Changing Skyline: Champion of Philadelphia's historic buildings steps down

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John Gallery, standing in front of Biddle Hall, helped preserve Naval Square. It is now Toll Brothers housing. ( MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer ).

In the 10 years that John Gallery has been Philadelphia's leading preservation advocate, it is safe to say that he has never raised his voice. Most of the time, in fact, he speaks at the pace of an old 45 record being played at 331/3 r.p.m.

But no one ever mistook his even, deliberate tone for a lack of passion.

When Chestnut Street's Boyd Theater was threatened with demolition, he was on the barricades to protest. When the state reneged on an agreement to preserve a group of historic Broad Street buildings, he rushed to a Harrisburg courtroom to object. He went to the mat to make sure that Joe Frazier's North Philadelphia gym gets the respect it deserves.

Gallery, a silver-haired, slightly stooped, former Bostonian, has attended virtually every meeting of the Historical Commission since he became head of the citizen-run Preservation Alliance in 2002. But when the commission holds its next session Feb. 8, Gallery won't be in his customary seat, patiently waiting to speak, and Philadelphia's historic buildings will be without a champion, at least temporarily.

Gallery, 72, retired last week, ending a long career in architecture that extends back to the 1970s and the days of planner Edmund Bacon. The Preservation Alliance expects to name a new director soon.

The transition comes at a turbulent time for historic preservation in Philadelphia. While the city's vast collection of historic treasures means there is almost always some ongoing crisis, advocates are currently waging major battles on three fronts: at the Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street, the Episcopal Cathedral parish house at 38th and Chestnut, and a mansion designed by Samuel Sloan at 40th and Pine.

These are not everyday save-the-building campaigns, either. Each of the landmarks had already succeeded in winning protection from the city, by being listed on the historic register, only to have their death warrants signed years later by the Historical Commission. It is rare for the commission to allow a single demolition under its hardship rules, never mind three at once. That has some advocates questioning its commitment to preservation.

The fiercest attacks have come from Aaron Wunsch, who teaches historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania. He accuses the commission of putting development concerns ahead of preservation. "As far as I can tell," Wunsch deadpans, "the job of the Historical Commission is to make the demolition of historic buildings look legal."

Gallery has been bird-dogging the commission long enough to know that preservationists have always lost more often than they've won in Philadelphia. Even so, he, too, is concerned about what he sees as the commission's tilt in favor of developers. The alliance is working to save all three buildings.

When Gallery took over as director of the alliance in 2002, preservation in Philadelphia was at a similarly low ebb. The alliance had just been formed out of the wreckage of two preservation groups, but the new organization immediately ran into financial trouble. "Virtually single-handedly, John was able to turn that around," recalls Paul Steinke, an alliance board member.

"Gallery gave the Preservation Alliance a voice and a presence in the city," adds Susan Glassman, a former board member. "He was able to mediate situations that would have turned into entrenched battles. That's something the commission wasn't set up to do."

Gallery's low-key advocacy paid off. His efforts are a big reason that landmarks like the Divine Lorraine Hotel, Victory Building, and the Naval Home are still standing in Philadelphia. An alliance lawsuit against the powerful Philadelphia Parking Authority helped stop the agency from building an enormous garage on Rittenhouse Square in 2004.

Gallery presided at a time when preservationists have been reassessing their mission. Instead of focusing exclusively on great monuments, there has been a growing interest in protecting socially and culturally significant buildings, like the gym where boxing champion Frazier trained.

"We worked to broaden the alliance appeal and get out of Center City," Gallery says. "We wanted people to understand that preservationists aren't middle-class white ladies in tennis sneakers."

Even so, Gallery acknowledges, it's been hard to get many Philadelphia neighborhoods to value their history. Working with the commission, the alliance has pushed to protect whole neighborhoods by designating them as historic districts, as was done for Parkside and Greenbelt Knoll. But there has been strong resistance in other areas, like Spruce Hill and Overbrook Farms, where residents worry that commission oversight will be too restrictive. They don't understand that the city's distinctive architecture is one of its greatest economic assets.

Meanwhile, there is rebellion in the preservationists' own ranks. The Pew Charitable Trusts has been sponsoring a project called "Gray Area" to look for nontraditional approaches to preserving buildings that go beyond what the alliance has supported.

In a city where politics and economics exert a strong tug, deciding what to save and what to sacrifice will never be a simple matter for the Historical Commission. Preservation laws can complicate individual projects. But without its old buildings, Philadelphia would be a poorer place for everyone.

 


Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213, isaffron@phillynews.com or on Twitter @ingasaffron.