A heated back-and-forth between Penn and West Philadelphians leaves the future of an historic building up in the air
When plans were announced in the spring to demolish the mansion at 40th and Pine, much of Penn took notice for the first time of something they walked by everyday. Steps slowed outside the complex. What was heretofore unknown assumed an aura of mystery. What history was encased in those cinderblock wings?
In our midst, a legal battle among Penn, developers and the community drags on over a proposed apartment complex intended for graduate housing. With neighbors divided, preservationists up in arms and the university caught in the middle, 400 S. 40th St.’s future is up in the air. The house has been there for more than 150 years, but when you graduate, it might not be.
The year is 1853, and Philadelphia, like other large cities in the U.S., is undergoing an urban transformation. With mass transit on the horizon, the closely–knit city center has begun to diffuse, paving the way for development on its outskirts. Samuel Sloan, a young architect best known now for the establishment of the first American architectural periodical, is at work in West Philadelphia fulfilling the demands of wealthy citizens who wish to buy into a suburban Utopia. One such person is John P. Levy — half of the successful steamboat–manufacturing company Neafie & Levy.
Levy moves from his former home near the wharf in Kensington to a comparatively idyllic environment, purchasing 400 S. 40th St. for the then–hefty sum of $6000. A newly–inducted member of the industrial elite, he’s exactly the sort of resident developers of the area are hoping to seduce. It’s a successful match, and shortly after moving in, Levy begins development himself. Intimately connected to the industrial growth of Philadelphia and its story of suburbanization, he is buried at Woodland Cemetery in a marble mausoleum.
Fast forward to the mid–20th century, and the property is metamorphosing. A nursing home buys the building and begins the process of adding cinderblock wings. Extending on every side except the north, they dominate the structure’s appearance. The formerly–glorious property — the work of an esteemed architect at his most ambitious — is effectively entombed.
Despite the pseudo–fortifications, the community holds the property in sufficient esteem to add it to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. “The continuing value of the house, despite changes in architectural style, attests to the transcendent power of the suburban vision,” its nomination form reads.
Aaron Wunsch is a historic preservation professor at Penn. He has been a vocal opponent of Penn’s designs since they were first announced last spring — in fact, I tracked him down via the comments section in the Daily Pennsylvanian article that broke the news. Unlike the majority of internet commenters, he used his real name.
On the payroll of an institution whose plans he vehemently disagrees with, Wunsch’s affection for his post makes his position all the more precarious. He describes the perks of teaching alongside living history and having the privilege of educating some of the best students of historic preservation in the country. “I think it sets a really dispiriting example for them to see that their future alma mater may be in the business of demolishing historic buildings,” he says.
Despite the unpalatable additions made in the 1950s, Wunsch firmly believes the property to possess the same significance it held when it was added to the historic register. He stresses that the home’s majestic innards are still intact. “The additions have not fundamentally compromised it,” he explains. “They’ve obscured it without wrecking the core. They could be stripped away and you could see what was originally there.” In lieu of this, he advises me to “look up” in my observance of the house. Traces of the original structure can be seen nearer to the sky.
Just around the corner from 400 S. 40th St. is Woodland Terrace. Composed entirely of Samuel Sloan–designed houses, the street is designated a historic district. These homes might be said to be the siblings of 400 S. 40th St. — they’re certainly treated as such by the residents. Mary Daniels has lived in the same house on Woodland Terrace for over 50 years. She raised a family, sent her children to Penn and lost her husband there. She used to be a conflict resolution teacher, and now she’s embroiled in a new contention.
I meet Daniels at her home. When she shows me in, it becomes obvious why this is her preferred meeting place. Unable to hide my enchantment, I remark on what a beautiful old house she lives in. “This is what it’s all about,” she says with a smile, raising her hands and motioning to the perfectly–preserved walls that surround her.
Mary Goldman, Daniels’s friend and neighbor, joins us shortly, and I learn that Goldman and I neighbors. She lives three houses down the street from me, which I find hard to believe — not just because of the years of life that separate us, but because her house is old and beautiful and pristine, and mine has red cups on the lawn and a mattress in the living room. I live in what she good–humoredly designates “one of the animal houses” — her home is on the national historic register. She’s lived there since 1962.
Neither Daniels nor Goldman can remember much of what the contested property was like when they moved in. As far as they can recall, those cinderblock wings were always there. They remember a sale to nameless owners, who turned it into an ambiguous “personal care home” that was poorly–run. The home was so understaffed that patients would often wander around the neighborhood. Goldman recalls one woman in particular who was permanently stationed outside, asking for cigarettes.
Daniels and Goldman have one abiding cause to fight for when it comes to 400 S. 40th St. — the preservation of an area they call home. This, they believe, is contingent on the prevention of the construction of a 5–story, 122 unit–dense apartment complex.
Daniels sums up her feelings at the end of our conversation: “This is my home. And it’s a setting that’s gracious and beautiful, and it adds to my life enormously, and I intend to stay here,” she says, letting escape the slightest tinge of heretofore–withheld emotion. “This is where I belong, and this is what I believe in.”
Barry Grossbach has lived in the neighborhood for 42 years, having formerly presided over the Spruce Hill Community Association and currently serving as the chair for the zoning committee. In contrast to Daniels and Goldman, he supports Penn’s current plan. He speaks of the issue in passionate tones, clearly frustrated by the current standstill caused by disagreement. He doesn’t hide his personal aversion to the property: “It was a depressing nursing home” he remarks conclusively. “There was a woman who used to stand outside asking for cigarettes.”
In Grossbach’s mind, the current positioning of the property isn’t much of an improvement. “As much as people would like to say this is a residential, home–owning neighborhood, it’s not — it’s student housing.” He’s doubtful that any single–family homeowner “in their right mind” would want to live there now. “Go out on Friday or Saturday morning. Walk up and down the 4000 block of Baltimore, right across from Woodland Terrace, and you tell me how many red plastic cups there are.” He has a point— these are the very “animal houses” Goldman referred to.
I’m not sure what I’m expecting when I meet Ed Datz, head of Penn’s Facilities & Real Estate Services and my last interviewee. But he’s not the slick–haired, fast–talking developer I had reductively envisioned. He’s sympathetic to the cause and even echoes Wunsch’s advice. “You can see in the fabric what [the mansion] was before all the appendages were added,” he offers. “We went through a lengthy process in trying to preserve it.”
The history of the site since 2007 speaks on his behalf. The first plan that was introduced was for a 10–story hotel built atop the historic house. This plan was immediately rejected by neighbors from Woodland Terrace and Spruce Hill alike. “You were preserving the house and destroying the neighborhood,” Daniels says of it.
She held the same sentiment in 2010, when a new, seven–story proposal that also preserved the house was introduced. Despite the slighter height, the plan was rejected outright as well. In Wunsch’s opinion, this was the most satisfactory option to date, and something the community should have tried to work with rather than reject outright.
What happened next addressed the concerns neighbors had of increased traffic and unseemly sightlines. A five–story design was introduced, but the catch was that the historic mansion be demolished.
This plan was approved by the Historic Commission via a financial hardship claim made by Penn — a notion that plenty found ludicrous. According to the university, investors could not be attracted to the site unless an 11.5% return could be guaranteed. “Wouldn’t we all like to have that in our pockets?” Goldman quips. Datz calmly suggests that critics talk to other developers.
As of now, the property stands in front of the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Licensing & Inspection review. Both are appeals of earlier decisions made by the city to allow for demolition and new construction.
Compromise is the word on everybody’s lips, but no one can seem to agree on what it entails. For Grossbach, it’s about preserving history while accepting new development. “You get to a certain point and change becomes a little scary, and a little threatening to the whole essence of what your community is,” he says.
With renovations constantly in flux on campus and a population that is overwhelmingly temporary, it’s no small wonder that West Philadelphia has retained so much of its historical groundwork. Though in–transit 20–somethings have replaced the industrial elite and red cups menace the formerly–manicured lawns and porches, as Wunsch puts it, “the fabric is still there.”
How much longer it will be there remains to be seen.
Elizabeth Horkley is the Editor–in–Chief of Street. She is a senior studying English.