Historic buildings vital to Philly’s personality

Having just bought a 19th-century row home in Philadelphia, what is the first thing you do? Whoop for joy at the luck of acquiring a piece of history or wonder how to rip out the

Having just bought a 19th-century row home in Philadelphia, what is the first thing you do? Whoop for joy at the luck of acquiring a piece of history or wonder how to rip out the walls, floors and windows to give the house a modern trendy style? For many in Philadelphia the answer is the latter and this foolhardy destruction of old buildings is ruining the beautiful visual history behind Philadelphia. Many other historic buildings are disappearing all together to be replaced by developments or high rises, so those that are left must be preserved.

I recently came across an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer detailing how people had transformed their newly purchased row houses into “modern, comfortable” living spaces. But in doing so, they had destroyed the historic integrity of the house by tearing down the entire front of the building, ripping out staircases and replacing a wall with one big blank single-paned window. These anachronistic changes seem to be the trend now. The alterations may make homeowners think they are artsy, but the modernization inflicts irrevocable damage on the few old buildings that remain.

If a person wants a modern loft apartment, why not buy one? Why go to all the trouble of purchasing an old building and forcing it into a new mold? People who are eager to replace the old with fleeting trends should leave old houses to people who respect their history and are willing to maintain them in a way so as not to mar their worth.

In addition to the beauty and ambiance of historic buildings, there are practical benefits to owning an old home. Many people have the misconception that owning an old house is risky because it has been around so long that it must be falling apart. Actually, historic houses have been built much stronger than those of today that they will far outlast houses built from the mid-20th century on.

The materials that houses were built with in the 18th and 19th centuries are infinitely superior to materials used today. Workmen who were once shown the basement of my family’s 19th century Gothic Victorian were amazed at the support beam, which they said would prevent an earthquake from damaging our house. These days most houses’ support beams are made from wood scraps that are glued together, as opposed to the solid tree trunk beams of olden days.

Many staircases in old houses have beautiful oak banisters and wooden floors of gleaming cherry. In a number of modern houses the fireplaces, “wood” floors, and “stone” facades are all fake.

Historic preservation benefits not only homeowners, but also neighborhoods by bolstering its economy. Look at what happened in Chestnut Hill and Manayunk; both neighborhoods have gone from depressed to thriving because of the restoration of their quaint, old buildings.

According to “The Economic Benefits of Preserving Philadelphia’s Past,” historic neighborhoods are also more ethnically diverse and lose population at a lesser rate than other neighborhoods. If the city’s old neighborhoods are preserved, future Philadelphians will be able to see where they came from and enjoy the aesthetic and economic benefits of historic houses.

Philadelphia is a city filled with history, and in order to maintain that atmosphere we must maintain the city’s historic buildings. Organizations such as the Philadelphia Historical Commission are working to keep owners of old buildings from ruining them and to keep developers from getting a hold of historic properties in the city.

But politics often prevent historic preservationists from reaching their goals, so the community should rally around them in pursuing the maintenance of our city because the conservation of its history is an interest that everyone should be invested in.

I recently found myself at the top of the Bellevue Hotel with my mom, looking out along the Philadelphia skyline toward Penn’s Landing. She commented on how amazing it is that the view still contains so many little red brick buildings instead of looming skyscrapers. Those small, old buildings are what make Philadelphia beautiful and unique. In order to appreciate Philadelphia’s history we must preserve its historic buildings, because in losing them we will lose our city’s character.

Emilie Haertsch can be reached at emilie.haertsch@temple.edu.

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