has been heralded as a new opportunity for a renaissance. Renovations of once-sagging Victorians indeed seem to be happening left and right. Yet Germantown Settlement still casts a dark shadow, as the City’s Redevelopment Authority (PRA) fails in its attempts to seize the CDC’s remaining properties.

DSC01409A story in NewsWorks looked at the YWCA Administration Building at 5820-24 Germantown Avenue, which once again had its sheriff’s sale postponed. For three years now, the PRA has been trying to get it sold off; its efforts have been hindered mostly by the fact that Germantown Settlement, which owns it, technically no longer exists as an organization. (Philly face palm, natch.) Over that time, a series of fires have seriously compromised the integrity of the building — police have ruled them to be either arson or intentional, but haven’t nabbed any perps (to the best of my knowledge).

Legal fudging aside, there’s now the question of whether the YWCA building, which dates from the 1910s, will be demolished. The NewsWorks story cites developer Ken Weinstein as an interested buyer. The fire damage, he claims, would leave him no choice but to tear it down and start anew — assuming he ever gets the opportunity to buy it, of course.

Weinstein, who recently announced plans to convert an old warehouse on the edge of Germantown into lofts, explained in the comments section below the article (we imagine it’s not a Weinstein imposter) his rationale for demolition:

“After three fires, the building is structurally unsound, especially the 3rd and 4th floors. The asbestos that was in the ceiling is now all over the place. After 20+ years in real estate development, I have never demolished a building so I don’t make this recommendation lightly. We should only demolish a building when it is absolutely necessary and that is the case here.”

Sad to think that Germantown Avenue could lose another one of its landmarks. If Weinstein does acquire the Y building, he will have to make his case for demo before the Historical Commission as the property is listed on the Historic Register. Recent history suggests he won’t have much trouble persuading them. Alas, as if the building itself weren’t enough, the colorful mural on the property is also endangered.

The most positive thing to note here is that Weinstein does have the wherewithal to build something new over the site — and that the rest of Germantown (the western section, at least) is showing strong enough signs of a comeback, despite the shadows of the past, that realtors are once again paying it heed.

“Germantown YWCA sheriff’s sale delayed after building’s owner couldn’t be found” [NewsWorks, Jan. 9, 2013]

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