A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, Philadelphia architect David S. Traub had a letter published in The New York Times. He was responding to a column by Christopher Gray on ‘vanishing guideposts’ (in that case, the old NYC bookshop E. Weyhe) and mentioned his founding, with John Dowlin, of a new Philadelphia preservation organization called SOS, for “Save Our Sites.”
Wanting to know more, I called him.
Save Our Sites, Traub told me, seeks to promote the preservation of elements of the Philadelphia cityscape that might escape the attention of mainstream organizations like the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Their interest is not in pedigreed historic structures or important architectural monuments, but what Traub calls “the mongrels and mutts” — overlooked buildings, or groups of buildings, and streetscapes that are “little-known, uncelebrated, neglected, and/or poorly maintained” but that nevertheless add value to the city’s fabric. “We’re not a historic preservation organization per se,” Traub said. “Urban preservation” is more accurate.
The loosely structured non-profit group, led by a steering committee of 12 drawn from the general membership, is poised to respond to preservation crises. Sadly, a couple of key sites have already been lost: the 19th century Garrett-Dunn mansion on the outskirts of the city, vulnerable and unprotected, was destroyed by fire just last summer, and Rindelaub’s Row, below, a group of four 1850s commercial structures on Sansom Street in Center City, fell to the wrecker’s ball to be replaced by a high-rise tower.
Sansom Street, which SOS regards as having “immense potential as a charming, narrow pathway threading through Philadelphia’s downtown,” may be the focus of a walking tour next spring.
At its last semi-annual meeting, in spring 2009, attendees came up with a list of sites in some kind of danger. Among them:
- The Grand Lobby of the Old Main Post Office, 2930 Market Street; closed to the public.
- Old Farm House, 1817 S. Vodges Street; Built circa 1764; Architect unknown; neglected and deteriorating.
- Shawmont Station, 7938 Nixon Street; Built 1834; possible architect: William Strickland; in need of restoration.
- Royal Theater, 1524 South Street; Built 1920; Architect Frank E. Hahn; abandoned and in need of restoration.
- The Wood Street Steps, 300 Block Front Street; Built late 18th century. These steps are the last remaining such steps that lead down toward the docks on the Delaware River from high ground to the West. They are relatively unknown, uncelebrated and in need of restoration.
- Headhouse at Wayne Junction, 4481 Wayne Avenue; Built circa 1900; Architect Frank Furness.
- McIllhenny Townhouse, Southwest corner of Rittenhouse Square; 1916 Rittenhouse Street; vacant and in need of restoration.
- Bauhaus-style House, 515 W. Godfrey Avenue, in the East Oak Lane Neighborhood; Built circa 1939; Architect Israel Demchick; in deteriorating condition.
- Sellers Hall, Christian & St. Anne, Upper Darby, Built 1682, 17th century; Builder, Samuel Sellers; unused and in need of repair and maintenance.
It’s an intriguing list. I know Philly pretty well, but I’ve never heard of most of those buildings. It makes me want to head down there with map and camera in hand.
Sketches from the SOS website show the northern Philly neighborhood of Fishtown, top, and the Italian Market on 9th Street, bottom.