Preserving Jewelers Row

I’m glad that, in preparing for the class where we discuss these writings on historical preservation, we’re also reading articles about the Toll Brothers’ plans to demolish Jewelers Row buildings to construct a high rise. This is a fairly recent development that I really only learned about this summer, as I was preparing to start the Public History program, and so it’s been at the forefront of my mind as I begin to engage in these topics of meaningful engagement with, and preservation of, the past. Following the efforts of the Preservation Alliance and other organizations/people actually challenged a lot of preconceptions I had about what preservation looked like and what constituted a building “worthy” of preservation.

The Toll Brothers have acknowledged the backlash to their plans, laying out several steps that they see as the compromise between their original plans and preservationists’ interests. This includes promising (via Mayor Kenney) to keep the location a “cultural gem” [1], building a facade that maintains the original buildings’ architecture, and helping to relocate businesses that currently reside there [2]. However, there are a number of problems with these compromises.

If I had to sum up this week’s readings in one word, it would be collaboration. Hurley especially stresses the importance of working with who he calls the “ordinary citizens” of inner cities, involving them from the very beginning both in terms of discerning their needs and desires [3], and also involving them in the actual preservation/research process [4].

The Toll Brothers do not do this – in fact, most of the business owners in these buildings were taken by surprise when the demolition plans were announced [5]. The Toll Brothers’ website speaks about “adding something vital to the area” via “corporate community responsibility,” through volunteering and donating to local charities. [6] However, there’s a difference between giving money/time because of a sense of duty, and really hashing out your plans and a community’s needs, such as through the tenants committee organized by the Restoration Group in St. Louis. [7] I was reminded of the various “future needs” declared in 1991, the 25th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, which included expanding the breadth of registered buildings and, especially, expanding participation in the preservation levels at all levels. [8] The shame of this situation is not just the fact of the Toll Brothers’ plans, but the fact that they were completely sprung on Jewelers Row residents with no notice.

In response, Mayor Kenney has done all he is apparently able to do: plead with the company to pretty, pretty please do their best in preserving the building. The Toll Brothers’ compromise of building a facade that replicates the building’s current structure. [9] However, this is reminiscent of the “Santa Fe style” that favors aesthetics and an architectural tradition over a building’s historical significance. [10] This plan fails to communicate, let alone interpret, the buildings’ past, which dates back to the 1790s and includes being part of the oldest diamond district in America [11].

Another issue here feeds into the larger problem in Philadelphia of gentrification. Philadelphia is an incredibly diverse city, however the neighborhood that contains the Jewelers Row area is one of the most expensive of the whole city. It is also a neighborhood with a rich history as, among other things, “the Jewish Quarter” that housed thousands of lower class immigrants at the turn of the century. This new Toll Brothers building, along with most new construction, will raise real estate value in the area even more, restricting the populations that will have access to the area. This cannot be remedied by adding on features or even programs that address diversity (such as reconstructing the facade), but must reconstruct instead the larger structural frameworks that allow these inequalities to happen [12]. The Toll Brothers embraced these structural frameworks by taking advantage of the city’s faltering preservation procedures.

If there is any consolation in this situation, Mayor Kenney plans to increase the relevant budget, staff size, and other resources to make it easier for buildings to attain preservation status in the future. [13] This has been a wake-up call — and hopefully Philadelphia won’t need another.

[1] Jacob Adelman, “Mayor Kenney seeks Jewelers Row preservation commitments from Toll,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 12, 2016,  http://www.philly.com/philly/business/Mayor-Kenney-seeks-protection-for-Jewelers-Row-facades.html

[2] John Hurdle, “In Jewelers Row in Philadelphia, Condo Plan Worries Preservationists,” NY Times, October 11, 2016,  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/12/realestate/in-jewelers-row-in-philadelphia-condo-plan-worries-preservationists.html?_r=0

[3] Andrew Hurley, Beyond Preservation: Using Public History to Revitalize Inner Cities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), 53.

[4] Hurley, Beyond Preservation, 86-87.

[5] Jacob Adelman, “Uncertainty surrounds Toll Bros.’s Jewelers’ Row plans as merchants lament,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August, 14, 2016  http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20160814_Uncertainty_surrounds_Toll_Bros__s_Jewelers__Row_plans_as_merchants_lament.html

[6] “Toll Brothers Gives Back,” https://www.tollbrothers.com/about/giving-back

[7] Hurley, Beyond Preservation, 69

[8] Max Page and Marla Miller, Bending the Future (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2016), 6-7.

[9] Hurdle, “In Jewelers Row in Philadelphia.”

[10] Hurley, Beyond Preservation, 5-6.

[11] Helen Gassmann and Karly Kessler, “On Jewelers Row, Tracing The Origins Of 702-710 Sansom Street,” http://hiddencityphila.org/2016/08/on-jewelers-row-tracing-the-origins-of-702-710-sansom-street/

[12] Dolores Hayden, “I: Claiming Urban Landscapes as Public History,” The Power of Place (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1995), 8.

[13] Jacob Adelman, “Mayor Kenney.”

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