Historic designation would harm Boys and Girls Club of Germantown and youth it serves

A view of the Boys and Girls Club of Germantown from West Penn Street.

Contrary to the Aug. 9 “Viewpoint” piece by Kiki Bolender supporting historic designation of the Boys and Girls Club of Germantown, historic designation in this case would end up harming the club and the 7,000 youths it seeks to serve.

For the last four years, the club has planned to demolish its building to construct a modern facility that will include classrooms, a gymnasium, and an ice hockey rink.

Although these plans have been in the works for years, only last year a group organized to persuade the Philadelphia Historical Commission to designate the building as historic and therefore protected from demolition. Not only is the timing of the application suspect but the actual application for designation falls short of the standards for such a document — particularly given its impact on the organization and their project. The Historical Commission’s own executive director, Jon Farnham, recommended against the nomination in his prefatory remarks to the Designation Committee on April 19, finding aspects of it “superficial,” “patently untrue,” and incomplete.

In addition, on the club’s behalf, I prepared a thoroughly researched report, concluding that designation was not warranted given the building’s current physical condition, its inability to satisfy the heightened criteria for life safety and accessibility for the child users, and the prohibitive costs renovation would pose to the club. Contrary to the published “Viewpoint,” I have devoted my long career to working on preserving historic buildings, including the restoration of the prize-winning Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and University of Pennsylvania Fisher Fine Arts Library, to name just two examples, as well as hundreds of historic tax-certified rehabilitations. I co-founded the University of Pennsylvania’s Preservation Program and currently serve as co-director of the Graduate School of Design’s Critical Conservation Program at Harvard University. I brought all of my experience to bear in preparing my report to the Historical Commission.

Both the club — and now the Historic Commission — are faced with a critical choice: Is the club permitted to build a 21st -century structure that meets contemporary program needs of its community while providing security, safety, and access for able and handicapped children? Or, is the club compelled instead to hold on to an outmoded building that would require massive reconstruction at enormous cost that would not, in the end, provide for the contemporary program and operation needs of the club’s base?

As I concluded in my report, “Fundamentally, the nomination turns the idea of historic preservation on its head, because, if the designation is granted, the historic use and purpose of this site will fail to be preserved to the detriment of the Boys and Girls Club and the community it has served for decades. Designation risks causing the club to have to abandon this site and the thousands of children within its service area.” The commission should accept the sound judgment of Farnham, its executive director, and reject the nomination.

George E. Thomas is a cultural and architectural historian at CivicVisions in Philadelphia.