Oscar Beisert’s Quest to Save Philadelphia History

Maverick preservationist Oscar Beisert has a dire message for Philadelphians: Act now, before it’s too late.

Illustration by Jon Krause

Illustration by Jon Krause

It’s not quite 5 p.m., and a bunch of haughty-looking Philadelphians are sucking back drinks at an early-bird soiree inside the Union League’s decorous Lincoln Hall. I’m a wallflower (who forgot his tie), waiting for the annual awards ceremony of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia to begin. It’s not my crowd. But then, how many people could say historic preservation is their crowd?

Tonight the winners include the team behind the restoration of a West Philly parking garage and the millennials who put a pop-up bar on top of an old public-school building. They’re celebrated like they’re runners-up at Wimbledon: They take the stage, receive an awkwardly large platter or chalice, and then dismount for a quick photo op. Next!

There’s one award-winner who’s not like the others. In the program, Oscar Beisert’s photograph looks strikingly out of place: dirty-blond hair done up in a spiky ’do, muscled arms clasped behind his head, eyes wide open and peering away from the camera. Everyone else submitted a picture befitting a yearbook. Beisert’s looks tailored for an online dating profile. When his name is called, he shuffles toward the stage in a 19th-century jacket with long tails. The master of ceremonies describes him as “a prolific, independent advocate for historic preservation; to many, he is a guardian angel fighting for the soul of Philadelphia.”

The mild-mannered crowd erupts. A handful of folks in the audience rise in a standing ovation. Beisert grabs his plaque and takes a chair in the last seat of a row, directly by the wall, all by himself.

Beisert — a native Texan who likes to dress entirely in black — is the Lone Ranger of Philly preservation. Over the past two years, he’s become the city’s most passionate and prodigiously effective champion of historic (and not-so-historic) buildings. He’s done this in two ways: first, by filing an insane number of nominations to add properties to the local historic register (thereby generally shielding them from demolition), and second, through blistering critiques of what he sees as the do-nothing Philadelphia Historical Commission. He’s racked up an impressive list of adversaries in the process: the archdiocese, at least one member of the black clergy, numerous deep-pocketed developers, and the executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, Jon Farnham, whom Beisert playfully refers to as “Farny.” So far, he’s only been sued once.

Beisert isn’t on the boards of any organizations, isn’t an activist by training, and lacks political ambition — which makes him something of an enigma in a town where everybody seems to be working an angle. He’s just a guy who believes that preservation is much, much more than a nice idea or a plump topic for cocktail conversation. Beisert considers his preservation agenda to be nothing less than a full-blown alternative to the Philadelphia of the future that we’ve been hurtling toward.

Philadelphians have long been force-fed the idea, by everyone from Ed Bacon to development cheerleader-in-chief Ed Rendell, that large-scale “improvements” — skyscrapers, convention centers, freeways, condo towers — offer the only escape from the post-industrial doldrums. Beisert’s provocative proposition is that this conventional wisdom is catastrophically wrong. He believes Philly’s greatest strength is its individuality, the literal brick-and-
mortar makeup that differentiates it from the numbingly homogenous vibe of most big U.S. cities. Beisert argues that we can decide to go another route — the way of Brussels or Prague — and still be a thriving, modern metropolis.

Beisert believes that Philadelphia still has a choice — though not for much longer.

Over a frenzied 18 months, Oscar Beisert has almost single-handedly gotten 20 buildings placed on Philadelphia’s historic register, thus protecting them from demolition. Pictured throughout the rest of this story is a smattering of what he has saved, from 19th-century churches to Italianate homes in West Philly to the shell of an old elevator company in Fishtown. | Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Over a frenzied 18 months, Oscar Beisert has almost single-handedly gotten 20 buildings placed on Philadelphia’s historic register, thus protecting them from demolition. Pictured throughout the rest of this story is a smattering of what he has saved, from 19th-century churches to Italianate homes in West Philly to the shell of an old elevator company in Fishtown. | Photograph by Claudia Gavin

PRESERVING THE PAST is a losing battle. Metal rusts, wood decays, the circle of life, all that. But in Philly, the apparatus for protecting buildings — as long as humanly possible, at least — is especially delicate. Only about two percent of the city’s buildings are designated as historic, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. That’s a paltry total for a city as aged as Philadelphia, where almost 70 percent of the buildings were built before 1945. In Washington, D.C., 19 percent of structures are officially considered historic; in Baltimore, it’s close to six percent; in Manhattan, 28.

Much of what Philadelphia has kept — what Beisert calls our “embarrassment of riches” — is standing by happenstance. Between the city’s declining population and high construction costs, it rarely made economic sense to knock down old buildings to make way for new ones. It was preservation by inertia, the unlooked-for upside of 60 years of urban stagnation.

That was then. Now, though, decades’ worth of pent-up development have been unleashed, and cranes and bulldozers and wrecking balls are terraforming Philadelphia before our eyes. And so the forces of economic development and preservation are colliding in a steel-cage match. In one corner, volunteer preservationists are kneecapping developers by getting buildings added to the historic register that would otherwise be turned to rubble. In the other corner, high-priced lawyers and their clients are wielding demo permits like folding chairs to the backs of their opponents. Playing referee is the historical commission, the bureaucrats tasked with arbitrating the register, who are, naturally, loathed by all. Beisert stands at the very center of this melee.

Rowhomes on Chestnut Street in West Philly. | Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Rowhomes on Chestnut Street in West Philly. | Photograph by Claudia Gavin

When he arrives at One Shot Coffee in Northern Liberties — “the only old building left on the block,” Beisert jokes — he’s wearing a black pullover, washed-out black jeans and black boots, and is clutching a black leather satchel with gold trim. Aside from a touch of Allure Homme cologne, the ensemble is entirely consistent with his usual casual-Friday-at-the-funeral-home look. “I’m in mourning,” he says — for lost edifices.

Beisert orders a four-shot Americano before we begin driving through Northern Liberties in his black Mini Cooper. He hates this neighborhood. At the intersection of Poplar and 3rd, the former Ortlieb’s brewery has been bulldozed to make room for long rows of identical four-story residences — what Beisert likes to call “stick houses” — that are pinching Ortlieb’s bar like a pimple waiting to be popped. “The historian in me should be very happy about the rowhouses being built, because it means that the Philadelphia spirit and tradition is going on,” he says. “But it’s at the expense of everything that is interesting about the neighborhood. Basically, every industrial building is gone.”

Today, he’s offered to show me how much of the city is unprotected — examples of buildings he thinks I’ll be dismayed to know aren’t on the local register. At nearly every turn, I’m getting grilled like a market-research participant. “Would you think that’s historic?” he asks, pointing at a nondescript brick building by the waterfront. “What do you think about that block?” I equivocate but can’t help thinking that losing old buildings is natural for a town in transition — growing pains for a city that’s long needed a boost. Each generation wrangles with what stays and what goes in the built environment, and at times Beisert can sound like a Luddite.

But eventually, after we drive through the River Wards, Germantown and South Philly, I start to see his point. Beisert shows me a slew of 19th-century (and even 18th-century) structures (and former structures) that have either been lost or are endangered, including the debris of Pennsport’s Mount Sinai Hospital, once a majestic medical fortress that was called “the Divine Lorraine of South Philadelphia.” Beisert looks away when we pass. “Slowly but surely,” he says, “all of the churches, factories, banks — all those things are being demolished.” Beisert would like to keep almost everything: old stable houses, warehouses, your standard-issue rowhomes. To him, these are essential to the city’s European aesthetic (“its old-world quality,” he says) — part and parcel of what makes Philly unique.

Beisert is onto something here. Philly doesn’t offer much in the way of jobs, and it’s not as bleeding-edge hip as a Portland or Austin. For many new arrivals, Philly’s appeal seems attributable to a handful of factors: the convenient geography; the ineffable Phillyness of Philly; and the look, feel and lived experience of the physical city itself — its walkability, its distinctiveness and, yes, its historic nature.

If Philadelphia ceases to feel like Philly, who’s to say people keep coming? And, Beisert argues, it’s simply not necessary to sacrifice the city’s aesthetic to court and accommodate newcomers, considering there are a gob-smacking 40,000 vacant parcels to build on throughout Philadelphia. Plus, there are national tax credits that incentivize rehabbing the interiors of old properties.

For a peek into Beisert’s vision of Philadelphia’s future, look at La Colombe’s inspired re-imagining of an old warehouse in Fishtown. Look at the redevelopment of the Divine Lorraine. Look at the conversion of a Victorian-era dye factory in Kensington, which has been made into affordable housing for teachers. Or, on a larger scale, there’s Rome and Amsterdam and Budapest and dozens of other European capitals — cities where visible historicity has been blended with interior chic.

“You can make the city look reused and renovated without leveling everything to the ground,” Beisert says.

But this isn’t Budapest, and what Beisert is bumping up against is an American values system that considers property rights to be as fundamental as apple pie, plus a cultural bias that presumes what’s old is obsolete and what’s new is superior. Beisert’s altogether uncommon fervor for preservation rubs a lot of people the wrong way. This doesn’t bother him whatsoever. “There are a lot of people who think I’m a radical,” he says casually.

IN THE DECADES after the historical commission was established in 1955, most of the properties on the register were nominated by the commission itself. Fast-forward to today, and the vast majority of nominations are generated by historically minded organizations (most notably the nonprofit Preservation Alliance) or individuals (most notably Beisert). The historical commission — which, by the way, is a city agency, comprised of mayoral appointees and city officials — nominates a handful every year. This dynamic has created an abnormally stunted historical registry for a city as old as Philadelphia: There are roughly 11,000 properties on the list, and that is expanding at a snail’s pace. Between 2008 and 2015, the historical commission added only 56 properties per year, a number that includes buildings incorporated in historic districts.

Given that, one might think Beisert’s energetic efforts would be welcomed by the commission. Not so much. “My nominations have hardly been received with open arms,” he says. “It’s more like an annoyance. I file too many.”

First African Baptist Church in Grad Hospital. | Photography by Bradley Maule

First African Baptist Church in Grad Hospital. | Photography by Bradley Maule

To illustrate, Beisert points to his relationship with Jon Farnham, the commission’s executive director. (Farny, remember?) These are two men who, in theory anyway, are agents for the same cause. But Beisert insists on depicting Farnham not just as a rival, but as a tool of the developers, an unwitting wrecking ball cloaked as a preservationist. He forwards me an email exchange between the two of them from last spring as evidence. It begins with Beisert inquiring about the status of one of his nominations:

Could you provide a status update on the Edward Corner Warehouse? As you likely know, the building is vulnerable to a proposed demolition and it would be an irrecoverable loss to Fishtown.

Farnham, a day later, responds:

I have no one on the staff currently available to review the nomination. I will assign someone to review it as soon as possible, but it could be several weeks.

Then Beisert again, after four minutes:

Are you serious?

Farnham, the following morning, chides back:

I will not respond again to a glib email like the one you sent me yesterday afternoon. When you email me, you are corresponding with a government agency, not texting a friend.

Some might blanch at being dressed down by a senior city official as an etiquette-challenged, upstart millennial. Not Beisert. “The city should’ve been protecting these things a long time ago,” he says. “The way I’m doing this is not the way you should do preservation, but now we’re in this phase where they haven’t done anything during this development boom.”

In the first full term of Farnham’s appointment (he served two and a half years as interim executive director), 449 properties have been added to the register. By comparison, during his predecessor Richard Tyler’s tenure, the commission added three and a half times more properties per year. Farnham chalks up the commission’s leisurely pace to a lack of money and resources in the face of swelling bureaucratic demands. “We’ve actually tried to devote more resources to designation and other matters, because we’re as interested as anyone in preserving historic resources,” he says. But the law requires the commission to rule on building permits for historically designated buildings within 60 days, a job that’s eating up more and more of his staff’s time. On one level, Farnham’s explanation checks out — objectively, there are many more permits for the commission to weigh now than in the past. But what a profoundly small and sad excuse that is for an office charged with preserving Philadelphia’s historic buildings. And there’s no better proof of the lameness of this defense than the work of Oscar Beisert.

“One of the great ironies of this is that things are [now] getting designated at a higher rate specifically because Oscar is designating them,” says Aaron Wunsch, a Penn professor of architectural preservation whose reflexive pessimism makes Beisert look like a cream puff. “Here you have a preservation alliance — a supposedly leading nonprofit in a large city — and you have the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Neither one of them is designating things at the rate that one guy — who has a full-time job that is not this — has managed to do. So doesn’t that tell you something about these capacity arguments?”

MIDWAY THROUGH OUR DRIVE, Beisert drops by Berkshire Hathaway in Mount Airy. He’s been trying to find a fixer-upper to buy in the Northwest for months now and keeps getting outbid. For the past two years, he’s been crashing at a friend’s house while renting out the four properties he owns in Washington. (His day job is at a regional FEMA office. He doesn’t like to talk about it.) The Apartment Therapy blog described one of his D.C. units as “Victorian meets risqué”; in pictures, it strikes me as Grandma-Goes-to-Punk-Rock-Flea-Market. There are vintage velvet sofas, ornate wooden carvings, and suggestive art that’s earned Beisert a few bad reviews on Airbnb.

It’s said that photographers see the world in frames. Beisert looks at life as if he’s wearing a Google Glass feeding him encyclopedic knowledge of the city all the time. On our tour, he narrates the intricate lives of Philadelphians and the legacies of industrial companies that have been defunct for a century as if they’re memories from his childhood.

Surely there are PhDs who know more about dormers and gambrel roofs than Beisert. But I doubt that many of them can make a layman care about the built environment of a city as easily as Beisert does. He’s basically self-taught, a guy who in his downtime reads titles like Philadelphia: A 300-Year History and A Field Guide to American Houses and hangs out at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania every Wednesday night.

People with backgrounds in architecture generally don’t have an activist bone in their body. And born activists rarely make inanimate objects their raison d’être (particularly in Philly, given the calamitous problems with deep poverty and education and gun violence). Beisert splits the difference with ease. He’s charming, his mind is a memory palace, and like all great activists, he’s utterly relentless. It’s no coincidence that more individual properties were placed on the register in 2015 than in any year since the ’80s. Half were Beisert’s doing.

Over the course of this story, we exchanged 3,019 Facebook messages. They ranged from digressive notes about his odd tastes (like his “transsexual Hindu angel” sculpture) to sarcastic self-deprecation (“Mr Beisert is a hermaphrodical, passionate man who perhaps spends too much time writing nominations and not enough time at the gym”) to occasional observations about me. After significant pondering, he told me he’d come up with my doppelgänger: George Lippard, an obscure antebellum novelist I’d never heard of. And I’m the one who majored in Victorian-era literature.

Beisert has always had this historical bent, even though he grew up in a place pretty devoid of markers from the past: a small town outside of Houston. “It was like a Desperate Housewives episode,” he says. “Grotesque.” Houston has no zoning laws, unlike every other big U.S. city: “Ever since I was a little kid, I remember thinking that where we lived didn’t look right, but I didn’t quite understand why.”

Second Associate Presbyterian Church in Fishtown. | Photograph by Oscar Beisert

Second Associate Presbyterian Church in Fishtown. | Photograph by Oscar Beisert

It wasn’t until he was in grad school a decade ago — he got a master’s in American studies at Penn State — that Beisert discovered Philly. He’d often come into town to hit the gay bars on Camac Street. The narrow walkway felt medieval and foreign, and Beisert noticed that unlike other cities (Boston, for one), downtown Philly wasn’t built on top of its oldest neighborhoods. There was way more history still standing than he’d ever imagined, including delicacies like the wooden houses across from Penn Treaty Park: “I figured they wouldn’t be there unless they were protected.” But they weren’t on the register.

Undoubtedly, he wasn’t the first to have this revelation. So why did nobody before Beisert, a 34-year-old Texan, force the issue quite the way he has? For one, preservation is “a pretty small echo chamber,” says Kathy Dowdell, an architect who was formerly on the board of the alliance and occasionally testifies at historical commission meetings. For people with no training in historical research and no preexisting exposure to the designation process, the barrier to entry can be steep. Second, before this age of mass demolition — the city hit an all-time high of 275 demolition permits in 2014, and it’s on track to set a new record in 2016 — the impetus to protect buildings wasn’t so strong. Lastly, if you believe in the whole Quaker-inferiority-
complex thing, Philadelphians simply lacked the self-respect and pride to believe our buildings merited protection. “Sometimes it just takes an outsider coming into town to wake up everyone up,” says Dowdell.

Beisert’s outsider status has also meant he didn’t inherit the presumption that Rittenhouse and Old City are more worthy of historical protection than other neighborhoods. If anything, he’s less interested in protecting the relics of aristocrats than in fighting for overlooked historic resources, such as unheralded
African-American landmarks. Even when it gets him in hot water.

Last summer, Beisert faced a torrent of criticism after filing a nomination (at the request of some congregants) for the First African Baptist Church, home of the oldest African-American Baptist congregation in the city. Pastor Terrence Griffith had planned to sell the Grad Hospital church to a developer with plans to demolish it. Griffith framed the choice as between saving the cash-strapped congregation or the church — and attacked Beisert as a crusader for the wrong cause. “You have folks who don’t belong to the community who are initiating the nomination, and they have no vested interest in the church,” Griffith told the Tribune. (Griffith couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.)

Beisert prevailed, and the win helped establish his reputation as the go-to guy whenever a neighborhood group or small constituency is having historical
preservation problems. Nobody can whip up a nomination faster — pro bono,
typically — and nobody is more pugnacious at historical commission meetings. Though initially he was nominating properties all by his lonesome, Beisert has increasingly been appearing as a co-author, as on the nominations for the Union Baptist Church at 12th and Bainbridge (where Marian Anderson learned to sing as a child) and a host of properties in Fishtown. “Oscar has definitely democratized nomination-writing,” says Dowdell. “He’s embraced people who wouldn’t necessarily have thought about it, because you have to be a little bit nuts to plunge into this.”

This is all part of Beisert’s master plan to create what he gleefully calls a “preservation mafia” that in time, he hopes, can generate exponentially more nominations than he can on his own.

LET’S PUMP THE BRAKES for a second. There’s plenty to celebrate about our current development boom. Home values are reaching record highs. Construction of new housing units (another metric on the rise) has led to new jobs and increased density for a region that in recent years has struggled with employment and sprawl. The fact that Beisert has thrust preservation into the center ring is itself another indicator of robust growth and grounded hopes for a better future. When Philly was in free fall, hardly anyone cared about preservation. Preservation matters, certainly, but is it quite as paramount as Beisert maintains? Is the city’s intrinsic look and feel really at risk? We’re talking about a few hundred demolitions of private property each year, many of them dilapidated eyesores.

“The sky isn’t falling,” says Matt McClure, a Ballard Spahr real estate attorney. There’s a natural tension between preservation and development interests, he says, but less discussed is how a strong market — such as the one we’re in now — can harness cash and energy to adapt and reuse historic buildings whether they’re designated or not. Think about the revival of historic Fairmount. Or Spring Garden. Or Frankford Avenue in Fishtown. “If there wasn’t a good market, a lot of these buildings would just be mothballs,” McClure says. “We had demolition by stagnation before, and now we have, you know, a rising tide that lifts all boats, which means that people are putting money into historic properties as well.”

Saint Laurentius Church in Fishtown. | Photograph by Bradley Maule

Saint Laurentius Church in Fishtown. | Photograph by Bradley Maule

That might be true, but there’s no common ground to be found when developers and preservation advocates do battle at the historical commission. Not when multi-million-dollar developments are at risk of being thwarted by designations. Not when Beisert has been nominating in binges, resulting in five-hour-long meetings. Nope, things get heated.

At a recent session, developer Jason Nusbaum (who, it should be noted, has rehabbed several historic buildings) called Beisert a “zealot”: “It seems to me that it’s an abuse of the preservation code to allow someone who doesn’t have an economic stake in a particular property to go around the entire city and nominate properties for designation.” Not to be outdone, a few minutes later a different nomination sparked Ballard Spahr attorney Michael Sklaroff to call Beisert’s attempt “careless or intentionally misleading” and lacking the “intellectual rigor necessary to encumber private property restrictions.” The word libelous made an appearance in the discussion.

Each nomination consists of 20 to 40 pages of deep-researched material (for example, the deed history, architectural changes to the property and a bibliography) that gets picked apart like a thesis by a commission committee. The information in the nomination must be bulletproof enough to stand up in court. Beisert knows this better than anyone. In Washington, D.C., where he lived prior to moving here, a developer brought a federal (!) antitrust lawsuit (!!) against him for $25 million (!!!) after he successfully got a chunk of properties added to the D.C. register. The developer accused Beisert of conspiring to ruin his business. After Beisert spent $12,000 in legal fees, the judge dismissed the suit.

Does Beisert enjoy sticking it to developers? Well, maybe a little. “Only because their arguments are so ludicrous,” he says. “I would much rather see these developers reuse these buildings and not fight over it.”

And how can Beisert worry about manners when all around the city, the wrecking ball is swinging? The Whitman’s Chocolates factory in Old City, Fishtown’s Pilgrim Congregational Church, the Colonial Revival building at Broad and Locust — these are just a few of the notable structures that have been obliterated in recent months. Now under way is the demolition of the handsome old carpet factory at 21st and Race that housed the Please Touch Museum before that moved to bigger digs in Fairmount Park. Initial plans called for Toll Brothers to erect 35 condos on the site.

When I ask Farnham about these properties, he affirms that the historical commission considered them for nomination but decided they weren’t historically significant enough to put on the register. “We can’t save everything. We can’t even save most things. But we can save the most important and the most exemplary and the most characteristic,” Farnham says. Triage, basically, and not nearly enough for Beisert’s liking. “That’s a very sad quote to hear from the principal steward of historic properties,” he says. “Philadelphia would become a city where every so often there’s an old building, rather than a place where each neighborhood has a distinct, cohesive feel.”

WEEKS LATER, I get a text from Beisert: He got the house. The loan went through for a squat Gothic cottage in Germantown. I ask him whether he’s excited. Beisert parries with a history lesson: “What’s crazy about the building is it was one of two houses built side by side by Isaac Pugh. His wife Elizabeth arrived in America with her parents and the Priestley family. They were Unitarians. Priestley went on to invent a theory on oxygen.”

All this historical immersion got me thinking: What time period would Beisert transport to if he got his hands on a DeLorean with a working flux capacitor? His answer: the mid-1800s. “I love the way they look, the way they dress. In a way, everything looks miserable,” he tells me on our tour of the city. (And he wonders why developers don’t always embrace his point of view.) Then Beisert turns to me and asks my opinion of the people in Dickens’s time: “Do you think they were sad?”

The former Morse Elevator Works in Fishtown. | Photograph by Bradley Maule

The former Morse Elevator Works in Fishtown. | Photograph by Bradley Maule

After I note the copious amounts of ale consumed during that era, I wonder whether there’s a deeper level to his question. He’s asked similar ones a few times over the course of our conversations. I can only assume it’s lonely when you’re perceived as an oddball — or, worse, as some sort of fanatic at war against property rights. Beisert gave up dating for a couple of years, devoting most of his nights and weekends to being in front of the computer or at neighborhood association meetings. And if I didn’t respond to his Facebook queries for a day or two, he’d impatiently wonder: “Have you lost interest?” Any sense of personal gratification from his work is fleeting: For every building saved, thousands more properties remain unprotected. Beisert calls his candidates for the register “friendless buildings.”

“Right now, you’re seeing the cornerstone buildings of every neighborhood destroyed for very bland, very bottom-line developments,” Beisert says. “In my ideal world, you would preserve a sense of place.” The choice Beisert talks about, the one about what kind of city Philly ought to be — we’re making that decision every day.

Published as “Stop” in the August 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.