How does historic preservation work in Philadelphia? A city commission holds all the power

Philly was one of the first cities to grant jurisdiction to an appointed board. Some residents are left frustrated by the process, while other neighborhoods work around it.

Most of the homes in the 200 block of Dupont Street are included in the proposed Victorian Roxborough Historic District

Most of the homes in the 200 block of Dupont Street are included in the proposed Victorian Roxborough Historic District

Emma Lee / WHYY
jordanlevy-headshot

The Philadelphia Historical Commission has been around a long time. Founded in 1955, it was one of the nation’s first municipal preservation boards to have citywide jurisdiction.

But the practice of historical designation is a weighty beast.

People have differing perspectives on what should be entered into the historical record and what those entries should comprise, so it’s not unusual for the commission’s work to lead to disagreements or disputes. Plus, with the power to halt demolitions or construction, and change the costs of owning or developing a property, PHC’s decision-making can affect the future as much as the past.

The topic can pit neighbors against one another, lead to protests, and become central to political campaigns. It can also inspire workaround solutions.


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In Strawberry Mansion, for example, worries about the cost of historical designation led community organizations to find other means of managing change in their North Philly neighborhood.

Historic preservation isn’t just keeping a building where a famous person lived, said Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation Executive Director Tonnetta Graham said. “It’s like, ‘Well, I want to preserve my house and my block.’ ”

Some residents in Roxborough, on the other hand, were not interested in outside mandates about their block. A group of homeowners along the Victorian houses of Dupont Street recently found themselves in a historic district on fairly short notice. The plans to create it were only shared after a civic association had already submitted the nomination to the commission, residents said. Several scrambled to try and exempt themselves.

“They did it as more or less a rogue organization,” said Roxborough resident Gary Owens of the civic association. “With no input in the community as to whether this was something we wanted.” The PHC approved the plan in fairly short order, he said, even after notable opposition.

How did that end up happening? Here’s a look at how Philly’s historical designation works, and who gets to make decisions about what gets on the list.

The Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation advocated for a 'conservation overlay' instead of a historic district. It's now working on a museum and cultural center that would include the John Coltrane House in the 1500 block of North 33rd Street and three adjoining rowhouses.

The Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation advocated for a 'conservation overlay' instead of a historic district. It's now working on a museum and cultural center that would include the John Coltrane House in the 1500 block of North 33rd Street and three adjoining rowhouses.

Emma Lee / WHYY

What’s the goal of the Philadelphia Historical Commission?

American historical preservation arose in the late 19th century, according to PHC Executive Director Jon Farnham, and truly came into its current form in the mid-20th century.

First called the Advisory Committee on Historic Buildings, the Philadelphia Historical Commission was created as part of the City Planning Commission in 1955.

At the time, many American cities were pushing forward with redevelopment projects that displaced residents with disregard for their well being, and also wiped away a number of recognized historic sites.

The historic preservation movement arose in large part as a response to this so-called urban renewal of the 1950s and 1960s, said Patrick Grossi, advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, which promotes and supports historic buildings.

The field as we now know it was created, he said, by people asking, “How can … the mistakes of urban renewal be avoided?”

Preservationists try to distinguish between halting change and managing change, the PHC’s Jon Farnham told Billy Penn. The former is a caricature of their work, he said, since change is inevitable. Instead, he sees the commission’s goal as “tak[ing] into account the historic character or importance of the resource that’s being altered.”

How does the PHC choose what is up for designation?

The city ordinance creating the Philadelphia Historical Commission did not include a definition of “historic.” It’s left to commission members to decide what qualifies based on nine factors, only one of which needs to apply. These factors include:

  • Being a significant part of the development, heritage, or cultural characteristics of the City, Commonwealth, or nation or associated with the life of a significant person
  • Being associated with an event of importance to the history of the City, Commonwealth or Nation
  • Reflecting the environment in an era characterized by a distinctive architectural style
  • Being the work of a significant designer, architect, landscape architect or designer, or professional engineer
  • Exemplifying the cultural, political, economic, social, or historical heritage of the community.

Building profiles, insurance records, photographs, and construction notes are some of the documents that help the board determine if a site is worthy of designation, said Farnham, the executive director, along with the corpus of Philadelphians’ public and private discourse in decades and centuries past.

In its early days, the PHC “concentrated efforts primarily on colonial and early Republic buildings,” Farnham said. Generally, that meant architecture stretching back to William Penn’s arrival in the 1680s through the pre-Civil War era.

The focus has since expanded to sites where important artists, activists, organizations, and more have worked and lived around the city. The new Christian Street/Black Doctor’s Row Historic District was the city’s first district dedicated to Black history. It commemorates a neighborhood that was home to a relatively large number of upper-middle-class Black Philadelphians in the early 20th century.

Any individual or organization can nominate a site for designation by filling out a form and sending it in the mail or via email. Then the PHC decides whether to take up the proposal.

A 2018 citizen engagement project out of PennPraxis, the center for applied research at UPenn’s Weitzman School of Design resulted in the Neighborhood Preservation Toolkit. The toolkit aims to bring preservation down to the entry level, said Graham, the Strawberry Mansion CDC executive director.

Its aim, she said, is to provide resources for residents who might ask, “I like to see this in my community, how can I keep it?'”

Homes on Roxborough's 200 block of Dupont Street. Most are included in the proposed Victorian Roxborough Historic District.

Homes on Roxborough's 200 block of Dupont Street. Most are included in the proposed Victorian Roxborough Historic District.

Emma Lee / WHYY

Who can weigh in on proposed designations?

Once a proposed historical site or district is under consideration, the commission includes it in their monthly agenda, shared by all who request receipt and emailed to its mailing list.

Anyone with an opinion on the site — like people who live in or around the area, professional groups with a related interest, or informal organizations with agendas — can email or write to the commission with suggestions, concerns, encouragement, or other thoughts.

PHC public meetings take place at least monthly, and are currently held virtually online. That’s where the commission offers time for public input on proposed sites before they’re finalized. To get on the list of speakers, you have to get in touch at least seven days in advance.

You can also write to the commission at least seven days before a meeting to have your written comments included in the record.

Who gets the final say?

The members of the historical commission, distinct from PHC staff and three advisory committees, are the sole voting members who determine which sites are designated and which are not.

Six city officials, or those they designate, form one part of the commission. Those six roles are:

  • President of City Council
  • City Planning Commission Chair
  • Director of the Commerce Department
  • Commissioner of Licenses and Inspections
  • Director of the Department of Planning and Development
  • Commissioner of the Department of Public Property

Per the PHC-forming ordinance, eight others “learned in the historic traditions of the city and interested in the preservation of the historic character of the city” are on the board. Certain expertise among the eight is required, including at least one:

  • Architect experienced in the field of historic preservation
  • Historian
  • Architectural historian
  • Real estate developer
  • Representative of a community development corporation
  • Representative of a community organization
The home in the 1500 block of North 33rd Street where jazz saxophonist John Coltrane lived.

The home in the 1500 block of North 33rd Street where jazz saxophonist John Coltrane lived.

Emma Lee / WHYY

What changes when a property or district gets historic designation?

After something is designated and listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, the PHC must approve all building permit applications before the Department of Licenses and Inspections can issue them.

The commission works using preservation standards originally established by the National Park Service. It reviews “about 2500” permit applications for designated sites in a year, per Farnham.

The applications range “from very minor things, adding some sprinkler heads in an office building all the way up to constructing a 55-story tower on the north side of Rittenhouse Square,” he said.

Roughly 95% of these reviews are delegated to staff, but major cases, in scale or public interest, are handled by the commission itself. Assistance on architectural matters comes from an advisory committee that considers possible changes to historical buildings.

For the first few decades of the commission’s existence, it had much less power to stop demolitions.

“The legal consensus at the time was that a city could not prevent someone from demolishing a building,” said Farnham, because “that would be unconstitutional.” For that reason, he said, many Philadelphia buildings that had been designated as historic were demolished, with estimates reaching as many as 500 lost.

Then the legal consensus changed. A series of lawsuits, including a notable case in York, Pa., culminated in Penn Central v. New York City, a late-70s Supreme Court case which held that “preservation law is constitutional as long as the regulated property retains some economic value.”

New rules giving the PHC power to stop demolitions were passed in late 1984. This legislation also gave the commission the power to designate historic districts — entire areas that fall under PHC purview, instead of single buildings.

What does that mean for property owners or developers?

Once a property or area is designated historic, the commission can require that any changes adhere to a specific standard before they are approved. The goal is to ensure that any renovations don’t change the historic character.

That can make renovation more costly, because older materials — like a specific type of wood, stone, or siding — can be much more expensive, PHC director Farnham acknowledged.

The commission takes financial hardship into account through an advisory committee, he said, offering to ease development restrictions if a property owner successfully undergoes a detailed application process that delves into the financial history and future potential of the property.

If an application proves that the property cannot be used for any purpose that aligns with PHC requirements, alterations persist. In the case seeking a demolition, the PHC ordinance says that “the applicant must demonstrate that the sale of the property is impracticable … and that other potential uses of the property are foreclosed.”

Owens, the Roxborough resident, was taken aback when he learned about the application submitted by the Central Roxborough Civic Association, a registered community organization, and some volunteers. He said many neighbors first learned about it at two CRCA public meetings that revealed a plan had been in the works for two years, when many were preoccupied with navigating the pandemic.

Owens and his immediate neighbors petitioned the Historical Commission, sending 15 property owners’ signatures in opposition in March. Residents continued to express opposition at the April 20 commission meeting, he said, but the PHC decided to put the nomination to a vote anyway, and it passed that same day.

Having supported the CRCA in the past — chipping into a community fund for legal fees when the RCO wanted to halt certain developments — Owens was left with a sour taste in his mouth. He views the civic association’s move as an attempt to enact a de facto ban on new construction.

“This, in their view, was a way to control and fight development, but they’re using the residents as the tools to do that,” Owens said.

Farnham, the PHC director, said he understood some residents were worried, but pushed back on the notion that the designation brought hardship.

“Property owners are concerned about costs that designation might impose upon them, concerned about excessive regulation and a loss of freedom, and I understand that,” Farnham said. “In general, we don’t see the Historical Commission as adding significant cost to property owner’s maintenance of their properties.”

Three properties in the 200 block of Dupont Street, including 240, 242, and 242 Dupont, are not included in the proposed Victorian Roxborough Historic District.

Three properties in the 200 block of Dupont Street, including 240, 242, and 242 Dupont, are not included in the proposed Victorian Roxborough Historic District.

Emma Lee / WHYY

What’s a ‘conservation overlay’?

A few years ago, the Strawberry Mansion CDC started hearing complaints that a lot of new developments were being built with features longtime residents didn’t like, according to CDC director Graham.

“Neighbors were concerned about these rooftop decks, people looking down on them,” Graham said. “In Philadelphia we have this porch culture, which is so critical to us, for developing neighborhoods and developing community.”

The CDC and other residents considered applying to be a historic district, but people were worried about increased costs for home repair.

“We have a lot of folks that are on fixed income with these older houses, and even though there are exemptions that are given when it comes to the historic component, we just didn’t want too many folks to be bound by what they will consider a hardship,” Graham said.

Instead, Strawberry Mansion decided to apply for a neighborhood conservation overlay, a recently created alternate method of regulating development.

Conservation overlays, which have a similar permit approval process overseen by the City Planning Commission rather than the PHC, are established after those affected demonstrate interest through a public meeting or signatures and City Council passes legislation to make it legally binding. They don’t have any power to halt demolitions, but do set construction guidelines.

When it was adopted in late 2020, Strawberry Mansion’s overlay banned those rooftop decks. It also made porches a requirement for new construction, and banned various materials used in the construction of facades, seeking to retain the iconic brick facades that predominate in the neighborhood.

“Developers weren’t too happy with it, but we were happy with this as a community,” Graham said. “We want to see vitalization, we just want to also make sure we recognize our own community.”

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