SOS Fights for Endangered Philadelphia Structures
The three historic buildings on the 1900 block of Sansom Street still sit silently, falling into disrepair and gathering dust. An old, stone farmhouse – not a common city sight – waits in neglect in Southwest Philadelphia. And a jewel of Rittenhouse Square, the McIlhenny Mansion, faces an uncertain fate. Why? That is the question for which members of Save Our Sites (SOS) would like an answer. To discuss structures like these and to plan positive action to save them, more than a dozen members of SOS gathered in Center City on Tuesday, March 31st for their semi-annual meeting. In addition to SOS president John Dowlin, a home renovator, and secretary/treasurer David S. Traub, a noted architect/preservationist, attendees ranged in profession from the conductor of a classical music ensemble, to a local real estate agent, to a law librarian/tour guide. SOS was particularly honored to have in attendance Dr. Richard Tyler, the former executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
For several years now, SOS has endeavored to raise public awareness of historically and culturally important local sites that have not been properly maintained, have been underutilized, and have been undervalued. SOS wants to attract the public's attention before a property is threatened with demolition. As David Traub noted, once demolition has been planned, it is almost always too late to do anything to stop the wheels of destruction.
More than a year ago, I reported in the Weekly Press about another SOS meeting, during which members expressed concern over three historically certified buildings on Sansom Street – the former Oliver Bair Funeral Home, the Rittenhouse Coffee Shop, and the Warwick Apartments. At the time, the new owner of these sites, an Irish development company called Castleway Properties, had suggested destroying two these historic buildings in order to build a combination hotel/condominium with ground floor retail shops. SOS secretary/treasurer David Traub had discussed, with a Castleway representative, an idea to incorporate all three of the historic structures into the company's plans. Since then, however, Castleway has seemed to have put its plans for these properties in limbo. Therefore, SOS remains concerned about the future of the buildings.
At the March 31st meeting, it became clear that this concern extended not just to these structures, but also to the rest of Sansom Street. In fact, Mitchell Gordon, writer and urban planning analyst, proposed that all of Sansom Street – from river to river – should be proclaimed, "endangered" by Save Our Sites..
Indeed, one of the main purposes of this semi-annual meeting was to draw up a list of important, endangered locations in Philadelphia and its vicinity. Since the National Trust for Historic Preservation has declared May to be "National Preservation Month," SOS intends, at that time, to publish its own list of endangered local sites. Knowing this, members took turns suggesting a variety of neglected and threatened structures. Suggestions quickly sparked animated discussions, making clear the concern and love that SOS members feel for Philadelphia and its environs. As there are so many endangered buildings and sites in our area, the task of coming to a consensus on a limited list is a daunting one.
Possible candidates for this list range from the stone farmhouse at 1817 S. Vodges Street – perhaps the oldest one remaining in Philadelphia (circa 1764) – to the charming, but long-vacant, McIlhenny Mansion on the southwest corner of Rittenhouse Square. Described by SOS president John Dowlin as "quite splendid," this mansion, which Dowlin suggests could serve as a residence for a foreign consul, is one of the few remaining original structures on the Square.. Other, less conspicuous locations were also mentioned by SOS members at the meeting. Richard Carreño, for instance, talked about the continued neglect of a small, little-known cemetery in Green Lane off North Broad Street (near Broad St. & Olney Ave.) that contains the remains of British officers who fought during the Battle of Germantown. Mr. Carreño, who also writes for the Weekly Press, said in a 2005 article that the "…last official recognition of the [cemetery] was…more than 100 years ago." Carreño would like both Philadelphians and the British government to give some attention to this burial ground, which contains historically significant headstones and the remains of historically important personages.
Just as cooperative effort between the people of England and America may be needed to save this 18th century cemetery, so the strength of joint effort may also be needed between local organizations in order to preserve other sites and structures, both the well-known and the not-so-well known. SOS recognizes that it cannot, by itself, find ways to preserve and save all of the currently endangered local sites that have historical and cultural significance. According to David Traub, "We're here to complement the other preservation organizations, not to compete with them." Dr. Richard Tyler, who was the executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission for 31 years, echoed Traub's sentiments during a telephone interview. "I like the idea of a concerned lay organization and that [SOS is] not highly structured. It's a citizen's group. One of its functions is to lend support to other groups." Jean K. Wolf, Executive Director of The Woodlands, an historic cemetery in West Philadelphia, concurs. "Historically, preservation has always been a grassroots effort. Today this is still true. Preservation advocacy is strongest when neighborhoods and individuals express their interests and concerns about bad development or needed protection."
One issue that sparked discussion at the March 31st meeting was the encroachment of billboards on historic areas. Apparently, a law protecting the billboard industry was recently passed in Pennsylvania. Eric Bruun, an SOS member and public transportation consultant, said that "…the fact that [a billboard is] ugly and blights the community has no importance in court." John Dowlin, SOS President, suggested a citywide ban on billboards, and stated that he would write to Mayor Nutter and Governor Rendell to express SOS's concern about this issue.
Besides meetings and letter-writing, another way that SOS has engaged public interest has been through tours of historic and architecturally important sites and areas. Some of the successful recent tours have covered Mid-Town Village, the Wagner Institute, and Madison Square/St. Albans Place. This May, Save Our Sites will sponsor a tour of the Girard Estates in South Philadelphia. In the fall, the organization is hoping to help organize an "Oktoberfest" event that will allow the public to tour three significant structures on Spring Garden Street – the Edgar Allan Poe House, the Robert Venturi-designed Guild House, and the German Society.
To find out more about SOS, please go to: www.saveoursites.org.