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Special Report. Preserving the City's Past III

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By Alan Jaffe

At the 11th hour, it often has been the neighbors of a historic site that have been the heroes that saved it. They have rallied to rescue what they cherish, and recently those treasured resources have been libraries, a landmark church, and a row of former warehouses.

In 2008, facing a $200 million a year budget deficit, Mayor Nutter announced plans to close 11 branches of the Free Library. Residents who used them could go to neighboring branches, he reasoned, and the city would save millions in facility maintenance and staffing. But he underestimated the value of the local libraries to their communities. Fervent protest rallies followed in each neighborhood, and the city backed off the plan.

The threatened closure of the libraries also cast light on the heritage of four of the buildings. They had been erected as part of the Carnegie Library project, a milestone in the history of free access to intellectual resources in America

From 1886 to 1917, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie provided $40 million for the construction of 1,600 libraries throughout the U.S. He believed that the nation's wealthy were obligated to give back to society, and libraries offered the opportunity for any citizen to rise up.

In Philadelphia, Carnegie paid for the construction of 25 branches between 1905 and 1930, designed by the city's best-known architects. Twenty of those buildings still stand.

Following the rescinding of the closure plan, the four Carnegie branches - the Haddington, Holmesburg, Logan and Kingsessing - were named to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, adding an extra layer of protection for the historic buildings.

Listing on the local historic register has preserved, at least temporarily, a landmark of the West Poplar and Callowhill neighborhoods.

The Church of the Assumption, a commanding structure with twin spires on Spring Garden Street near 11th, was designed in the mid-1800s by Patrick Charles Keely, who built more than 600 churches in North America. The Church of the Assumption is the oldest surviving Keely structure still standing. Two Catholic saints are connected to its history: St. John Neumann helped consecrate the building, and St. Katharine Drexel was baptized there.

The Archdiocese sold the building several years ago to Siloam, a social service agency that supports people living with HIV/AIDS through counseling, education, therapy and respite retreats. The organization uses buildings adjacent to the church and had sought permission to demolish the church in order to rebuild or expand parking.

The church of the Assumption was added to the Philadelphia Historic Register on May 8, 2009, following an effort led by a local resident and with the support of the surrounding communities and preservationists. The action halted the impending demolition, but Siloam has appealed the listing.

A more permanent solution saved a row of historic warehouses in Old City.

The Girard Warehouses at 20-30 North Front St. were built between 1828 and 1834 by the estate of Stephen Girard, and possibly by the shipping magnate and Revolutionary War financier himself. They were used to store goods that arrived at the Delaware waterfront from around the world, and the buildings were considered the last remnants of Philadelphia's commercial architecture of the Early Republic era.

 

Two and a half years ago, the Girard Warehouses were on the brink of collapse.  Rear walls had fallen down, revealing collapsing upper floors; unsealed windows left the buildings open to the elements; and bricks and debris were scattered over the site. The Old City Civic Association feared the owner, the New York-based BRP Development, had ceased work at the site and was letting the property deteriorate in an attempt to have it declared imminently dangerous, resulting in court permission for demolition.

Instead, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge ordered the owners to rebuild the rear walls, reconstruct the collapsing floors, and stabilize and seal the structures, or pay a $750,000 fine. Work on the site soon resumed.

Last October, a new luxury apartment complex called the Old City Mercantile opened for business. An official ribbon-cutting was held Jan. 13, where Gov. Rendell praised the project and explained that the state helped the developer restore the buildings with $3.5 million in tax credits because of their historic significance.

The warehouses now consist of one-, two- and three-bedroom units with hardwood floors, modern kitchens, and beautiful views of the riverfront where the ships once arrived bearing goods from around the world.

 

Alan Jaffe writes about preservation issues for Planphilly.com.  You can contact him at alanjaffe@mac.com

 

 

 

Masthead Photo: Saving the Haddington Library 

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