After state officials reneged on a deal to preserve them and mourners laid flowers at their base, a pair of historic Philadelphia buildings were demolished in February to make room for an expansion of the city's convention center.
The buildings, which once housed the headquarters of the Philadelphia Life Insurance Co., were architecturally significant not just in themselves but in their connection to each other, preservationists say. The original 1915 Beaux-Arts building was designed by architect Adin Lacey, with a 1962 modernist addition by renowned Philadelphia architect Romaldo Giurgola. Located not far from City Hall, both buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the addition has been featured in architectural texts by Robert A.M. Stern and others.
"The addition has always been considered an exceptionally fine example of adding a modern building to a historic building," says John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. "The combination of the two structures is what made this uniquely special and raised the level of significance."
In 2004, two state agencies—the Convention Center Authority and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC)—inked an agreement that would allow more than a dozen other structures to be torn down for the expansion, as long as the Lacy and Giurgola buildings were saved. The original plans called for their façades to be incorporated into the new convention center design.
Last year, however, the authority and the state's construction agency, the Department of General Services (DGS), announced their intention to proceed with demolition, citing the high cost of repairs and structural stabilization that, they contended, the buildings required. Construction workers had already begun destroying one façade in late December when the Preservation Alliance sought a court injunction to halt demolition, with support from the Design Advocacy Group of Philadelphia, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and other groups.
In January, the case was dismissed on the grounds that the state agencies had not violated Pennsylvania's history ordinance, which stipulates that agencies must consult with the museum commission on preservation matters but not necessarily abide by their recommendations. "DGS acted well within the law and in good faith," says DGS spokesman Ed Myslewicz.
The decision prompted nearly 75 people to stage a last-ditch rally in front of the buildings, where they chanted, "It's not too late," even as they laid flowers on the ground, indicating they knew it was. "Those buildings were part of the ensemble of historic buildings that framed the City Hall tower," says Bob Hotes, an associate architect at RMJM Hillier and co-chair of AIA Philadelphia's Historic Preservation Committee. "Their loss is significant to the fabric of the city, the early 20th century downtown. The issue [of the broken deal] is more far-reaching and has certainly unknown ramifications, but we and other groups will be determining the effect this ruling has on future agreements that PHMC brokers."
Gallery says the Preservation Alliance will now work on sharpening the history code's teeth. "This case very obviously points out the weakness of the state history code as legislation for protecting historic buildings," he notes. "I think there is support in the Philadelphia community for trying to find and protect other historic buildings so this doesn't happen again."