Don't let race and class issues stand in the way of Germantown club's historic designation | Opinion

The Boys and Girls Club in Germantown, an 1898 building designed by Mantle Fielding.

The Design Advocacy Group (DAG) strongly supports the historic designation of 23 W. Penn St., known as the Boys and Girls Club of Germantown, as an important historic asset for that neighborhood and Philadelphia.

Members of the DAG Steering Committee are architects, planners, historians, and urban advocates. We believe someone needs to stand up for our respective professions in the face of biased and subjective reports commissioned by club leaders, who not only are unfamiliar with historic buildings, but seem to fear them.

Germantown abounds in buildings that trace the history of the city, socially and architecturally. Taken in relation to one another they make up a neighborhood whose architectural character is unrivaled anywhere else in the city. Similarly, Germantown is known for the intense involvement of its citizens. There aren’t really 99 civic groups there, but sometimes it feels that way. Yes, there is poverty, but no, this is not a ghetto in need of a savior.

Spaces in the more than 100-year-old building embody what has been called “the poetics of space.” Per the criteria as stated in the Philadelphia Code, this building is an excellent candidate for historic designation. It “has significant character, interest, or value as part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the city, commonwealth, or nation.” No one would argue against the significance of the Boys (and later Girls) Clubs in Philadelphia and in this country. That history is evident in their buildings. The Shane Victorino Nicetown Club on Hunting Park Avenue is another wonderful historic building. Likewise, the building, “owing to its unique location or singular physical characteristic, represents an established and familiar visual feature of the neighborhood, community, or city.”

For all its human and architectural treasures, Germantown is a neighborhood at a tipping point. If this building were torn down and replaced by a suburban-style complex, not only would the adjacent neighborhood suffer, but nearby parcels owned by the club would inevitably be turned into parking lots.

A local historian hired by club leadership wrote a remarkably emotional and tone-deaf report arguing that the building should be demolished. The writer lacks experience in actually renovating buildings, but that is a minor defect when compared with the biases of his main argument. He posits that those neighbors who support historic designation do so because they are racists, and cites the nomination’s “failure to disclose the real purpose of the nomination,” which he believes is “merely to prevent the construction of a new facility that would markedly improve the situation for the user community.” He also asserts that the nomination “assumes that racial segregation is a social or cultural norm.” He comes to the head-scratching conclusion that the neighbors’ desire to save the club’s building is “an attempt to force the club out of its neighborhood and away from its long-term setting.”

It is likely that anyone reading this is aware that architecture, planning, zoning, and historic preservation have all been used as cudgels to enforce white privilege. Most of history has been written from the position of white privilege. But the club’s hired historian is mistaken when he assigns those motives to this nomination.

Respectfully, the Design Advocacy Group urges the Historical Commission to file away the report commissioned by the Germantown Boys and Girls Club leaders at the very back of a very dark closet, and to designate 23 W. Penn St. as an important building in Philadelphia’s past and future.

Do some classes of society deserve fine old buildings and others don’t?  Describing this building in the context of a largely African American community, the hired historian states, “Its architectural character is meaningless to its user group at best, at worst it is evidence of a hand-me-down past to the present user group.”

Actually, no. White people don’t have a monopoly on appreciating architectural character and fine old buildings. Kids of all classes and races deserve places where they can play, dream, be inspired, and have their spirits uplifted by architecture.

Kiki Bolender is an architect, and immediate past chair of DAG. It meets the first Thursday of the month at 1218 Arch St., and the public is welcome to attend. For more information, visit facebook/design advocacy. kiki@bolenderarchitects.com