The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Archive for the ‘Urban’ Category

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]


Frank Furness, master of railroads, subject of yet another can’t-miss exhibit

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Philadelphia-broadst-138288pv-bisThere are those who assert that every day is Frank Furness Day in Philadelphia. Still, after the year-long celebration of the centenary of his death, it’s easy to get withdrawal symptoms and pine for the festivities of yesteryear. Fear not: the Library Company of Philadelphia has one more exhibit to help you manage your Furnessian architectu-romance. Frank Furness: Working on the Railroads is a tribute to the days when rail stations were temples of American industry. No cathedral, indeed, was grander than Furness’ Broad Street Station (pictured), of which you’ll find a handsome terra cotta model in the exhibit room, Chinese wall included, along with a mini-documentary cataloguing its rise and all-but-inevitable fall. Furness also designed scores of smaller stations for competing rail companies, a handful of which luckily survive. Featuring relics salvaged from Broad Street Station and artistic renderings for masterworks never built (among them an ambitious re-imagining of BSS), it’s an exhibit certain to enlighten as another invaluable lens to Furness’ work. Railroads haven’t been this fun since you trounced your friends at Ticket to Ride.

Frank Furness: Working on the Railroads at the Library Company of Philadelphia (1314 Locust St.), free admission, through April 19

Written by cwmote

January 31, 2013 at 5:55 am

ZBA releases findings in Kensington textile bank appeal; oral arguments pushed back to June

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As I reported last week, the scheduling for the neighbors’ appeal of the Zoning Board of Adjustment’s decision to grant a variance for WCRP’s Nitza Tufino Homes was originally expected some time in the spring. However, appealing attorney A. Jordan Rushie says he asked the Common Pleas Court for an extension after the ZBA failed to submit its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law before the court-ordered deadline. The extension was granted, and so the appeal schedule has been effectively postponed two months. The deadline for appellant briefs has been moved from February 4 to April 4, and oral arguments should be heard at some point after June 1.

In the meantime, the ZBA did finally release its version of the events that led to its approval of the WCRP project. Those findings — that the site of the project cannot support retail, that the historic bank buildings cannot be saved, and that the housing development does not signify overcrowding in the neighborhood — are, of course, likely to be forcefully challenged by the appellants. It should also be noted that other neighbors did speak in approval of the development, referring to the banks as a blighting influence on the neighborhood, and that WCRP presented a commissioned study that measured the impact of the project on the surrounding area — something the Board clearly took as a sign that the developer in this case did their homework. (Dissenting neighbors, however, allege that the study was based on out-of-date information and did not refer to the specific intersection of Front and Norris.)

Will this delay affect WCRP’s financing? The organization has received tax credits for other projects, so it has a reputation for getting things done. It remains to be seen if the PHFA will be inclined to award tax credits while an appeal is underway. Interestingly, the ZBA’s findings mention PHFA as a supporter of the Nitza Tufino Homes, although they don’t specify if that support was conditional based on ZBA approval — especially seeing how PHFA has declined to fund this particular project in the past.

Written by cwmote

January 31, 2013 at 1:02 am

Demolishing two banks by neglect in Kensington

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Photo courtesy of Peter Woodall

Neighbors in Philadelphia’s Fishtown and Kensington neighborhoods know it as the PNB bank, which has sat vacant for 30 years at the corner of Front and Norris Streets. Actually, “it” is misleading: what appears to be one is in fact two banks, both with colorful histories: Ninth National Bank and the Industrial Title, Trust and Savings Company. And now, an unfortunate clash of interests is jeopardizing their existence: out with history, in with affordable housing.

Now up at Hidden City:

The history of both banks is tied to the days of Kensington’s reign as a leading textile manufacturing center: the era of carpets and apparel, of fabrics and dyes, which prompted one observer to liken the neighborhood to “a giant mill town set in the midst of a metropolis.” Like many of the mills, the banks have seen better days. And despite their inclusion in the [Kensington Textile National Historic District], salvation may have come too late.

The nonprofit Women’s Community Revitalization Project is proposing the development, known as the Nitza Tufino Townhomes, and the City appears to be lining up behind it….

And how much can a building (or buildings) deteriorate in 30 years? Check out the photos in the article, and brace yourself…

Conflict in Kensington as Neighbors Appeal Banks’ Demolition

“How to live for the future”

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You have probably already seen this video, so of course you totally want to watch it again.

Izhar Gafni, an Israeli inventor, claims to have found a way to make bicycles affordable for the developing world: he’s constructed one almost entirely out of cardboard. Like most people, I gasped in awe the first time I viewed this. Mostly, I tried to dispel any glamorous images of the bike, partly through whimsical thoughts (why not build it out of dried pasta, or hemp?), partly by concluding that cardboard has to be pretty uncomfortable to ride on after a while. Ultimately, I couldn’t shake the awe at this achievement in human ingenuity.

Is a $20 cardboard bike really something to inspire envy? While thinking of this trend towards marrying sustainability and design in a way that benefits everyone, not just the wealthy, I recalled the words of another inventor: Daniel Nocera, a professor of chemistry at MIT.

As featured in a New Yorker profile last year, Nocera is the genius behind a renewable energy technology known as the artificial leaf. The gist of the technology is that the leaf produces hydrogen through a process that mimics photosynthesis, making it a more efficient alternative to solar panels.

Although Nocera inhabits the “legacy world” (his words) that takes fossil-fuel energy for granted, his contraption is intended for the non-legacy world that has gotten by on much less. In other words, don’t count on getting a leaf to power your house in the foreseeable future. Despite the sunny optimism, hydrogen energy has a looooooong way to go. To put the gadget in perspective: “producing enough hydrogen to meet even Nocera’s minimal goal of powering a single hundred-watt light bulb through the night would require an artificial leaf the size of a door.”

But those are not the words I remembered from the article. What I did remember were the words that Nocera reportedly told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival: “The poor are helping you, because they’re going to teach you how to live for the future.”

Sustainability is misunderstood to be many things, but one of its more helpful ideas is that doing more with less doesn’t need to be a sacrifice. What if the goal of everyone driving Priuses simply isn’t noble enough? The global poor are advancing while consuming even way less than that. Yes, there will always be the upwardly mobile who ditch bikes and aspire to own cars and live in houses with better heating and lighting. That doesn’t mean that everyone will get there, or will even want to, if the consumption trends of industrialized nations (at least those of the U.S.) continue.

It never hurts to take a look once in a while at that future that the other 90% are envisioning, lest we in the legacy world find ourselves shut out of it.

Written by cwmote

January 9, 2013 at 2:11 pm

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

Inside Philadelphia: ‘Lobbying’ the Interiors of Washington Square

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You can’t get all of the city’s history through its outdoors. I realized this when I visited the Athenaeum, Philadelphia’s premier resource on the city’s architectural and artistic history, part library and part museum, overlooking Washington Square.

We all know that each year, tens of thousands tour the inside of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, one of the city’s (and country’s) most distinguished 18th-century structures. To continue the history tour into the 19th century, it’s worth taking a peek inside the Athenaeum just a block away. It’s completely free and uncrowded — and, if you allow yourself, pretty breathtaking.

The Athenaeum of Philadelphia was founded in 1814. The institute has been at its present home since 1845. The exterior is in the Italianate style, while the neoclassical interior — not surprisingly for a Greek-named institute in a Greek-named city — has some nice historical flashes, particularly Corinthian pillars.

One of the reading rooms on the second floor

Plaque commemorating the dedication of the building


From the stairwell


How many other surprises can you find around here? Try the grandiose building just up the corner from this one: the former home of the Curtis Publishing Company. A monument to a time when half of all Americans read magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post, this 1910 Georgian edifice still holds some tributes to the old money that built it within its doors.

The company was founded by Cyrus H.K. Curtis. His son-in-law, Edward Bok, became the most famous editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal. His daughter, Mary Louise Curtis Bok, founded the Curtis Institute of Music.

Few lobbies in the city rival that of the Curtis Building. It’s here that you’ll find the regal marble and Tiffany glass, the centerpiece being a 20-foot-wide mosaic called The Dream Garden.

It’s a big mosaic


There are other features, including a pretty big inner courtyard space to give yourself perspective on the scope of the building. But The Dream Garden is the big attraction, and an underutilized one — again, considering that Independence Hall is literally across the street.

The courtyard

The Curtis lobby: another angle; more Tiffany glass

One more gem, and that’s the Benjamin Franklin Hotel. Designed by the esteemed architect Horace Trumbauer, the erstwhile hotel at 9th and Chestnut now houses condos and apartments. If you’ve been there but aren’t fortunate enough to live there, chances are you went to a doctor’s office; the massive campus of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital is across the street.

Even if you don’t need a prescription, the Ben Franklin’s lobby is its own excuse for a peek inside. Here’s an ex-hotel that knew not to part with its history.


Some work in progress

Try not to strain your neck

Although there is a cafe inside, there really isn’t much here that would attract visitors. Center City is realizing much of its residential boom, yet its retail potential continues to vegetate somewhat.

But things could be worse. The lobby here is in the midst of some renovation, a favorable sign, at minimum, that the glitz is being kept up. In the meantime, it remains another of the city’s best-kept secrets, which the elect few explorers can have all to themselves.