The confidently handsome post-Civil War rowhouses on the 1500 block of Christian Street are reminders of the upper middle-class Philadelphians who built and lived in them. While unostentatious in style, what was nicknamed “Doctors’ Row” has an extraordinary history: its late nineteenth and early twentieth century residents were among the leaders of Black Philadelphia.
As Inga Saffron has warned us, this intact piece of our neglected African American history is at risk. Except for the house of the pioneering Black architect Julian Abele (1515 Christian), the row is unprotected by the city’s historic preservation laws. And a developer has begun to demolish 1513, the east side neighbor of the Abele house, and replace it with the kind of contemporary, bay-windowed, multi-colored condo architecture that has become the dreary norm in gentrifying neighborhoods. (See: https://www.inquirer.com/real-estate/inga-saffron/julian-abele-black-architect-philadelphia-graduate-hospital-tear-down-historic-stamm-christian-street-20201223.html)
We therefore welcome the call by the Inquirer editorial board for a short-term moratorium to prevent further demolition in this neighborhood, giving time for the Historical Commission to provide permanent protection. (See https://fusion.inquirer.com/opinion/editorials/black-philadelphia-neighborhood-historic-preservation-gentrification-20210101.html)
We urge City Council to heed the Inquirer’s call. But that’s not enough to protect this neighborhood from what’s already happening at 1513, where interior demolition has begun. We challenge the developers to do better. The disrespectful design that is proposed is perfectly legal, but a much better solution is within reach. The condos could be built behind the historic façade, or inside a new building that echoes the colors and cadence of its neighbors. We call for such a better solution today, while we wait for permanent, official protection for Doctors Row other important sites of Black history.
While we’re at it, we also can’t wait for a long-term solution to protect the house and restaurant of abolitionist and star caterer Henry Minton at 204 South 12th Street. The developers of the generic 36-story residential tower planned for that site have agreed to pay for a replacement for the mural honoring LBGTQ activist Gloria Casarez that they have already painted over. That’s welcome news. But they should also preserve the distinctive 19th-century façade of the Minton house. That will make their project more attractive—and it’s the right thing. It’s a win-win.
A shortened version of this letter was published in the Inquirer on January 5th, 2021 in Letters to the Editor.