June 9th, 2011 | No Comments »

I’ve just been to a public forum, presented by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museums Commission (PHMC) and hosted by DVRPC, which sought comments on the draft state Preservation Plan.  Many of the participants were fellow preservation-geeks, but it was great to see Fairmount Park folks, staff from the Philadelphia City Plan Commission, the city Historical Commission, higher ed people and reps from the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (@CreativePHL) as well.

It was a lively and thought-provoking discussion about how to position historic preservation and the agency’s work out in the world for the next five years.  And the findings of a non-scientific, self-selecting online survey that the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) of PHMC undertook formed the basis of the discussion.  Most of the survey results weren’t too surprising:  people who responded are mostly over age 45, and don’t list “historic buildings” as the places that best reflect what they value about their communities.  But if you think about it, the character-defining features of the communities themselves – the neighborhoods, the landscapes, the trails and waterways – that were the top rated selections in the survey actually embody the heritage that we preservationists seek to, well, conserve.

One of the forum-goers even articulated what I’ve been thinking for some time: maybe we should consider a language change, to what our British and Canadian colleagues call “heritage conservation.”  They avoid “historic.” What’s historic, anyway?  The definition gets fuzzier all the time.  And “preservation,” which sounds like we promote encasing cherished architectural artifacts in amber.

It was also good to hear from the City Plan Commission staffers, and to get some context for their decision to create a stand-alone historic preservation category in the newly adopted Philadelphia 2035 Comprehensive Plan. As I have read the plan during the past few months, I’ve had the slightly annoying feeling that perhaps creating a unique preservation section in the Plan suggests that it’s an afterthought.

It’s great to be singled out in positive ways: historic preservation is important and gets its own chapter.  We’ve all arrived!  But shouldn’t conserving the heritage we’ve got be woven in as an integral part of our planning and development goals and strategies?  Is positive, but separate, attention a way of marginalizing?

The PCPC folks agreed that they’d asked themselves the same questions and decided that education of a public that is largely uninformed and at least consciously uninterested in the built heritage of Philadelphia could benefit from a definitive discussion about the issue in a focused section of the Plan.  They’re likely right.

That same kind of education and conversation need to be a compelling part of the Pennsylvania Preservation Plan as well.  We heritage conservators (see, it didn’t hurt) and our partner, the SHPO, will have to make new friends and allies in the environmental, energy conservation and outdoor recreation worlds.  We will have to learn to lobby more aggressively, network more strategically, communicate more broadly and look at what we want to conserve more diversely.  So onward with more work to craft a meaningful and powerful Preservation Plan for the Commonwealth.

 

 

 

Posted from Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, United States.

May 19th, 2011 | No Comments »

Eat at the chef's counter, sip great wine, watch them cook incredible food at Val & Marcie's Barbuzzo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heritage preservationists have for a very long time been sent to the irrelevance “time-out” corner by many who unfairly claim that they (we, full disclosure) are focused entirely on pretty buildings and not on cold, hard reality.  But old buildings and existing neighborhoods fans really know, as does everyone involved in real estate, planning, architecture and other real world pursuits, that “use,” “use” and “use” are the three most important words in our language.

Philadelphia entrepreneurs Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney know all about using existing buildings, and their neighbors in Center City’s Midtown Village have enjoyed the benefits of the reborn street life the pair have helped foster.  Earlier this week, the AIA Philadelphia Chapter, along with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, saluted their remarkable love for and commitment to urban life in the heart of Philadelphia.  The AIA, at the Alliance’s annual Awards lunch, lauded the partners with the annual Henry J Magaziner, EFAIA Award, which recognizes those who, though outside the “normal circle of preservation and design, have made a significant contribution to preservation of the built environment.”  The duo’s three restaurants (Barbuzzo, Lolita and Bindi) and four shops (Open House, Grocery, Verde and Marcie Blaine Artisanal Chocolates) near 13th and Sansom, reside in older buildings saved and rehabilitated over the past decade by developer Tony Goldman and have joined several other long-standing businesses in the vicinity in turning around what was once considered a “red light district.”

Congratulations to the pair, who even live above the store.  (How else could two people manage such an empire?)  Val and Marcie have made our neighborhood more lively, safer, more interesting and, well, more delicious.  (All their ventures are great,  but @Barbuzzo, already a James Beard award winner, is not be missed.)  Thanks to them and their unflagging energy and creativity.  Philadelphia is much the richer for their commitment.  So is the salted caramel budino!

 

Posted from Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, United States.

May 4th, 2011 | No Comments »

The new lobby at the Temple Performing Arts Center

Last night, I joined fellow historic building fans and saviors for the Preservation Alliance’s annual preview tour of one of the group’s upcoming Awards luncheon honoree projects:  the former Baptist Temple, now the Temple Performing Arts Center.  What a great rehabilitation project I discovered, and what a perfect architectural example of Philadelphia’s 250-year-old and still thriving reputation as a center of innovation and invention.

Project architects rmjm/Hillier and engineers Keast & Hood were presented with a 100+ year old stone landmark that had been abandoned for more than 20 years.  The team was challenged with transforming it into a performing space with enough flexibility to welcome the University orchestra, rock concerts, weddings and weekend church services.  One of their most interesting tasks required inserting a substantial lobby space into what was originally designed in 1891 as one large preaching barn.  Restored auditorium of the Baptist TempleA big, square open space – no interior columns to intrude on the sightlines of the 4,000 congregants to the pulpit, 200 voice choir loft and “River of Jordan” baptismal font  – had to be divided to provide a traditional, separated lobby with the usual audience amenities and new vertical circulation.

Thankfully, instead of trying to create a historicized, pseudo-19th century lobby, the architects chose a very sleek, modern vocabulary that draws patrons through a glowing glass and steel environment into the stunning, and slightly surprising, restored auditorium.  Meanwhile, the designers also had to engineer a structural upgrade that complemented the four underperforming columns at building corners, which stretch from foundation to roof, that Keast & Hood tour guides described as ” like a waiter supporting a tray on the tips of four outstretched fingers.”

Baptist Temple and Temple University founder Russell Conwell headed up Victorian Philadelphia’s premiere megachurch here, where he built a theatre that was designed to focus his star struck flock’s attention, center stage, on his notoriously uplifting and inspiring sermons.  So the University’s preservation project at Conwell’s Temple can’t be called an adaptive use; it’s still a theatre.  But the careful rehabilitation includes textbook restoration of lots of historic elements, like conservation of scores of art glass windows.  The spectacular central fan window above the entrance now casts a gloriously colorful glow in the auditorium through an enormous – and soundproof – glass wall in the new lobby.

Tourgoers look in vain for the turntable on the stage of the Chapel of the Four Chaplains

One historic element didn’t make the restoration planning cut, however.  In the Chapel of the Four Chaplains, a splendid undercroft designed in an elegant Romanesque style in 1951, the great central arch frames the platform from whence interdenominational religious services were to be conducted.  But the turntable within the arch that allowed the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant altars or regalia to be rotated into view when needed was never fully used, and has now been dispensed with.

Observers like marketing guru Patricia Mann are extolling Philadelphia’s current brand as an incubator of innovation and the logical extension of our long history as a “cradle of invention.”  (See Ben Franklin.) The inventively and beautifully reborn Temple on North Broad is a first rate performance hall, a terrific model of preservation with out-of-the-box thinking, and a worthy recipient of the Preservation Alliance’s Achievement Award.

April 1st, 2011 | 1 Comment »

Philadelphia's Mother Bethel AME, a proud recipient of Save America's Treasures preservation grant funding. Maybe among the last. Photo courtesy Mother Bethel AME Church

The final verdict is in.  President Obama and the “tough-on-spending” crowd in Washington got their way when the latest stopgap federal funding bill that Obama signed recently abolished the Save America’s Treasures grant program.  It’s true, certain members of Congress had hijacked some of those grant funds by way of their own pet project earmarks over the past few years.  Nevertheless, thousands of fragile pieces of our national culture were saved, preserved, restored and celebrated thanks to the SAT grant program that began as a vision of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton in the mid-1990s.

In Philadelphia, we’ve been fortunate that a lot of pretty important and valued landmarks have been the recipients of SAT funding.  Mother Bethel AME Church, the founding location of Rev. Richard Allen’s African Methodist Episcopal church, built in 1890, got badly needed structural repairs.  Christ Church in Old City, the Eastern State Penitentiary and more than 30 other critical heritage projects got funding that, because they required matching money, leveraged much more private philanthropic giving to see the projects completed.

Now, no more.  The nation’s only source of bricks and mortar preservation help is ended.  In the thirty years that I’ve been making my own small efforts to help preserve our cultural patrimony, I’ve heard so often “why can’t America be like Europe, where they appreciate their historic buildings and places and really preserve them?”  I never paid much attention to that comparison question (apples to oranges in so many ways).  But now, quoting Winston Churchill, who was responding to a wartime minister who proposed slashing cultural spending in Britain, I ask “then what are we fighting for?”

Let’s do some comparisons.  The Tory/LibDem coalition government in that selfsame Britain, which has just slashed its spending by an even greater proportion than Congress’ deficit hawks are calling for, has announced that the Heritage Lottery Fund will give out £300 million (pounds) – that’s more than $500 million – a year starting in 2013 for heritage preservation and conservation projects in the UK.  That’s ten times the largest ever annual US appropriation to Save America’s Treasures.  Makes you wonder why so many American leaders, who holler about American values and our cultural exceptionalism, are utterly unwilling to help pay for sustaining it.

Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia. Photo Credit: by Tom Crane, courtesy of Wagner Free Institute of Science

So what if a New Jersey Senator successfully earmarked some dough to restore and re-open Thomas Edison’s Invention Factory?  Just like at the Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia – with perhaps a slightly more recognizable brand – the Edison Factory used that SAT money to preserve and present to our kids and future generations an inspiration for getting interested in science and innovation.

While Congress and the President have ignored the cries from thousands of Americans who have argued for the job-creating, culture-preserving value of Save America’s Treasures (the abolition of which will save the beleaguered Treasury the equivalent of a tiny rounding error in the federal budget) the English Heritage Lottery Fund has embarked on a nationwide consultation to get UK residents’ opinions and ideas on how the £300 million should be spent each year.  What a daft idea.  Listening to the tax payers.

Is NPR really next?

December 31st, 2010 | 2 Comments »

What IS this?

We were in Denver – my hometown – last week and saw, with horror, the results of the continuing teardown phenomenon that may have slowed somewhat nationally but is apparently still rampant in the Mile High City.  In every neighborhood, there they were:  overscaled, mostly terribly detailed Tuscan villas, French chateaux, phony Colonials.  Spec houses for the most part, we surmised.

Obviously, Denver hasn’t gotten a grip on the practice yet.  An ordinance passed a couple of years ago that gives neighbors a chance to respond to proposed teardowns, along with a period for potential designation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, is coming under increasing fire from the crowd that cries “real estate terrorism”.  In their sights this week:  a terrific mid-century modern house in Belcaro Park, an upscale development of the 1950s and ’60s on Denver’s near east side.  (Full disclosure:  I grew up there.)  Once a cohesive district of large ranches, Usonians and traditionals, most of them architect-designed, Belcaro is losing its sense of place at a dismaying rate.  The area has avoided the scourge of overscaled replacements that plague other historic Denver neighborhoods only because the lots are positively vast to begin with. The permanent deed restrictions and strong neighborhood association that were counted on for decades to protect the character of the place have now apparently failed to stem the tide of scrape-offs.

Wallbank House, 1958. Denver's Belcaro Park

The 1958 Wallbank House, designed by architects Tician Papachristou, a colleague and biographer of Marcel Breuer, and my old friend, prominent Denver designer Dan Havekost, is set to be replaced by a house just 400 square feet larger.  So the landfill-enlarging teardown isn’t even justified by overheated expectations for ostentatious amounts of space.  Just a lack of imagination and appreciation for a stunning mid-century design that could easily be adapted and expanded.

Like so  many post World War II developments across the country, Belcaro hasn’t been formally surveyed to create an inventory of significant properties to justify the historic district it could have been.  (Ironically, it was in suburban Denver where the first National Register district of mid-century modern houses in Arapaho Acres was listed a few years ago.)   It’s time to do so.  The shift of ownership in the neighborhood suggests an opportunity:  a younger cadre of buyers are part of a generational trend toward appreciation for the architecture of the 1950s and ’60s.   Places like Belcaro Park should learn, quickly, to capitalize on their architectural assets, educate residents and would-be buyers about the unique character and opportunities of the existing built environment and help realtors and investors to make informed, creative and environmentally sustainable decisions.

I hope it’s not too late for Belcaro.  Other historic Denver neighborhoods – Hilltop, Bonnie Brae – may have lost too much.  Sad.  And here I thought northern New Jersey was the teardown capital.

Wallberg House. (photos thanks to The Denver Eye)

September 30th, 2010 | No Comments »

I’m pleased to see that our preservation colleague Adele Chatfield-Taylor, longtime President of the American Academy in Rome, is to receive the 12th annual Vincent Scully Prize at the National Building Museum in November.  Adele joins a distinguished company of leaders who have, through ideas and scholarship, influenced the world of design and architecture.   Among the previous Prize winners are Vincent Scully himself, Prince Charles the Prince of Wales, recently retired National Trust for Historic Preservation president Richard Moe,  the Agha Khan, Jane Jacobs and Robert A.M. Stern.

In the words of the National Building Museum’s announcement of her award, “Ms. Chatfield-Taylor has consistently promoted excellence in the design world, while ensuring that the planning, architecture, and historic preservation disciplines remain connected to the public.”  I can think of few of my colleagues, mentors or teachers (all of which Adele has been over the years) who better represent or promote that nexus of people and place.  A fellow Columbia Preservation Alum (as well as one of my teachers there) and Rome Prize winner, Adele’s contributions to the field are legion: from the New York City Landmarks Commission to the Design Arts Program at the National Endowment, where she helped to create the Mayors’ Institute on City Design.

It’s gratifying to see that the Vincent Scully Prize Jury recognizes the importance of preservation as an integral part of making and conserving great places and Adele’s important and sustained voice and leadership in that endeavor.  Congratulations Adele.