Philadelphia is the birthplace of the American democracy and a City of Firsts. While there are thousands of places that matter, only two percent of historic buildings are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Without historic designation, buildings may be demolished with impunity.
Sadly, historic designation provides little protection from demolition by neglect. Without court intervention, that fate may await the Robert Purvis House. Built circa 1859, this is the only extant home of the cofounder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Library Company of Colored People. Because of its association with a leading abolitionist, the house is a significant resource within the Spring Garden Historic District.
In October 1838, the voters of Pennsylvania approved a new state constitution that limited the power of the governor, prohibited the legislature from granting special favors to corporations, and ended life tenure for judges. The new constitution also stripped black Pennsylvanians of their right to vote, a right guaranteed under law since 1790. African Americans had since then lost the ability to vote in some Pennsylvania counties, including Philadelphia. But the constitutional disenfranchisement of black voters was yet another ominous sign of the rising power of the slaveocracy in the United States and of the growing fears of black political and economic power in the state of Pennsylvania.
The appeal quoted above was penned by Robert Purvis, then fast emerging as one of Philadelphia’s most prominent abolitionists. The year before, Purvis was the principal organizer of the Vigilant Association of the Philadelphia, founded to promote the anti-slavery movement and “to create a fund to aid colored persons in distress.” In the decades that followed he and his wife Harriet would use their home to harbor slaves escaping to Canada along the Underground Railroad and Purvis would act as a tireless leader in the struggle not just for the rights of African Americans, but for the equal rights of all Americans, regardless of their race, nationality, or sex.
Noris and Miguel Santiago purchased the Robert Purvis House on December 19, 1977. The couple did not maintain the historic landmark; instead, they racked up years of building code violations.
The slumlords have fought efforts to save the Robert Purvis House. Barbara Wolf has served on the board of the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation since its inception. Wolf said in an email:
The owners of this historic property have repeatedly and persistently failed to take the basic necessary steps, even when court ordered, to maintain and secure this building. Through willful neglect, they have caused the rear of the building to collapse, with resultant city’s demolition because of immediate safety concerns. The son of the owners in a recent court hearing even boldly stated that he wanted the remaining front block of the building to be demolished. This building survived in solid shape for over 100 years before the owners’ purchase in 1977. In a little over 40 years, the rear ell wall has collapsed and the remaining front is seriously deteriorated in an “unsafe” condition.
Wolf’s petition for the appointment of a conservator to restore the Robert Purvis House is supported by the City of Philadelphia. But right now, the property is tangled in a legal morass in federal bankruptcy court. As the result of neglect by financially and morally bankrupt scoundrels, a building that holds stories of organized resistance to slavery may be erased from public memory.
The struggle continues.