Changing Skyline | Maritime heritage in a fight for its life

The intersection of Front and Chestnut Streets hovers two stories above the Delaware River, but the views of Penn's Landing can't be beat. If you edit out the unfortunate chute of highways, you can almost picture the waterfront in its heyday, when a piano keyboard of white-sailed clipper ships and blackened wharves rimmed the shore.

After years of neglect, Philadelphia has finally begun to recognize the value of its waterfront heritage and the potential of those languishing docks. A special mayoral task force is deep into a study aimed at reclaiming the land closest to the Delaware. But the riverfront covers more than just the ground at the water's edge.

Front Street was also an integral part of the city's working waterfront. As the first street west of the river on solid, dry land, it was where shipping magnates built their warehouses, and where the support services - the sail-makers and rope suppliers - congregated. But now, Front Street's historic maritime architecture is in a fight for its life.

Two buildings at the northwest corner of Front and Chestnut are already threatened with immediate demolition, and others could follow. Shuttered and unkempt, the two historically certified Greek Revival structures from 1830 aren't much to look at. Yet together with their mates on the south side, they form one of the last intact Front Street intersections, and a key gateway to future Delaware River development. It's probably Philadelphia's oldest surviving commercial corner, says Jonathan Farnham, the city Historical Commission's acting director.

Unfortunately, the buildings' owners, Robert and Harvey Spear, are eager to be rid of them. Their company, Cheswal L.P., has spent months petitioning the Historical Commission for demolition approval. After the commission rejected their claims of financial hardship March 9, the brothers turned to Common Pleas Court Judge Gary F. DiVito. He must choose between ordering the demolitions or demanding that the owners stabilize the properties.

It's a case that has already produced a stack of legal documents. Although the brothers, who own the large adjacent parking lot, bought the buildings just two years ago for a whopping $1.5 million, they now argue that the structures are damaged beyond reasonable repair. Never mind that they never bothered to have an engineer inspect them before they inked the deal.

According to the Spears' lawyer, Carl Primavera, that's because they planned to incorporate the historic buildings into a new condo development on the parking lot. That project died when the condo market softened. As a result, Primavera says, the Spears no longer have a way to offset the expense of repairs. The Spears claim it will cost $1.5 million to stabilize the buildings, although the city says it could be done for less than $500,000.

Developers run into such problems all the time. The Spears, who have extensive Center City real estate holdings, could have simply left the old buildings to sit vacant until market conditions changed.

But something curious happened Jan. 22, according to legal papers filed by the city.

That day, the Spears contacted a city inspector and invited him to visit the buildings, although he was not assigned to their case. After examining the buildings and reading an engineering report supplied by the brothers, the unidentified inspector issued a citation declaring that the two historic structures were "imminently dangerous." The designation clears the way for immediate demolition, regardless of their buildings' historic status.

The citation took higher-ups at the Department of Licenses and Inspections by surprise. The properties had been inspected numerous times by other city inspectors, as well as private engineers. Yet there had never been a suggestion that they were in danger of collapse, said David Perri, who was the chief code inspector when the citation was issued. It's clear the buildings "can be saved and put back into service," he said.

Despite their consternation, L&I officials chose not to reverse the "dangerous" designation for legal reasons, said Commissioner Robert Solvibile. They countered by charging the Spears with "demolition by neglect."

The problem is that the Spears are using the "dangerous" citation as the basis of their complaint to Judge DiVito. They contend that the city is giving them conflicting instructions.

There is something seriously wrong when different arms of city government act at cross-purposes. At the very least, the inspector's unilateral actions should be investigated by city officials.

Consider this: The Historical Commission has twice rejected the Spears' demolition request. The City Solicitor's Office has fought the demolition request with impressive vigor. And Perri has spoken passionately in favor of saving the two historic buildings. Yet because of an unauthorized inspection, the city could lose a crucial historic corner.

If the properties are destroyed, it could have a domino effect on the 100 block of Chestnut Street, a time capsule from the city's seafaring days. Besides the two Front Street buildings, the Spears own two others nearby on Chestnut Street.

Front Street's tattered streetscape is the legacy of such incremental demolitions. In 1993, shortly after Ed Rendell took office, the city reversed a long-held policy and allowed the Taxin family - the former owners of Old Original Bookbinder's - to raze the historic Elisha Webb Chandlery. Within two years, two-thirds of the block had been reduced to a surface parking lot. Seven historic structures were lost. Since then, only a tiny corner lot has been redeveloped, even though Philadelphia has just experienced a major building boom.

The Spears say they hope to erect condos on their Front and Chestnut property, yet they have no track record of building anything new. If these two old buildings are lost, Front Street's history could become a string of empty lots.


Changing Skyline |

Inga Saffron blogs about Philadelphia architecture at http://go.philly.com/

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Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.