Panel takes up Jewelers Row historic nomination in challenge to Toll Bros.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission has agreed to consider listing on the city's Register of Historic Places three Jewelers Row buildings eyed for demolition, but the move may be too late to protect the properties. 

The commission's Committee on Historic Designation will review nominations for 704 Sansom St. and 706-08 Sansom St. at meetings on Oct. 21, according to nominating documents on its website. The buildings are part of a five-property stretch that Horsham-based developer Toll Bros. wants to replace with a 16-story condo tower.

The buildings were nominated for listing on the register by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Paul Steinke, the alliance's executive director, said Friday that Toll Bros. and the properties' owners would be unable to get permits to demolish or otherwise alter the buildings while the review process was underway.

But Karen Guss, a spokeswoman for the city Department of Licenses and Inspections, which issues those permits, said that was not the case. Since the nomination to the Historical Commission was received after a demolition application for the properties was submitted to her agency, "the nomination does not affect the review of the demolition permit," she said.

The nomination represents the latest attempt by opponents of Toll's proposal to derail a planned 80-unit project that would tower above the venerable Sansom Street jewelry-shopping enclave. The Preservation Alliance also joined some property owners and merchants last month to appeal zoning approvals for the building

"We understand that this is part of the process and are optimistic we will be able to move forward with this project," said Tim Spreitzer, a spokesman for Toll's City Living division. 

In its letter nominating 706-08 Sansom, the Preservation Alliance said the property was significant because of its connection to prominent publisher and author Henry C. Lea, who had the structure built in the mid-1860s to serve as one of the city's first publishing houses.

It also said  704 Sansom deserved protection because of its background as a historic printing-plate foundry built by Lea in 1878, and because its polychromatic facade and other architectural features make it a strong example of commercial “street architecture” of the late 19th century.

Both buildings were designed by architects Collins & Autenrieth, whose other works include the former Lit Bros. store on Market Street, the preservation group said. 

A person answering the phone at the Elkins Park address associated with the owner of 704 Sansom, 704 Associates, said she had no comment.

Roberto Pupa, owner of 706-08 Sansom St., said that he was unaware of the nomination for the historic register, but that substantial renovations already completed at the properties should disqualify them for protection. 

In most cases, developers seeking to alter properties listed on the register must prove to the commission that preserving them represents a special hardship.

Whether the nomination of the properties staves off their demolition may hang on interpretations of a Common Pleas Court ruling in a case this year in West Philadelphia.

In that case, a judge held that the nomination of 4046-48 Chestnut St. trumped a demolition-permit application that had been filed earlier, a decision heartening to the Toll project's opponents. 

Guss said the judge issued an order staying demolition until resolution of the nominators’ administrative appeals of the demolition permits.  The order was specific to the case and did not establish any  precedent, she said.