Developer Seeks Approval to Demolish Trio of Historic Sansom Street Buildings

Southern Land Company owns historic trio of buildings that includes the Rittenhouse Coffee Shop, Warwick Apartment House and O. H. Bair Funeral Home, and has filed an economic hardship application with the Philadelphia Historical Commission seeking to demolish the structures.

The Rittenhouse Coffee Shop on the 1900 block of Sansom Street

The Rittenhouse Coffee Shop on the 1900 block of Sansom Street

The 1900 block of Sansom Street has seen some things, man.

As you know, the auditorium at the Boyd Theatre on the north side of the street will soon make way for some sort of tower developed by Pearl Properties. It’s been a slow death for the old movie house, and now it’s all but gone. But let’s talk about the south side for a brief minute, as Michael Bixler from Hidden City reports that there are a few more historic buildings in danger of meeting the wrecking ball.

Southern Land Company is developing 1911 Walnut, a luxury high-rise that is reportedly going to be designed by Chicago-based Solomon Cordwell Buenz Architects. However, the deal didn’t just include the prized Rittenhouse lot. Southern Land Company bought what amounts to a massive L-shaped parcel that stretches back to Sansom Street to the north and is bound by 20th Street to the west. If you remember, the deal also included three vacant buildings, each listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places: the Rittenhouse Coffee Shop (1904 Sansom), the Warwick Apartment House (1906-16 Sansom) and the Oliver H. Bair Funeral Home (1918-20 Sansom).

A spokesperson from Southern Land Company told us in February that the developer intended to work with the Historical Commission to restore the buildings, but as Bixler reports, that’s not necessarily the case.

The company “filed an economic hardship application with the Philadelphia Historical Commission on October 29th seeking approval to demolish the Rittenhouse Coffee Shop, the Warwick Apartment House, and the Oliver H. Bair Funeral Home. All fall within the Rittenhouse-Fitler Residential Historic District and are considered historically significant.” Southern Land Company purchased the long-vacant lot (and three buildings) for $40 million from Castleway Properties in February.

In essence, the company claims that having to adaptively reuse the buildings (preserve and redevelop) would ultimately be cost prohibitive. Here’s the meat and potatoes from Bixler:

To support its hardship claim, the company cites an environmental report by the engineering firm Pennoni Associates, which states that the cost of remediation for the three buildings (removing asbestos-contaminated material, lead based paint, pigeon guano, and mold blooms) would require an estimated total cost of $1,610,000 (Rittenhouse Coffee Shop: $49,030, Warwick: $1,455,470, Baird Funeral Home: $105,500).

It’s an interesting turn of events, especially given the company’s response in February and the fact that these buildings aren’t recently vacant, so Southern Land seemingly had to know what they were getting when they dropped a handsome sum to buy the property.

In a statement to Hidden City, Southern Land said, “[W]e have concluded that the buildings are in extremely poor condition, with serious structural, material, mechanical, and environmental problems, and pose significant safety concerns. As such, on October 29, an application was submitted to the Philadelphia Historical Commission to approve the demolition of the three buildings due to the financial hardship associated with the inability to reasonably reuse the buildings.”

It will also be interesting to see the response from the community. The statement from Southern Land said that they’re “working closely with the Center City Residents Association task force, Rittenhouse Plaza, city officials and other stakeholders including businesses, preservation and neighborhood associations to achieve a result at the property that will be of maximum benefit to the community.”

Southern Land recently completed their first development in Philadelphia at 3601 Market, a flashy high-rise packed with restaurants and 363 rental units, adjacent to the Science Center/uCity Square. At the opening, Southern’s Dustin Downey said they were looking to develop an “iconic” building at 1911 Walnut, while working closely with the community to ensure that everything runs smoothly: “I hope they like it. If they don’t, we’ll redesign it so that they like it.”

Judging by the initial response to the news that they’re looking to demolish these three historic buildings on Sansom Street, we get the feeling that people aren’t really liking it so far.