A plan to partially demolish one of the grand old buildings of Chinatown — the former Chinese Cultural and Community Center, in the heart of the neighborhood — is facing opposition from residents and the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. (PCDC).
A PCDC petition asking the city to save the landmark had gained more than 3,300 signatures by Thursday, surpassing the goal of 2,500.
“If our community members want Chinatown to exist for our children, grandchildren, and future generations, we must stop the destruction of Chinatown and our historic buildings,” the petition states. “We must tell the city government that it should forbid the demolition of this iconic and historic building.”
The building, noted for its Chinese architectural accents and grand doorway, is just north of the Chinatown Friendship Gate on North 10th Street. In the 1950s, it housed the Chinatown YMCA and then served as the cultural center.
Though vacant for some years, it was long a hub of Chinatown life, the place where dignitaries met and lavish New Year’s banquets were thrown. The building was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 2013.
“We care very much about this building, because it has great significance to the community,” said PCDC executive director John Chin.
The property is owned by PA Zhangs Associates, which bought it for $1.8 million in May 2018, according to city real-estate records. Today the property is estimated to be worth $2.1 million.
Contact information for the ownership group could not be located on Thursday.
Chin said he and PCDC staff members met with the owners and learned they plan to demolish three of the building’s four walls and the roof. Condominiums would be created in the rear of the property and a restaurant in the front, he said, and a city demolition permit has been applied for.
PCDC staffers told the owners that any work on such an important building would require a team of experts, including architects and engineers who understand older structures, and an architect familiar with Chinese design.
“We straight-up told them that this building has such value to our community in Philadelphia, nothing should be demolished,” Chin said.
Parts of the property date to its construction in 1831-32, records show, but its current appearance stems from later additions and alterations, including two carved stone reliefs and a jade-color glazed-tile roof. The second and third stories are defined by traditional red balconies.
Today the entrance is covered by plywood, but it once offered a welcome fit for an emperor: a pair of large red doors, defined by bronze lion-head doorknockers. A sign above the door contained five gold Chinese characters for “Chinese Youth Club.”
The Chinatown Y opened as a tenant in the building in 1955, when the modern neighborhood was still creating itself. After World War II, more liberal immigration policies saw new arrivals in Chinatown, records show, and the neighborhood shifted toward being a place for families.
The YMCA was founded by T.T. Chang, who became known as the “Mayor of Chinatown,” and who later bought the property and made it into the cultural center.