Demolition moratorium for Black Doctors’ Row

The former home of Julian Abele at 1515 Christian Street in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood of South Philadelphia. Photo by Google Maps.

A stretch of Christian Street known as “Black Doctors’ Row” will be preserved, at least temporarily, while officials work on a permanent solution.

The stretch of homes along Christian Street between Broad and 20th streets, has been eyed by developers for demolition in an effort to create new upscale housing in an area that has been seeing significant growth in property value. It is also culturally significant, as it includes the former home of architect Julian Abele, who designed more than 400 buildings, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Main Branch of the Philadelphia Free Library. The surrounding area was settled by African Americans in the 19th century.

On June 24, City Council voted to approve a temporary one-year demolition moratorium for the rows of buildings in that area. The bill was created by 2nd District Council member Kenyatta Johnson, a South Philly native.

“I want to thank my fellow members of City Council, The South of South Neighbors Association and the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia for supporting the passage of this legislation, “ Johnson said. “Christian Street has been a historically vibrant, professional community for decades. The corridor has always been a very vibrant area and we want to make sure we maintain the cultural fabric for decades to come.”

Johnson’s goal is to make the area a permanent historic district, which would be the city’s first based on the history of Black Philadelphians. Abele, a Philadelphia native, moved there in the mid-1920s and resided on the 1500 block of Christian Street until he died in 1950. His home still stands and is protected from demolition, but the rest of the area was not. A few homes were already demolished.

“After the mid-winter demolitions of three large homes on Christian Street left holes in the ground that exist to this moment, SOSNA’s Zoning and Architectural Review Committees coalesced, contacted our comrades in the preservation community and started the conversation that led to Councilman Johnson’s office lending significant support with legislation to preserving the homes on one of the streets in our neighborhood where history was made in the Black community,” said SOSNA zoning chair Murray Spencer.” This piece of legislation, and the pause on the height bonus, gives us a chance to step back, get our community involved in the conversation and move forward with plans to preserve what makes sense to architecturally preserve on the street fabric that has existed for over 100 years and hopefully for decades to come.”

The South of South Neighborhood Association and the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia are expected to file the paperwork to the Philadelphia Historical Commission, asking that Christian Street be deemed a Historic District, stretching from 20th to 13th Street. A final decision from the historical commission is expected to take months.

“The Preservation Alliance joins SOSNA in celebrating the passage of the Christian Street demolition moratorium,” said Preservation Alliance executive director Paul Steinke. “We can further develop our collaboration with Councilman Johnson to rediscover the legacy of Black Doctors’ Row and the people and places that give it a special place in our city’s history.”