First a World Heritage City, now Philadelphia is a 'National Treasure'

Jewelers Row is under development pressure. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The threats to Philadelphia’s rich architectural past, which has been under severe pressure from a sustained building boom, will be recognized Thursday when the National Trust for Historic Preservation declares the city a “National Treasure.”

Coming just two years after Philadelphia was singled out as the first World Heritage City in the United States, the designation is intended to focus attention on the city’s growing preservation crisis. It is the first time the trust has identified an entire city as a National Treasure, although parts of three other cities —Miami, Detroit, and Louisville — have been singled out for similar attention.

The trust, a private group that advocates for maintaining America’s heritage buildings, decided to get involved in Philadelphia after Mayor Kenney asked for its help, said president Stephanie Meeks. Like many cities, she explained, Philadelphia has policies that often make it easier to demolish older buildings than reuse them. “We’re going to look at ways the city can unlock the economic potential of its historic buildings,” she said. “Philadelphia is one of the country’s most historic cities.”

Philadelphia has lost a spate of high-profile historic buildings in recent years, most notably the art deco Boyd Theater on Chestnut Street, but the trust’s announcement will be made at one of the success stories, the bottling plant designed for the Henry F. Ortlieb Brewing Co. in Northern Liberties. Two years ago, the KieranTimberlake architecture firm renovated the modernist building to use as its headquarters. Kenney is scheduled to attend the announcement.

The lavishly decorated Boyd Theater was demolished last year, but the site’s owner has yet to begin construction of a planned apartment tower. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )

The National Treasure designation, like the World Heritage title, does not come with any additional funding for preservation. But a trust spokeswoman said the organization plans to increase its focus on Philadelphia, which a news release called a “veritable almanac of American history.” It will also make its staff available to help rethink its preservation policies.

Despite the city’s architectural riches, the news release noted that “much of the fabric that represents the city’s rich and multilayered history is currently unprotected by preservation regulations or incentives, leaving thousands of Philadelphia’s iconic historic places threatened by demolition pressure or incompatible new construction.”

Kenney came into office promising to strengthen the city’s commitment to its architectural heritage, but he was almost immediately plunged into a crisis when Toll Bros. announced plans to demolish a section of Jewelers Row, America’s oldest and most intact diamond district, to erect a 29-story condo tower. In that case, the city’s Historic Commission declined to act on a nomination to preserve two of the targeted buildings.

In April, Kenney announced the formation of a task force to look into ways to protect the city’s architectural patrimony from rapid development. He has also promised to increase funding for the Historic Commission so it can hire more staff and begin to act proactively to prevent demolitions. Many preservation advocates say the city needs to do an inventory to determine which buildings should be prioritized for protection.

The task force is scheduled to hold its first meeting July 20.

The interior of the Church of the Assumption on Spring Garden Street was severely damaged before the building could be listed on the city’s Historic Register. St. Katherine Drexel, one of two Catholic saints from Philadelphia, was baptized in the church. (Photo by CHANDRA LAMPREICH)

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