Judge saves buildings for now

She halted demolition of two structures the state had agreed to include in Convention Center work.

The Department of General Services removed the facade of the Philadelphia Life Insurance Co. 1962 addition (center). That structure and the one to the right of it were supposed to have been incorporated into the Convention Center plan.

Philadelphia preservationists succeeded yesterday in winning a temporary injunction to stop further destruction of two protected buildings on North Broad Street by the state agency overseeing the expansion of the Convention Center.

Commonwealth Court Judge Bonnie B. Leadbetter imposed the injunction after the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia complained that demolition work begun Saturday on the order of the state Department of General Services violated a 2004 preservation agreement and was also in defiance of a Dec. 20 protection ruling by the state's top preservation official.

Within hours, a demolition crew had stripped the stone from the facade of a 1962 modernist addition to the former headquarters of the Philadelphia Life Insurance Co.

Leadbetter's order does not guarantee that the structures will survive, but it ensures that the conjoined pair will remain standing at least until after Mayor-elect Michael Nutter takes office on Jan. 7. She asked both sides to appear in her Harrisburg courtroom for legal arguments the next day.

"This freezes the situation," said John Gallery, the Preservation Alliance's executive director, after learning that the injunction had been granted. "They [Department of General Services] don't have the right to choose which parts of the 2004 agreement they're going to accept."

The alliance wants the department, which coordinates state construction projects, to repair the damage done Saturday through rebuilding the ruined facade, according to the petition filed by Center City lawyer Paul Boni.

Significantly, Leadbetter ordered the department and the Convention Center Authority "to save and preserve" the stone pieces torn off the facade.

In an e-mail sent yesterday, department spokesman Edward Myslewicz reiterated the agency's belief that it had the legal authority to act on its own.

The linked buildings - one a petite neo-classical temple, the other a 1962 addition by the renowned Philadelphia School architect Romaldo Giurgola - had been singled out for preservation in the 2004 legal agreement, signed by the heads of the state Historical and Museum Commission and the Convention Center Authority. Nutter was the authority chairman at the time.

The deal was brokered after lengthy discussions with the alliance and Philadelphia's Historical Commission, and was considered a finely wrought compromise: The city agreed to permit the demolition of several notable buildings in the path of the Convention Center's expansion, including the locally certified Race Street Firehouse. In exchange, the center pledged to incorporate three buildings on the block between Arch and Cherry Streets into its new Broad Street facade.

But after demolition began this summer on the rest of the two-block expansion site, the Department of General Services declared that two of the Broad Street buildings were unsafe, and argued that they could not be salvaged except at great expense. It asked the state historical commission for permission to amend the 2004 agreement and allow demolition.

Months of discussion followed. Finally, on Thursday, commission director Barbara Franco issued a formal opinion that vigorously rejected the department's assertion that the buildings were beyond repair. She instructed the state agency to make good on its 2004 promise to incorporate the pair into the $700 million expansion.

Not only did the department balk at the order from another state agency, it responded two days later by sending work crews to dismantle the buildings. The department claimed through a spokesman that it was not bound by the 2004 agreement because it was not a signatory.

"It doesn't make sense," Gallery said. "Why would DGS spend all that time negotiating with [the historical commission] if they felt they could simply ignore" the 2004 agreement?

Now, more than just two old buildings are at stake. The dispute has escalated into a power struggle between competing entities of state government.

In essence, the credibility of the state historical commission is on the line. It oversees many of the most important historic-preservation projects in the state, and decides which ones qualify for federal tax credits. But if its policies can be unilaterally overruled by another state agency, it could lose the trust of developers, architects and others.

The controversial Convention Center expansion has been one of Gov. Rendell's pet projects, and Gallery noted that "every piece of correspondence was copied to the Governor's Office. The Governor's Office was clearly aware of the disagreement. They clearly had ability to intervene or mediate."

Although the city promised to strip the historic designation from the Race Street Firehouse, a mass of rustic brick turrets and stone gargoyles cloaked in firefighting gear, so it could be demolished for the expansion, it has not yet completed legal action.

"I think the city would be wise to hold off now on decertification," said Alan Greenberger, chairman of the Design Advocacy Group, which has also been fighting the demolitions.

The state and city historical commissions are likely to send lawyers to the Jan. 8 injunction hearing.

A representative from the City Solicitor's Office said yesterday that a city lawyer might also be dispatched. But he added that any policy decision would have to be made by the new Nutter administration.

Read the court order (.pdf) at http://go.philly.com/conventionorder

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

Inquirer staff writer Michael Matza contributed to this article.