Vantage Point: When Saving Is Not Equal to Preserving

A 185Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

We try to "save" buildings for many reasons­to save a slice of history that happened there, to reflect life as it used to be, to save samples of a famous architect’s work, and sometimes just for their sheer beauty. But what does it mean to "preserve" a building? Does it mean to freeze it in time as it now exists, or to strip away modernizations that have obscured earlier and more historically accurate conditions? Can it involve adaptive reuses that require some new construction?

After leaving home at age 18, I have never again lived in another 1950s era development. My college campus began as a few buildings in the Michigan hinterlands in 1835, and my first house, bought in 1980, was an 1890 Victorian fixer upper. I much preferred older structures to the "little boxes made of ticky-tacky" that Pete Seeger sang about in 1963, even if it meant uneven floors and knob and tube wiring. The tall ceilings and chestnut baseboards of my house, which overlooked the Delaware River from across a tree-lined Trenton street, inspired in me a willingness to learn how to undertake the necessary carpentry and masonry to keep my brownstone and brick duplex functional as well as elegant. At the end of 16 years, the fixing was complete, but I sold it to move into another old house (vintage 1920) as a newlywed.

While I had bought my Victorian because it was affordable (as well as attractive and well located), current arguments for saving older buildings from the wrecking ball emphasize preservation as the ultimate recycling project. Historic status of a building by itself usually cannot save it, but in many cases rehabilitation and reuse can reclaim it from demolition that would make room for new and less interesting construction.

Just down the road from my current house (vintage 1908), a neighborhood organization has won a legal battle that defines the distinction between "saving" a historic building from destruction and preserving it. The masonry building at 3 Rector Street (vintage 1870s, originally offices for the A. Campbell Manufacturing Company’s Union Mill) is part of a warren of textile mills that stretched along the Manayunk Canal dating from the height of Philadelphia’s industrial boom that began in the 1820s. Main Street, running parallel to the canal, experienced rapid revitalization in the 1980s as restaurants and new businesses moved into storefronts lining this thoroughfare, and in the next decade developers began pushing for residential use of the island on the other side of the canal. The history of the area was threatened as older structures in the neighborhood were deemed too costly to rehabilitate or just not suitable for the more modern designs of their new owners.

But this section of Philadelphia relies on its roots as a mill town for its charm, and when plans to raze the structure at 3 Rector Street, which is on the Philadelphia Historic Register, were presented to the city’s Historic Commission in June 2005, the Manayunk Neighborhood Council (MNC) protested the loss of ambience that forms the heart of the historic district in the community. Although the architect argued that there was no viable use for the structurally sound building, it was clear that much of the basis for that claim was that the owner’s asking price was too high. After much debate about its authority and jurisdiction, the Historic Commission denied the proposal for demolition and erection of a new four-story 17-unit condominium.

The developers appealed the Historical Commission’s denial to the Philadelphia Board of Building, which upheld the denial. The developers’ next step was to file an appeal with the city’s Licenses and Inspections Review Board but withdrew before any hearings. They then went on to propose construction on top of the existing building, presumably to "preserve" the historic structure­—a five-story vertical addition as an "overbuild" plan that the neighborhood group vehemently opposed once renderings showed dramatic differences from the original conceptual plan that the Historical Commission had supported in June 2006.

Thus began the battle of the neighborhood against the city. The developer fought to eliminate MNC from the fray, arguing that the citizens had no standing in the matter as they were "not an aggrieved party and suffered no injury" (they only lived there and would have to look at the mutant structure, but had no other interests). The councilman for the Ward even fought his own constituents.

Amidst disputes about which of Philadelphia’s review boards had jurisdiction and which of its many rules, regulations, and codes should apply to the case, heated discussions abounded regarding zoning, planning, land use overlays, historical review, architectural review, and economic hardship (due to the overwhelming competition of Home Depot to the hardware store at 3 Rector Street). Oversight overlaps and gaps are common in a city that has not had a master plan for forty years, giving lots of room for conflicting interpretations of who can do what, and when.

In the end, the local residents had an early Christmas present in the form of a Commonwealth Court (appellate) decision in their favor, reversing the Court of Common Pleas and overturning all prior approvals related to the proposed project.

Returning to the questions I posed at the start of this article, one has to question "preservation" of the historic structure when looking at the artist’s rendering of the proposed residential conversion. The image surely qualifies as what Old House Journal refers to as "remuddling." Alien-like, the five-story glass and brick structure erupts from the roofline of a modest structure to tower over its neighbors.

The confusion and conflict between different city agencies’ regulations and rulings hardly presents a unified vision of how the cityscape should look, and largely ignores the citizens most closely affected by changes. Having to resort to the courts is an expensive way to promote consistent planning, and hardly fair. But it is probably not unusual, either. Master planning is sorely needed in many communities, including a thorough review of consistency between the rules issued by their various departments and agencies. Without it, citizens, surveyors, and developers are left with moving targets and unclear objectives.

Author Note: Additional images on the web for those interested in historic maps of the site in this article:

The building in question appears at the southeast corner of Robeson Street and the canal in the 1894 Hexamer General Survey of this site (Volume 29, Plates 2816-2817) published by Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network at HGSv29.2816-2817

For a view of the magnitude of mills along the Manayunk Canal in 1875, just prior to the construction of the building discussed in this article, see the Schofield site just east of the Blantyre Mills along Robeson Street at the canal on Plate A of the City Atlas of Philadelphia (Vol. 2, Wards 21 and 28), published by Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network at PhilaWards21_28.005.PlateA

Wendy Lathrop is licensed as a Professional Land Surveyor in NJ, PA, DE,
and MD, and has been involved since 1974 in surveying projects ranging from construction to boundary to environmental land use disputes. She is a Professional Planner in NJ, and a Certified Floodplain Manager through ASFPM.

A 185Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE