Philly’s Rapid Redevelopment Is Putting Its Architectural Character at Risk

The city’s look is changing faster than it ever has — but whose version of Philly are we building?

philly architecture

Is all this redevelopment putting Philly architecture at risk?
Photograph of The Met by Department of Records

When the owners of Capogiro Gelato Artisans announced they were closing all locations in December, my social media feeds exploded. There was mass mourning; people were tweeting, “What circle of hell must we be in?” with a proliferation of crying emojis.

Personally, I’ve never been much of a frozen-dessert enthusiast. When all the other kids were gobbling up ice cream and screaming “Brain freeze!” with delight in grade school, I was dabbing my ice-cream cone with my tongue like it was a live grenade. Even now, I prefer pudding, which might explain why I’d only been to Capogiro once. I had few associations with it, yet its demise was devastating whole swaths of my social circle. What was I missing?

Of course, the mourning wasn’t really about the gelato, just as my heartbreak over the closure of Little Pete’s had nothing to do with french fries. For many people, a particular Capogiro had been the locus of ritual and community — evenings with a high-school posse, romantic first dates that led to marriage, excursions after the birth of a newborn as a freshly minted family.

The whole thing reminded me, once again, of how my sense of the city is colored by the limitations of my personal experience. Some people felt Capogiro was the very essence of Philly. I’d felt the same way about the long-gone movie theaters on Chestnut Street. My father probably had the same sense about some landmark in the Northeast that he grew up with. None of us were wrong. We were just experiencing different Philadelphias.

These days, the city is changing quickly, so the different Philadelphias multiply. In the past 10 years, there’s been a construction and development boom that’s transformed aspects of the city we take for granted, including the skyline. In 2018, the historic chocolate factory at 21st and Washington was torn down to make way for apartments and townhomes. The 1890 Christian Street Baptist Church, beloved by its Bella Vista neighbors, was razed so its land could become a vacant lot that was sold for townhouse development. Creswell Iron Works in Logan Square, one of the only vestiges of Philadelphia’s industrial past, was demolished to become residential units and a parking garage. Meanwhile, at the beginning of 2018, there were 29 high-rises under construction, several of which are now nearing completion or well on their way. In fact, 2018 saw the highest number of demolition permits issued since 2006.

After I found myself uncharacteristically out of step with the Philly zeitgeist post-Capogiro, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the notion of what Philly is keeps changing. So I put the question out on Facebook: “When you go to another city and you think, ‘This is nothing like Philly,’ what does ‘like Philly’ mean to you?” In other words: What makes Philly Philly?

Many answers were, as expected, inflected by personal history or neighborhood specificity: “the old Stroehmann’s Bread clock that I could see from my terrace,” “the smell of horse poop in Old City,” “the turn the K bus makes headed down Chelten Avenue,” “the big hill streets in Wissahickon.”

There were references to trash and rude people and Gritty and soft pretzels, of course, and there was also a high-minded consideration of the city’s conception as a utopian experiment.

But many answers referenced the same physical features: the narrow streets and walkable grid, the rowhouses and trinities, the variety of architecture, from Colonial to Victorian, from red brick to Wissahickon schist. People mentioned Boathouse Row, the Parkway, City Hall, Independence Hall, the Art Museum — none of which were built after 1930. The answers revealed that the city’s vibe, its calling card, could be encapsulated by one word: history.

Unfortunately, many of the city’s residents don’t care enough about this historic legacy. When an old building is knocked down — especially a building that’s been vacant for a while — there is no Capogiro-style mourning on social media. Rather, you’ll see the same small group of advocates and organizations chronicling the death, from anxious posts about orange demolition notices to photos of the inevitable teardown. That’s pretty much it. No crying emojis in sight.

For some reason, the fate of old architecture doesn’t easily get Philly residents riled up. Yet the built environment — from the smallest corner shops to the biggest tourist attractions — is what makes this city eternally unique, even as tastes change. There was once a time (in the 1950s) when government officials considered tearing City Hall down. Private developers nearly demolished Independence Hall in the early 1800s. Without those two buildings, would Philly still be Philly?

Every time I go to a used bookstore or thrift shop, no matter the city, I look for artifacts from Philadelphia. Chalk it up to my relentless parochialism, which is both my superpower and my Achilles’ heel. Not long ago, I found an old paperback edition of Architecture in Philadelphia: A Guide, first published in 1974. Compiled by Edward Teitelman and Richard Longstreth, the book begins with a historic review of Philly’s architecture, highlighting its remarkable heterogeneity, citing examples of Georgian, Romantic, Beaux Arts and International Style and more.

It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed the note written on the opening page: “To Sandra & Elliot: Here’s to discovering things we never knew were there but are all around us. And to the growth of good lasting friendships.”

That note, written by someone named Julie in 1983, represents the power of Philadelphia’s historic character and the way its architectural diversity offers the potential for discovery and surprise. I reached out to one of the book’s authors, Richard Longstreth, who’s now a professor emeritus of American studies at George Washington University, to ask him why Philadelphia’s sense of character matters.

“Character helps define a place,” he said. “Center City is really quite remarkable in that it has very tall commercial buildings, it has 18th-century rowhouses, many of them quite small, and everything in between, in a fairly compact area that spans well over 200 years now. Philadelphia is as rich as any urban core gets in North America, architecturally.”

Longstreth also talked about the rowhouses that define so many neighborhoods, the “semi-pastoral landscape” of Northwest Philadelphia, and the large 18th-century country houses in Fairmount Park. Such an inventory has broad implications. Ed McMahon at the Urban Land Institute wrote in 2012, “A community’s unique identity … adds economic and social value.” He continued, “A distinctive city is a city that the young and well-educated want to live in, that boomers want to retire to, and most certainly a city that people want to visit.”

This was true for musician Dave Hartley, who recently returned to Philly after a European tour with his band, the War on Drugs. The bassist, who also records as a solo artist under the moniker Nightlands, grew up in Frederick, Maryland, and moved to Philadelphia around 2003. “I didn’t plan on moving here. I came here with a car full of stuff, and I haven’t left,” he says. “The city sort of wrapped its arms around me.”

The city’s character is a significant part of its appeal for Hartley. “Philadelphia still has a personality and identity — more of an identity than any city in the U.S.,” he says. “The thing that made Fishtown such a bubbly music petri dish is how densely peopled it is. It’s a neighborhood where the houses are so close together — my own house is, like, 12 feet wide. There’s a reason this wouldn’t have worked if you had taken the same exact people — Kurt Vile, Jack Rose, Brian McTear, the other people making music in the aughts — and sprinkled them in a suburb in New Jersey. It only works when you compress people into a small space, when people are bumping into each other at coffee shops and bars and shows and recording studios.”

Hartley made me think of something McMahon was concerned about in 2012 — the proliferation of chains, removing the differences between places. “Today, if you were suddenly dropped along a road outside of most American cities or towns, you wouldn’t have the slightest idea where you were because it all looks the same,” McMahon wrote. “Over the past 50 years, many of the world’s cityscapes and townscapes have gone from the unique to the uniform, from the stylized to the standardized.”


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But not Philadelphia. Not yet. When Hartley got back from his latest tour with the War on Drugs, he posted a slideshow on Instagram with the caption “I ♥ PHL.” The first photo was of a few very Philadelphia buildings — red and beige brick historic rowhouses topped by cornices. Such historic facades are key to Philly’s distinctive character, and they were classic “PHL” for Hartley. Yet so much of Philadelphia’s historic character is under threat, in part because most Philadelphians can easily ignore the problem. “If it’s a part of your everyday life, you can take it for granted,” Longstreth said.

That’s certainly true for me. Growing up, I didn’t even notice that the building where I went to Quaker meeting every week was constructed in 1856, or that exquisite 19th-century brownstones dotted my Rittenhouse neighborhood. If you asked me then what defined Philly for me, it would have been the gathering spots of my crew — the goat in Rittenhouse Square, Day’s Deli and Little Pete’s, Supercade and the Gallery.

Now, with so many of us walking down historic streets while looking at our smartphones, it’s easier than ever to speed past all this notable building stock without seeing it. But in 2016, the issue of historic preservation came to the fore with the news that several buildings on Jewelers’ Row, said to be the country’s oldest diamond district, would be razed to make way for a high-rise condo building. Suddenly, people who’d never thought much about “historic preservation” were thinking quite a lot about saving buildings. To them, Jewelers’ Row was an iconic part of the city’s landscape. These were people who remembered buying an engagement ring there, or hearing that their grandparents had. Or they felt that Jewelers’ Row’s very existence was simply part of what made Philly Philly. The idea that it would disappear woke people up: T-shirts were designed, and signs were affixed to windows. The battle got widespread coverage.

Mayor Jim Kenney — who had talked a good game about preservation during his electoral campaign — established a new Philadelphia Historic Preservation Task Force, and it issued its recommendations in December 2018. It’s a significant change in approach; Philadelphia typically has a pretty weak record on historic preservation. It’s also indicative of what residents are beginning to realize: that “historic preservation” isn’t just about wonky, eye-glazing codes and statutes. It’s about what gives the city its soul — and as Arthur Frommer once wrote, “Tourism does not go to a city that has lost its soul.”

History is Philly’s brand. It’s what brings people here to spend money on hotels and attractions. A 2016 50-city study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation showed that we rank near the top in the number of buildings built before 1945, with many neighborhoods earning a high “character score.”

But while the average rate of locally protected buildings in a city is about four percent, Philadelphia has local historic designation for only 2.2 percent of its buildings. We’re below average for national historic designations as well.

Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, points to the past decade as especially difficult for vulnerable, unprotected buildings. When the city was shrinking, he says, the preservation movement was focused on finding new uses for abandoned buildings. Now, developers are building in neighborhoods that haven’t seen this much new construction in generations. Old zoning codes fail to protect buildings that should quite obviously be preserved, and tax abatements incentivize new construction over adaptive reuse.

In 2016, Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron predicted a “preservation tragedy”: “Make no mistake,” she wrote. “Many handsome, stoutly built commercial buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries will be lost in the next few years unless officials get serious about maintaining the city’s architectural patrimony. These are exactly the sort of buildings that distinguish Philadelphia from the parade of homogenizing cities around the country.”

She was right. “Somewhere around 98 percent of buildings in Philadelphia are vulnerable to demolition,” Steinke says.

The Philadelphia Historic Preservation Task Force, comprised of preservationists, advocates, community members, educators, developers, architects, city staff and officials, was supposed to address this. It quickly came under fire for its mostly white makeup, and it took 18 months to issue its recommendations, which some preservationists said was too long. Still, Steinke is optimistic about the possibilities, including the suggestion that there should be different types of historic districts, which could lead to more of them. And that would make compliance less challenging for property owners looking to preserve existing buildings.

The task force report also recommended creating an inventory of the city’s historically significant buildings, to ensure that nothing with historic merit gets torn down without review. And, of course, increasing designation. Steinke pointed to the examples of the Divine Lorraine and the Met Philadelphia, both of which are on local and national registers: “Historic designation kept them standing long enough for the economy to turn, and for a guy like Eric Blumenfeld to twist himself in knots to figure out how to finance them.”

The task force was guided by a vision that imagines the city, with its “extraordinary layering of history that makes Philadelphia unique,” in 2035. By that year, the report says, the city will be “an internationally recognized leader in historic preservation practices,” with residents who are “active protectors of their neighborhood history and cultural identity.”

Isn’t that a lovely vision? It makes me look forward to 2035, which I otherwise anticipate as very hot and devoid of bookstores. Of course, to get to that point, people have to care about preservation. They have to care about all the aspects that make Philly Philly, whether ineffable or obscene or gelato-related. In short, they — we — have to care about our history.

Published as “Save Me!” in the March 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.