Historical Dispute: Will the stalled designation of Overbrook Farms be resolved?

story by Stefan Kamph photos by Albert Yee

This article is part of a special editorial partnership with Hidden City Daily on preservation in Philadelphia. Like what you read? Check out the full March 2013 issue and visit Hidden City for more stories on the inspiring preservation work being done in Philadelphia. And for more about Overbook Farms, come back tomorrow to read a new article from Stefan Kamph on measuring the economic impact of historic districts.

Nearly every detail—interior and exterior—of Larry and Jean Andreozzi’s 10-bedroom house is precisely restored, as if time hadn’t touched the home since it was built in 1894. Actually much of Overbrook Farms, the West Philadelphia neighborhood tucked along the city’s border with Montgomery County, feels a lot like it did when tycoons, politicians and industrialists built it as the first Main Line suburb in the late 19th century. Stone houses with gables and manicured lawns sit on quiet, tree-lined streets. “The houses had their own individual architects, marvelous craftsmanship, and marvelous building materials,” says Andreozzi, standing near a door frame of quarter-sawn oak that he’s lovingly restored. Andreozzi is a master woodworker, and for the past 15 years this house has been his hobby.

“People come to our house and see the value of restoration,” he says, looking up the original staircase at a huge stained-glass window. Andreozzi is one in a group of residents pushing for the City to designate the neighborhood as an historic district on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. This recognition would prohibit demolition and legally require the owners of the more than 400 homes to keep their street-facing exteriors looking more or less the way they did a century ago. In 1984, the neighborhood was named a national historic district, but that designation doesn’t protect buildings from being torn down or altered. Since then, two architecturally significant houses have been demolished and others have been converted to boarding houses for St. Joseph’s University students.

Despite the cultural value an historical designation brings to a community, the path to district recognition hasn’t been easy. Some residents and businesses worry that their freedom—and money—are threatened by well-meaning preservationists. Meanwhile, the Historical Commission, which City Council authorizes to protect the city’s architectural heritage, lacks the staff capacity or political will to take a stand.

The Threat of Designation

In 2004, members of the Overbrook Farms Club decided to seek historic district recognition from the City. The process got off to a smooth start, and club members held a fundraiser to pay for a consultant to write the nomination. But after a blistering political battle over the historic designation of another West Philadelphia neighborhood, Spruce Hill, the commission’s work on the Overbrook Farms nomination faltered. It was left unconsidered for seven years.

Finally, in 2011, after renewed pressure by the Overbrook Farms Club and the Preservation Alliance, commission staffers began to review the nomination in preparation for the designation committee to vote on approval. At this late point in the designation process it’s typical for the commission to make sure property owners don’t suddenly alter or demolish their buildings. So, in September 2011, the commission informed homeowners by letter that they’d have to ask the commission for permission to make any substantial modifications to their homes, effective immediately.

In a season where anti-government Tea Party protests dominated headlines, this was not good press for the preservation effort. RJ Krohn, a resident and the electronic musician known as RJD2, circulated a petition opposing the effort. Dozens of residents turned up to a November 2011 hearing to voice their opinions. One resident said he thought designation amounted to the Historical Commission “taking his property without compensation.” Another called the club members behind the nomination “Nazis.”

V. Chapman-Smith, an historian at the National Archives, joined in opposition to the district. She says she appreciates her house’s historical detail—she spent $8,000 carefully restoring her front porch—but is worried that some residents wouldn’t be able to afford this burden. She also worries that the city wouldn’t let people update their homes for things like energy efficiency. “The original owners saw that house as an organic thing, never staying exactly the way it was when they first built it,” she says now, more than a year after neighbors began to organize against the district. Without such adaptations, she explains, a neighborhood would become obsolete. “If we save everything, we kill ourselves.”

One of the most vocal opponents to the district was the Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, a rabbinical school that has considered expanding its campus. The yeshiva owns several historic houses that are included in the nomination. While the school has already torn down one architecturally significant house, the historic district designation would prevent them from demolishing others.

The grassroots effort soon drew the attention of the then-new Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr., who represents a wide swath of West Philadelphia including Overbrook Farms. “People were divided on the issue of historical certification,” he says. “People that were against it expressed to me... that the recession was impeding their ability to repair their home. So I listened to both [sides].”

The All-Powerful City Council
Jones has asked the commission to table the discussion until his constituents could get more information. “This is the kind of designation that once you do it, you have committed to a direction for the neighborhood,” he says. “Rather than act in haste, I wanted to give people another opportunity to discuss it, to reach a mutual compromise.”

Five months later, following Jones’ request,  Alan Greenberger, the City’s commerce director and a deputy mayor, sent a letter to the commission instructing them to put aside the nomination process until his office could connect with all the interested parties. That’s where the process stalled.

In an old, unwritten custom called “councilmanic prerogative,” City Council members almost always vote on specific development projects in agreement with the councilperson who represents the district in question. By consequence, these elected officials hold powerful sway over the physical development of their districts.

Councilman Jones says that by nature he tends not to be heavy handed about making demands of City agencies and that his interest isn’t in derailing the process. “I have an opinion, and it’s just one of many. I’m thankful to them for respecting it.”

The reality, however, is that the commission was given its powers by City Council, which also controls its annual budget of around $385,000—barely enough to keep staff on top of the buildings and districts presently on the Philadelphia Register, let alone process applications for new ones. Council has the power to dissolve the commission or cut its funding. And recent history shows that when a councilperson opposes historic designation, the commission won’t press its case too hard.

A decade ago, when Spruce Hill residents submitted what many in the field considered a textbook nomination to turn their neighborhood—one of the nation’s first Victorian-era streetcar suburbs—into an historic district, the district councilperson Jannie Blackwell introduced a bill to City Council. The bill, which ultimately was unsuccessful, would have taken the power to designate historic districts away from the Historical Commission and given it to City Council. Had the bill passed, council members would have gained near-complete authority to block preservation efforts in their districts. Though Blackwell’s bill failed, it effectively derailed the Spruce Hill nomination—the commission didn’t appear willing to fight Blackwell, even though it technically could have—and a decade later it casts a shadow over the Overbrook Farms case.

With only six staff members and a budget that pales in comparison to other big cities, the commission focuses most of its resources on what it considers its most important role: reviewing permit applications for buildings already on the Register. In addition, the commission has been fighting three contentious appeals over historic properties that could be demolished. “We simply don’t have the staff capacity to meet all expectations,” says Jon Farnham, the Historical Commission’s executive director. “The vast majority of the staff’s time is spent reviewing applications. That’s what we do day-in, day-out.”

But on top of being hamstrung by its small budget, as long as Overbrook Farms remains tabled, the commission has been reticent to tackle new building and district nominations. “There’s this sort of unspoken understanding that they’re not going to move on any of the dozen or so nominated buildings or the long-waiting Washington Square West district until they resolve what’s going on at Overbrook,” says Ben Leech, advocacy director at the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. “There are fates of buildings hanging in the balance.”

The Future of Overbrook
Despite all the talk about government intrusion, real preservation can’t be mandated by an overstretched city agency. It will always depend on the care of the individual homeowner. If everyone had the passion and resources of Andreozzi, their houses could be as well-preserved as his.

Andreozzi points out the meticulous tile mosaic in the entry foyer, and the ornate egg-and-dart mantelpiece. These kinds of extravagances are part of the city’s three-century-long architectural heritage. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. But treasures like these are all over the neighborhood, in houses of the wealthy and the middle-class, both neglected and lovingly preserved. “Every house, in its own little way, is just like this house,” says Andreozzi.

Councilman Jones says that other issues affecting his district are taking precedent over dealing with the historic district conflict. Anyway, he says, it is the Historical Commission’s turn to act. “We anxiously await them. The ball is in their court.”

Farnham says he is trying to figure out how the commission might make an Overbrook Farms district easier to swallow. Possible changes include slight modifications to the district’s boundaries or relaxed standards for renovations that are not visible from the street.

Meanwhile, according to City ordinance, those temporary restrictions outlined in the letter that got everyone fuming in late 2011 will remain in effect until the Historical Commission takes up the issue again. That means Overbrook Farms is being legally treated as an historic district, and residents need to seek approval for outside renovations.

With limited resources the commission isn’t in a position to strictly enforce these regulations. It depends on inspectors from the Department of Licenses and Inspections to issue citations, which usually happen only once a neighbor complains. Nobody is patrolling the neighborhood, looking for infractions. Councilman Jones says that since fall 2011 he’s received no complaints from constituents about the restrictions. Residents are being left largely alone with their houses and their opinions—though for those who advocate preservation, the rules provide some comfort.

“Right now, we’re de facto under the regulations of the Historical Commission,” says Kevin Maurer, board president of the Overbrook Farms Club, who has worked to get the designation passed. “The world has not come to an end.”