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Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia details how historic buildings are designated

According to Patrick Grossi, Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s Director of Advocacy, anybody can nominate a building.

Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s Executive Director Paul Steinke was on hand at last week’s meeting.

Members from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia took to the Bella Vista Neighbors Association meeting Wednesday night to discuss the process for nominating and designating buildings (or structures, sites and objects) to Philadelphia’s register of historic designations. The Preservation Alliance regularly nominates buildings for consideration by the Historical Commission.

According to Patrick Grossi, the preservation alliance’s director of advocacy, anybody can nominate a building.

“There really are just three core components,” he said. “You’re providing a physical description of the building — what does it look like and what are what we call the character defining features — and then you have to make a statement of significance. Why is this historically significant? [and] Why does it deserve a place on the Philadelphia register of historic places? Provide some additional sources to support those arguments and then you submit it to the historical commission.”

For a building to be nominated for historic designation, it must adhere to one of the following 10 criterium:

  1. Has significant character, interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of the City, Commonwealth or Nation or is associated with the life of a person significant in the past; or
  2. Is associated with an event of importance to the history of the City, Commonwealth or Nation; or
  3. Reflects the environment in an era characterized by a distinctive architectural style; or
  4. Embodies distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style or engineering specimen; or
  5. Is the work of a designer, architect, landscape architect or designer, or engineer whose work has significantly influenced the historical, architectural, economic, social, or cultural development of the City, Commonwealth or Nation; or
  6. Contains elements of design, detail, materials or craftsmanship which represent a significant innovation; or
  7. Is part of or related to a square, park or other distinctive area which should be preserved according to an historic, cultural or architectural motif; or
  8. Owing to its unique location or singular physical characteristic, represents an established and familiar visual feature of the neighborhood, community or City; or
  9. Has yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in pre-history or history; or
  10. Exemplifies the cultural, political, economic, social or historical heritage of the community.

It’s only necessary for nominations to satisfy one of the 10 criteria, however, Grossi said, “the more you try and bring into the argument the better.”

Of all the criteria, numbers 6, 7 and 8 are among the most uncommonly cited. According to Caroline Slama, Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s associate director of preservation services, the architectural integrity of the building is not necessarily a requirement to become designated. Some buildings have gone through many architectural changes over the years, but as long as there’s a considerable amount of historic significance to the building, they can still be good candidates for historic designation.

“We saw this with the West Philadelphia Institute,” Slama said, “where it was a pretty significant compromise of architectural alterations over the years. But because of the history of the building and the significance of the building, it made it onto the list.”

Once an application is submitted for nomination, it goes through three levels of review, Grossi said.

First, the PHC staff goes through the paperwork to make sure everything is “complete and correct,” Grossi said. If everything checks out, the nomination then goes to a historical commission subcommittee, which is comprised of scholars, architectural historians.

“They’ll review it and make recommendation whether it should be designated or not,” Grossi said. If they recommend in favor of its designation, the nomination then goes to the full commission, which makes the final decision.

If a property is designated, the PHC has jurisdiction over any potential new construction, such as additions or alterations and especially demolition, Grossi said.

“There’s really only a couple scenarios in which a designated property can be demolished, one of those is called financial hardship,” Grossi said, which is “where you’re making an argument that it’s not financially viable to maintain this historic building.”

Alternatively, the building could be deemed “imminently dangerous” either by a private structural engineer or with cooperation from L and I, which could also lead to demolition.

According to Grossi, major changes, alterations, maintenance, or repairs to a historically designated building that require a building permit from L and I would get flagged and sent to the PHC to go through the permit process.

Grossi said “the vast majority of permits are approved by the staff” and that “it’s just a small percentage that have to go through a fairly rigorous review process.”

For more information about the PHC, visit phila.gov/historical.

A previous version of this article conflated the Philadelphia Historical Commission and the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. The issue has been corrected.

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