Yet another high rise student housing complex going up, billed as “luxury” apartments? At a community meeting last night, residents of the area expressed their concern at the possible loss of an historic anchor structure at the corner of 36th and Lancaster Avenue. The building entered the spotlight a few weeks ago, when Inga Saffron wrote in her “Changing Skyline” Inquirer column that the 1870s Second Empire building at 3600 Lancaster Avenue may be yet another victim of University City’s “frenzied real estate market.”
The recent demolition of the Boyd Theater near Rittenhouse Square has bothered many Philadelphians — for a city with so much well-preserved building stock, it now seems that anything is for sale.
Powelton’s homeowners are particularly on edge. Despite its wealth of historic Italianate and Queen Anne architecture, the neighborhood is almost completely unprotected by local historic ordinances. Over the past few years, several Victorian row houses and twins have been torn down and replaced by boxy, bland student apartment houses.
According to resident and local property owner Hanley Bodek, 3810 Hamilton Street is the latest house under threat. Over the past three decades, Bodek — along with his business partner John Lindsay — have carefully restored dozens of abandoned Victorian structures in the neighborhood. Until last year, Bodek taught a hands-on class at PennDesign about historic renovation called “Entrepreneurial Inner City Housing Markets,” in which a group of students renovated an abandoned Philadelphia row house and sold it to a low-income family.
Now, there are few vacant lots left in Powelton. Bodek owns 3808 Hamilton, the adjacent twin to the house now under threat. He restored the brick house at a time when “nobody wanted these houses.” Now, there are few vacant lots left in Powelton.
Glamorous, Lancaster Mews definitely is not, but it does have character and its own kind of utility, and houses a variety of local businesses that have thrived catering to students and Powelton Village residents alike: Aloosh hookah bar, Dr. Cycles bike repair, and Lemongrass Thai restaurant. They do not offer the sanitized predictability of the chains that occupy the lower levels of the latest crop of West Philadelphia student high rises, but they do offer character and a sense of place, and they provide a place for local, “basic needs” entrepreneurs.
“Such blocks are what make Philadelphia, well, Philadelphia,” Saffron astutely declared. And it was not built to be transient.
At least one local business owner feels threatened by the loss of the building. “Pure evil,” wrote Bodyrock Boot Camp owner Nate McIntyre in a Facebook post. “From the perspective of a small business owner on Lancaster Ave. that’s exactly what I call these plans by an outside developer and the city council woman to tear down this 150 year old historic, and thriving block of business and residences in my neighborhood.”
Not a bad considering that two decades ago, the entire block now known as Lancaster Mews was largely abandoned, as was much of the Lancaster Avenue commercial corridor. After a thorough renovation, it now serves the same purpose as it did in the 1870s.
Lancaster Avenue, which branches out diagonally at the intersection of 30th Street and Market and continues all the way to Lancaster City, is the oldest turnpike in the country, opening for business in 1792. It was the starting point of Lewis and Clark’s journey west. After the Civil War, its right of way was the object of a fierce battle between the trains of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the trolleys of the Philadelphia Traction Company.
Despite its storied history, Lancaster Avenue and the buildings that grew up around it were comparatively hum-drum — most of its structures are mixed-used buildings erected in the second half of the 19th century. Aside from a cluster of grand houses in the Powelton neighborhood, this part of West Philadelphia was never an especially fancy part of town. According to architectural historian Robert Morris Skaler, it was an “economically diverse community,” mostly middle class, comprised of “old stock Americans, as well as more recent immigrants of German, Irish, and Italian descent,” who lived in modest three story row houses located within walking distance of shopping on Lancaster Avenue.
Not that the commercial buildings in the area were completely without flair. The now vanished William Penn Theater at 4063 Lancaster had an auditorium just as glamorous as the (now half demolished) Boyd’s near Rittenhouse Square. It was a favorite gathering place for Penn students, who in the 1920s had no qualms about crossing Market Street (and cutting class) to catch a movie. The curved face Hawthorne Hall, located just up the street from Lancaster Mews at 39th Street, is an Art Nouveau fantasy in red brick, terra cotta, and pressed tin. It once housed a drug store, theater, and other small businesses. A former apothecary shop catty-corner from Lancaster Mews boasts an elaborate pressed tin storefront that is a riot of Louis Sullivanesque plant forms.
Today, such design whimsy is largely confined to the ephemeral images that flash across the screens of our smart phones and tablets.
Some of Lancaster’s buildings have been butchered by modern signage or punctured by garage doors. Others are abandoned or in poor repair, with wood trim and cornices stripped. These once viable neighborhoods were victims of multiple forces: the rise of the automobile, redlining by banks and insurance companies, white flight, and government policies that favored new construction versus preservation.
Lancaster Mews, which still has its gingerbread trim and historically appropriate windows, represents a successful blending of historic preservation and redevelopment, in which a building is restored to much of its former appearance while still being viable from an economic standpoint. We have learned a lot since the 1960s, when mass demolition — i.e. Philadelphia’s “Black Bottom” — was rampant in American cities and old buildings were seen as disposable. Trouble still occurs when a neighborhood goes from grassroots historic preservation mode to big money demolition mode — hopefully Powelton Village and the Lancaster Avenue corridor will be revitalized without being sterilized. Philadelphia may rejoice in its economic resurgence, but new construction in a city as historic and well-preserved as this one should should be mindful and measured rather than frenzied.
Inga Saffron, “Changing Skyline, Frenzied Real Estate Market Makes Any Building a Teardown Target,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 2, 2015.
Robert Morris Skaler, Images of America: West Philadelphia, University City to 52nd Street (Charleston, SC: The Arcadia Press, 2002), pp. 95,97.