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September 19, 2016

Can Jewelers Row buildings be saved from wrecking ball?

Development Jewelers Row
Jewelers row Sept 17 Hayden Mitman/PhillyVoice

The Jewelers Row structures that could be made part of the Philadelphia Historic Register: 704 and 706-08 Sansom Street, as seen last week. Windows in 704 Sansom Street host signs for an online petition protesting their proposed demolition.

An 11th-hour nomination to the Philadelphia Historic Register is intended to save several properties on Jewelers Row from the chopping block. 

But does it have a chance? 

A plan that would see five buildings along Jewelers Row — on the southeast corner of Sansom and 7th streets — demolished to make way for a 16-story residential complex was met with opposition in the form of thousands of signatures to a petition hoping to "Save Jewelers Row." 

Toll Brothers — a developer based in Horsham, Montgomery County — applied for demolition permits earlier this year for five properties along Jewelers Row, including 702, 704, 706-08 and 710 Sansom St., as well as 128 S. Seventh St. It seeks to develop an 80-unit residential complex with commercial space at street level. 

Perhaps the best hope to save the structures will come from a meeting to be held in October, when the Philadelphia Historical Commission's Committee on Historic Designation is expected to review two of the five threatened properties for possible nomination to the city's Register of Historic Places. 

But even if the historical designation is granted, it could be too little, too late.

According to Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, who submitted the paperwork to nominate 704 and 706-08 Sansom St. to the historic register, those buildings have historic significance and their destruction would be a loss to the city. 

"The character and historic charm of Jewelers Row is made up of three- and four-story buildings," he said during an interview last week. "To gouge out five of these historic structures would ruin Jewelers Row." 

According to Lauren Hitt, communications director for the mayor's office, Philadelphia code requires that any work to be done to buildings designated for historic preservation must have a building permit from the Department of Licenses and Inspections. 

The code also requires that the building permit application be reviewed by the Philadelphia Historic Commission, which can approve or deny the permit. 

Developers who demolish or alter a structure on the Historic Register before securing the permit — or ignore requirements specified by the commission – would be required to restore the structure to its original condition before work began. 


The effort to preserve the buildings will be guided by the Philadelphia Code, the compilation of all of the city's ordinances.

The application for a demolition permit for the buildings was submitted prior to Steinke's nomination  . As a result, the Code allows for the demolition permit application to be considered and a permit issued without Commission approval. "Therefore, nominations made after the permit application would not stop demolition," the Code reads.

But the Code also says that the city Department of Licenses and Inspections "shall not issue any building permit for the demolition, alteration, or construction of any building, structure, site, or object that is being considered by the Historical Commission for designation as historic..." 

Steinke said that, last year, a similar issue arose for a building at 4046-48 Chestnut St. In that case, as reported by PlanPhilly,  a judge halted demolition, pending a review of demolition permits, as the building had been nominated to the historic register — just as the Jewelers Row buildings have been nominated. 

Steinke believes the historic register could be the community's best chance at saving these structures.

"We are contesting that the nomination holds the property," he said. 

In his nomination, Steinke noted that 704 and 706-08 Sansom Street were a publishing house and an electrotype foundry developed by publisher Henry C. Lea in the late 1800s. In fact, the building at 706-08 Sansom may be the oldest commercial building on the entire block. 

He added that Lea's legacy — there's an elementary school named in his honor at 47th and Locust streets — is a major consideration in the need for preservation. 

"There has been a groundswell of support in the city and throughout the region [for saving these buildings]," said Steinke. "To destroy them would be to the eternal regret of the city." 

An online petition opposing the demolition of these buildings has been created by the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. As of Sunday night, it had 6,200 signatures. 

As of last week, no demolition permit had been approved by L&I for the Jewelers Row properties, according to Karen Guss, a spokeswoman for the department. L&I is currently reviewing a demolition permit for the project, and Guss said she doesn't believe demolition would occur any time soon

Also, before construction can begin, the developer would need to present a building plan to the Civic Design Review Committee and hear public input on the project —though it would not be required to follow any recommendations from the review. 

Finally, Steinke said he's planning on nominating the buildings at 702 and 710 Sansom St. to the historic register in the near future. 

The Philadelphia Historical Commission's Committee on Historic Designation is expected to review the nominations for 704 and 706-08 Sansom St. at an October 21 meeting.