Jewelers Row buildings get initial OK for historic designation

A Philadelphia Historical Commission panel has voted to recommend listing three Jewelers Row buildings eyed for demolition on the city's Register of Historic Places, but the action may be too late to save the properties from the wrecking ball.

The commission's Committee on Historic Designation voted Friday to accept nominations to the register for 704 Sansom St. and 706-08 Sansom St. 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 designation also will need to be approved by the full Historical Commission; a meeting is set for Nov. 10.

The buildings were nominated for listing by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia in an effort to derail Toll Bros.' plan to displace the buildings to make way for an 80-unit tower.

Preservation Alliance advocacy director Patrick Grossi argued during Friday's historic-designation committee hearing that 706-08 Sansom was significant because of its connection to the 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.

Grossi said 704 Sansom deserved protection because of its background as a historic printing-plate foundry built by Lea in 1878, and because of its polychromatic facade and other important architectural features.

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

Attorney Michael Phillips, who represented 706-08 Sansom's owner, Roberto Pupo, argued that the link to Philadelphia’s historic printing industry was not significant enough to justify the listing, and neither was the connection to Collins & Autenrieth. Pupo also submitted to the committee a petition signed by 27 Jewelers Row property owners opposing the historic designation.

“This is not the Lit building,” said Phillips, whose client — like other owners of buildings at the proposed development site — is under agreement to sell the property to Toll Bros.

Although the committee sided with the Preservation Alliance in its unanimous decision to recommend listing both buildings, the structures’ survival is far from certain, even if the full Historical Commission takes its advice.

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

But the city's Department of Licenses and Inspections, which issues demolition permits, has said a listing would come too late to preserve the Jewelers Row properties because permit applications for demolition have already been submitted.

No permits based on those applications had been issued as of Friday afternoon, said Karen Guss, an L&I spokeswoman.