Old City Tour

William Penn, the Quaker who in 1682 established the new city of Philadelphia based on the concept of religious freedom, was no urbanist. True, he is celebrated as being responsible, along with surveyor Thomas Holmes, for designing Philadelphia in a grid pattern complete with public spaces. But he disliked spending time in the city, preferring to commute to work by boat from his home 20 miles up the Delaware River.

Presumably, when he got out of his boat each workday, he then made his way from the shore to his destination in the city. It would be impossible to duplicate his routes from shore to work in today’s Philadelphia, because I-95, which infiltrated the city in the early 1970s, separates the Old City section of Philadelphia from its original connection to the waterfront.

“Philadelphia has suffered from a lot of bad urban planning over the years, I-95 being one example of that. Old City has lost its connection to the waterfront, probably forever,” noted Old City tour leader Richard Thom, an architect, planner and preservationist in private practice whose has lived and/or worked in Old City (his office is currently located there) since 1974. Thom’s involvement with Old City also includes his position as chairman of the Developments Committee of the Old City Civic Association, a zoning and historic reservation review committee.

The Old City tour on Thursday morning focused on the history of the area’s built environment, with Thom concentrating on recent projects, both the good and the bad.

A nationally registered historic district, Old City was home to the city’s earliest settlers – some sections of the area date back to 1670. Old City, unlike many historic districts, has an eclectic mix of architecture – Thom identified five primary periods: colonial (1690s-1800s); Federal (early 1800s); Victorian (Civil War and post-Civil War); industrial (turn of the century) and post-World War II modern. It is home to the largest collection of cast iron façade buildings in the U.S. – at least 40, according to Thom, and this is after losing at least 12 to demolition.

Old City became a Nationally Registered Historic District in 1976, which meant 20 percent Federal tax credits could be taken on rehab, helping to motivate the first rehab efforts. That tax credit still exists and still generates some of the renovation work, Thom said.

That rehab followed years of deterioration. In the 1950s Old City was “totally run down, unsanitary, in disrepair, a flophouse district slated as a demolition area,” Thom said. The revitalization of Old City was spurred by the successful revitalization of the adjacent Society Hill area. The tour included a stop to point out the three high-rise towers in Society Hill designed by I.M. Pei.

Today Old City is the second densest residential area in Philadelphia, with 4500 residents, according to the 2000 census. There is a good deal of recent and current development in the area – many of the examples Thom showed were residential, including condo projects on Front Street by New York developers who have recently been attracted to the neighborhood because “land in Philadelphia is so cheap when compared with New York,” Thom noted. Empty retail space still exists in the area, as do a good number of buildings that have been abandoned for 30 years or more, according to Paul Horning of Devon Urban Advisors and the tour coordinator for CNU XV, whose company worked on a condominium project in the neighborhood that successfully integrated new construction with renovation of historic buildings.

Despite Old City’s popularity with young professionals and empty nesters, condo sales there have slowed dramatically recently, according to Thom, but prices are still much higher than three years ago, Horning said, citing figures of approximately $330 per square foot three years ago versus $400 to $500 per square foot today.

Among the projects Thom singled out was a 120-foot high-rise on Arch Street that Thom’s committee protested, but that was built anyway, prompting Thom to rewrite the zoning in 2003 to limit building height to 65 feet in the area. Another project his group fought was the demolition of two historic cast iron buildings to create a condo parking garage that has not been successful; it is now in receivership. Thom also pointed out condominium developments that were appropriate to the neighborhood, successfully renovating historic buildings with new construction that complemented the existing fabric, including the Bookbinders project, which his firm worked on.

Highlights of the tour included explanations of some of the materials used in Old City, such as the rectangular stones paving Cuthbert Street – which are not cobblestone, but Belgian block – blocks of granite originally used as ballast on ships from England. The houses on Cuthbert Street are an example of what people typically think of as Old City – houses were built close together because “land was worth something then,” Thom said, and the brick facades of the Federalist period were adopted after Philadelphia suffered a series of catastrophic fires.

One of the last stops on the tour was Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continuously inhabited street in the U.S., beginning in the 1680s.

Several people on the tour were curious about handicapped access issues when working on historic buildings, an issue Thom often encounters. “Handicapped access is a major headache,” he explained. “In my practice when we start designing or renovating, we start with the ADA code from day one. It’s a terrible balance, because we don’t want ramps or other accessibility features to ruin the façade or the building. The historic commission struggles with it this all the time.”

Overall, the tour spoke to the larger issue of balance in Philadelphia’s Old City, to the dual and often conflicting challenges of preservation and development.

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