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This Philly transplant is struggling to save our old buildings: ‘We are at the threshold of Hell’

When Philadelphia’s Historical Commission announced two weeks ago that St. Laurentius Catholic Church in Fishtown would be added to the city’s register of historic buildings, Oscar Beisert finally stopped bouncing off his seat. He sat, still, in the rolling-swivel chair staring at the image of the church’s interior dimly projected on a screen in the front of the conference room.

The 33-year-old architectural historian had written the 20-page application on behalf of the church and its parishioners. He had presented his findings at the beginning of every one of the St. Laurentius hearings, which had become national news. A large group of parishioners, who felt that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had merged their congregation with the nearby Holy Name Parish in order to sell the land under the building, had been up in arms since news of the impending demolition. But on July 10, the parishioners and Beisert won. The 19th century church will remain standing for now. Yet the St. Laurentius win is an unusual one for Beisert, who’s been fighting similar preservation battles all across the city.

The man behind the mission

Beisert is a rare breed. He walks into City Hall and municipal conference rooms in black skinny jeans and cowboy boots, a tightly cropped haircut, and thick-framed circle glasses. He is one of the only people fighting independently for preservation who is not affiliated with any nonprofit or community group. He writes applications for the designation of Philadelphia’s historical buildings in his free time, sometimes staying up until 2 a.m. multiple nights in a row. When he was in the eighth grade, Beisert published a book of his genealogy. Hidden City Philadelphia publishes Beisert’s thoughts on preservation; he’s been building a reputation here as a prolific, independent advocate for historical preservation in the city (which has only designated 58 local landmarks in the past eight years). Though he’s only lived in Philadelphia for three years, Beisert is quite concerned about its heritage.

Beisert grew up in Houston. His father is Greek but came to America by way of Istanbul and he says that his mother’s ancestors go all the way back to William Penn. In fact, Beisert’s lineage extends back to one of Quaker Caleb Pusey’s indentured servants. The Pusey House, the last remaining house where Penn is thought to have visited, is in Delaware County.

Beisert attended St. Edward’s University in Austin to study political science and Penn State for American Studies where he focused on architectural history and historical preservation. He says that he is both passionate about historical preservation, and making sure the political process is done right.

The old, the new and the perception of Philadelphia

The fight for St. Laurentius was a victory for Beisert, but his battle to preserve Philadelphia’s historic character remains a frustratingly uphill climb.

In Beisert’s eyes, City Council does not value preservation, and still views Philadelphia as an undeveloped place where nobody is investing. He said he’s even heard a council person describe Philly as a “backwater.” Politicians and developers don’t often see historic preservation as pushing the city towards future investment and furthering Philly’s image as a place of prosperity.

It is a fundamental question of how a city will define its physical self, what Beisert calls “The morality of urban planning.” Does the city want to project an image that it cares about its historical character, or that it is a city of the future, flooded with investment? That theoretical battle often plays out in front of the Committee on Historical Designation, an advisory committee of the Historical Commission. On the same day as the St. Laurentius decision, the committee put an end to the argument over whether the neon PSFS sign at 12th and Market should be converted to more modern and energy efficient LEDs. The newer lighting won.

About 12,000 to 13,000 locally registered landmarks in Philadelphia are protected from demolition by local law and managed by the commission. Compare that with New York City — which Beisert calls a city of big buildings, less historic and “the greediest place in America” — a place that has 33,000 landmarked properties and 114 historic districts. The Landmark Preservation Commission in New York City has a large staff that works with community groups and does its own evaluations and nominations. New York has made a concerted effort to preserve its cultural heritage after the demolition of the original Pennsylvania Station.

The Historical Commission in Philadelphia has seven staff members and a budget of less than $400,000.

To Beisert, and other advocates historical preservation advocates, these numbers are troubling in a place with large swaths of properties like those in Fishtown, Germantown, or Strawberry Mansion that are overwhelmingly built before the Civil War, are almost completely unprotected.

This is especially problematic in a city where most of the buildings were built before 1950. And many more were built even earlier.

“I’m not even talking about a  pre-Civil War row house, because I would never stop writing nominations,” Beisert said. “They get demolished bi-weekly here.”

He worries about what will replace the city’s lost buildings, and feels that new developments often have no relationship to the streets they populate. Without designation, he says, the city misses out on an opportunity to reuse buildings with better materials and more personality — or as Beisert puts it: “soul.”

How historical designation works

The procedure for getting a historical designation involves an application (which is a couple of essays and photographs), and then a series of meetings with the Committee on Historical Designation to decide, first, whether the issue is even worth the commission’s time and then if the building meets the criteria of historic preservation. The criteria are basically variations of similar questions — Is this building important?’ Does it represent something significant to the history of architecture or a neighborhood, can we learn about an earlier time from the structure?

But Beisert feels applications get bogged down in the early procedural meetings — on things like grammar — before the designation criteria are even discussed.

Beisert and the Commission

Beisert has become so well known that community groups seek him out to write the applications on their behalf. The St. Laurentius parishioners offered Beisert compensation but he refused because he says he was inspired by the community support for the designation.

But that inspiration can be short-lived once an application is submitted. He says it takes months for the commission to get back to him after he writes a nomination, and feels the Historical Preservation Commission is understaffed. Most of its work involves responding to requests from people looking to modify buildings that are already designated, rather than making its own designations. The commission was not available to discuss its proceedings, despite multiple requests from Billy Penn.

When he does finally hear back from the commission, Beisert says documents often get returned only with comments on procedural errors, as opposed to notes regarding any of the merits of the designation. He feels the process is stalled because the system is stacked against preservation.

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Beisert at the public meeting about St. Laurentius' designation

This is what Beisert says has been happening with the Edward Corner building at Delaware Avenue and Shackamaxon Street. The property has been referred to as one of Fishtown’s last remaining links to its maritime past. To beef up the application, Beisert got in touch with descendants of Edward Corner, who was a junk man and eventually ran a large maritime merchandise store. But the designation is still on hold. The commission was not available for comment about this case.

Beisert says he doesn’t expect everything to be preserved. He just thinks that, for a committee that he estimates gets about 20 applications a year, the lack of fervor and expediency with which it advocates for historical preservation is troubling.

Could legislation help preserve Philly’s history?

Back in October, then-Councilman Jim Kenney introduced a bill to double funding for the historical commission. He also introduced legislation that would make the 20,000 Philadelphia sites currently on the national register protected by local law. Currently, the federal government cannot tell a state to preserve something unless federal money is being spent on that thing, which is why the Navy Yard is protected. So almost half of the national landmarks in Philadelphia could be demolished tomorrow at the whim of the city or state. Beisert said the bill would be an improvement from the way things have been going.

“It couldn’t get any worse,” he said. “We are at the threshold of hell.”

 

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