Tag Archives: Philadelphia Historical Commission

A Quest for Parity in Historic Preservation and Public Art

What happens when the institutions making the decisions about removing the Christopher Columbus statue from public view are themselves the legacy of systemic racism?

In my WHYY/PlanPhilly essay, I wrote you get the spectacle of the Philadelphia Historical Commission denying protection to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places where John Brown laid his head before the Harpers Ferry Raid. Commission members know the wealthy developer plans to demolish the building to construct cookie-cutter apartments for the “demographic moving to Philly.”

Seven weeks ago, Mayor Jim Kenney announced his desire to remove the Christopher Columbus statue from South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza. The move came in response to violent protests against anyone who dared to challenge the controversial Italian explorer’s place in colonial history. In a tweet, Mayor Jim Kenney said, “Part of reckoning with the legacy of systemic racism means reconsidering what figures deserve to be commemorated in our public spaces.”

Mayor Jim Kenney - Systemic Racism Tweet - June 24, 2020

But what happens when the institutions doing the reckoning – Philadelphia Historical Commission and Philadelphia Art Commission – are themselves the legacy of systemic racism and racial exclusion?

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At the Historical Commission, the white gaze is the default standard for historical or cultural significance. Implicit bias led to the spectacle of commissioners overruling the unanimous vote of the Committee on Historic Designation and denying protection to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places where John Brown laid his head before the Harpers Ferry Raid. While acknowledging the property meets the statutory criteria for designation, the Commission ruled the façade is not “recognizable” because of an 1894 renovation that concealed the original building.

#HenryMinton House - #PhilaHistorical

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#ThisPlaceMatters: Legendary Blue Horizon

After the Civil War, North Broad Street became one of Philadelphia’s leading addresses. North Broad was attractive to wealthy industrialists for two reasons. First, many of their factories and mills were located in nearby industrial areas. Second, the old money crowd in Rittenhouse Square snubbed their noses at the nouveau riche businessmen.

The brownstone mansions that lined North Broad were built to house the families of the industrialists. Between May 1912 and June 1913, the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge 54 acquired three brownstones to establish a new clubhouse. The buildings were renovated with the addition of an auditorium and ballroom.

blue horizon - vintage

In 1961, Jimmy Toppi Sr. purchased the property. Toppi renamed the buildings after “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” a song from the 1930 film Monte Carlo. The Blue Horizon hosted international, regional and state title fights. It was voted the #1 boxing venue in the world by The Ring magazine; Sports Illustrated called it “the last great boxing venue in the country.” The Legendary Blue Horizon closed in June 2010.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission added the Legendary Blue Horizon to the local register of historic landmarks in 2015. However, only the Broad Street façades were protected. Four years later, Orens Bros. is back before the PHC Architecture Committee to seek final approval of its design of the front façades. The developer plans to demolish the brownstones and construct a hotel.

blue horizon - front facade rendering

PHC staff recommended the Committee deny final approval of the design. And indeed it did. The Architecture Committee voted to send the developer back to the drawing board.

All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson provided public comment in support of the Commission staff’s recommendation:

The Legendary Blue Horizon is one of the few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. Before it was a beloved boxing venue, it was an entertainment destination. Duke Ellington performed in the downstairs ballroom that was added on by Philadelphia Lodge No. 54, Loyal Order of Moose.

The Legendary Blue Horizon holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Philadelphians as evidenced by its depiction on the Philadelphia Courthouse Mural commissioned under the Percent for Art Program. As you can see, the iconic stairs figure prominently in Philadelphians’ memories.

blue horizon - philadelphia courthouse mural

I posted the recent Philadelphia Inquirer report about the Orens Bros. proposal to All That Philly Jazz’s Facebook page. The post has gone viral. Why? This place matters.

The proposed hotel is appropriately named since it takes a lot of moxy to seek approval to cheapen a beloved historic landmark with modern add-ons, materials and signage. The proposed design erases the historic character of the front façades.

I agree with the Commission staff that the applicant’s design does not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. It would make a mockery of historic designation if the Committee voted to ignore the standards.

I recognize that financing of the project is outside the purview of this Committee. That said, it is important to note that in an earlier iteration of the project, Orens Bros. received $7 million in grants under Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) for what was then an $18 million project.

Of the $7 million in state grants, Orens Bros. drew down $748,578; the balance of the grants expired. The applicant spent nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in taxpayers’ money and walked away without sealing the buildings. The historic landmark is now exposed to the elements.

The first round of RACP funding applications closes on January 31. I fully expect Orens Bros. will again rattle the cup for a public subsidy for its now $22 million project. If the proposed design is approved, Philadelphians and other taxpayers would effectively pay for the demolition and defacement of a beloved historic landmark.

Orens Bros. Real Estate does not care about the Legendary Blue Horizon, but this Committee can make them care. The application should be denied on the grounds the proposed design does not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, specifically Standards 2, 9 and 10.

The applicant should go back to the drawing board and develop a design that does, in fact, preserve the front façades and respect their historic character.

Orens Bros. can appeal the Architecture Committee’s decision to the full Philadelphia Historical Commission. Or they can accept the “denial with hope” decision. Stay tuned.