by Maggie Smith
Beginning in 1871, a part of Tacony served as industrialist Henry Disston’s company town. It was a sustainable place to live, where the employees of Disston’s Keystone Saw Works could live within walking distance of where they worked. Within the past decade or so, several organizations have brought back to light the historic Disston estate through efforts to designate the area as a historic district. A group of graduate students in the Masters of Science in Historic Preservation program at the University of Pennsylvania created a preservation plan for “Historic Disston: Tacony’s Company Town” in 2008. Three years later, the Preservation Alliance awarded Tacony a $30,000 grant as a part of their Vital Neighborhoods Initiative Projects. With this money, the Historical Society of Tacony (HST) hired the Preservation Design Partnership (PDP) in 2012 to survey over 1,400 properties in the Tacony community. Until August 2013, PDP will be documenting properties and collecting data to nominate that portion of Tacony as a historic district on both the National Register of Historic Places and the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Designation would help spur rehabilitation of the historic properties and thus promote historic preservation in Tacony. Over the past two years, the Tacony Community Development Corporation has been spearheading the revitalization of the business corridor along Torresdale Avenue through the Historic Tacony Revitalization Project. HST was also able to place historic plaques on homes within the Disston Estate, depicting when the home was built and who occupied the dwelling. The Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, Historical Society of Tacony, and Tacony CDC, along with the Tacony Civic Association and Councilman Bobby Henon, are all proud supporters of the proposed Disston Historic District.
But before we continue, let’s rewind a bit and take a look at this whole thing called “historic preservation”.
Historic preservation is the Tacony Music Hall
It is the Keystone Lofts Apartments.
Historic preservation is commonly associated with saving old buildings, administering museums, and studying artifacts. However, it is this and much more. Historic preservation is about cultural heritage, identity, environmental sustainability, and economic development. It is about you, your family, and your community. It is a way to save and remember your past when going into the future. Historic preservation allows people to appreciate history either up close in a museum or from a distance on the road. It is proven to create jobs, support local businesses, and increase property value.
Preservation helps to maintain what already exists through processes called rehabilitation and restoration, instead of creating waste by throwing it in a landfill. Here in Tacony, the Music Hall and Curran’s are perfect examples of restoration. The Music Hall, built in 1885, was and still is a multifunctional building. It was first used as a space for stores on the ground floor, assembly hall for musical performances, lodge meetings, and lectures on the second floor, and a library on the third floor. Today, after years of neglect and then a great restoration project, it is open to the public once again and used for a preschool and offices like ours, the Tacony CDC! Curran’s was originally Harbot’s Hotel and Bar, built between 1901 and 1910. It too underwent a makeover and still serves beer over a century later.
Historic Preservation can also include adaptive reuse, making a building functional again, though with a different use than its original. For example, some churches that were deconsecrated and left to rot have been turned into retail spaces or apartments. The same goes for industrial buildings and warehouses. Keystone Lofts, run by LiSS Property Group, is a great example of an old warehouse turned into apartments. In the very same spot that residents are now living, L. H. Gilmer Company first built the complex between 1910 and 1920 to manufacture rubber, machinery, and parts, such as the synchronous belt (invented by them in the 1940s).
With historic preservation, buildings or sites can be designated on the national, regional, or local historic register. This occurs when they are associated with someone or something of importance, or when they have momentous architectural design and beauty. Beyond having significance, they must also be old enough to be considered historic (usually 50 years or older) and have little alterations from its original character. Being listed on a historic register, especially a local one, provides the building or site with legal protection from detrimental alterations and demolition (though it does not completely prevent such occurrences).
Historic preservation is a noun; it is a hobby, a field of study, a career, and a global movement. It is a combination of many things, including city and regional planning, architecture, and history. It is everywhere you look, especially in Philadelphia and Tacony!
For a few formal definitions, check these out:
• Historic preservation is often defined as the process of identifying, protecting, and enhancing buildings, places, and objects of historical and cultural significance. This process embraces many phases including the survey and evaluation of historical, architectural, and cultural resources in an area; the development of planning and legal measures to protect these resources; the identification of public and private funding sources applicable to preservation projects; the design for the restoration, rehabilitation, and/or adaptive use of historic structures; and the ongoing maintenance of these resources. – National Trust for Historic Preservation (The National Trust is a privately funded nonprofit organization chartered by Congress in 1949 and the leading voice for preservation in the United States.)
• Recognition that historic preservation often is associated with economic successes is an important reason, as is the fact that many see the preservation of historic districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects as enhancing their quality of life, adding variety and texture to the cultural landscape in which they live and work. Largely because of such highly personal responses, public support for historic preservation has flowed from the bottom up, making it in the truest sense a grassroots movement, not just another Government program. – Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (The ACHP is an independent federal agency that promotes the preservation, enhancement, and productive use of our nation’s historic resources, and advises the President and Congress on national historic preservation policy)
• Preservation is about deciding what’s important, figuring out how to protect it, and passing along an appreciation for what was saved to the next generation. Preservation is hands on. – National Park Service (The NPS is a bureau of the U.S. Department of the Interior since 1916 that administers the National Register of Historic Places, National Heritage Areas, National Wild and Scenic Rivers, National Historic Landmarks, and National Trails. It aims to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”)
• Preservation is an ethic—a belief that history plays an important role in our lives today and offers unique possibilities for the future… By taking the context of preservation into account, we can better ensure that our communities will thrive in the twenty-first century and retain the traditional features that make them valued and unique. – Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (The PHMC has been the official history agency of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania since 1945 and is responsible for the collection, conservation, and interpretation of the state’s historic heritage.)
Why is historic preservation important to Tacony?
Historic preservation is important because it sets our neighborhood apart from others. It provides Tacony with value. Historic places are unique; they cannot be duplicated. This increases their social, economic, and environmental value.
Socially, historic preservation connects us with our past and with our neighbors. It develops a sense of belonging, a sense of place. It helps us understand what is unique about cities and neighborhoods. With the help of preservation, Tacony will become a sustainable and stronger community. It offers limitless and free ways to explore our heritage. All of these factors improve the overall quality of life, the well-being, of those affected by historic preservation.
Economically, there are several areas that demonstrate positive economic growth because of historic preservation. It increases jobs and household income. In 2009 and 2010, $90.4 billion in rehabilitation activity on historic properties generated about 2.0 million new jobs.
In many cases, historic preservation attracts tourism. This increases hotel, business, and retail revenue, and brings in money outside of the local economy. Heritage tourism contributes more than $192 billion annually to the U.S. economy. Historic preservation increases desirability of buildings and sites, and consequently increases property values. The restoration of a treasured structure gives it a new life and new appreciation from passersby.
Environmentally, historic preservation is a way to fulfill the 3 R’s, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. It helps the earth by reducing the amount of waste that enters landfills. Whether you restore or reuse a building, or parts of an old building, you are certainly being environmentally friendly. As mentioned in an earlier article, preservation is a form of smart growth. It involves revitalizing structures and areas that are compact and efficient. Here, cars are not necessary because everything desired, from your grocery store to your hair stylist, is within walking distance from your (possibly historic) home.
Why should we care?
The real question is: Why shouldn’t we?! Don’t you want to appreciate your heritage? To jumpstart economic development? To save the environment? Historic preservation is beneficial to communities (especially like Tacony) from many different perspectives…
Why is historic preservation good for Tacony homeowners?
Besides providing a strong sense of identity and connection to the community as explained above, historic preservation is economically beneficial for homeowners. It can actually be less expensive to rehabilitate historic homes than to replace them with modern ones. Upgrades sometimes needed for historic buildings are not as expensive as the costs of building all-new foundations, structural systems, roofs, and building finishes. The quality of older materials in historic homes is often better than the quality sold and used today. They are maintainable systems, meaning you can buy parts to fix something instead of having to buy a whole new unit (like with windows, doors, and shutters). The older materials also often have a much higher r-value (energy efficiency) and are not as pricey as buying new materials. You get more bang for your buck!
Historic homes were built in ways to work with their climates because they didn’t used to have technology like air conditioning. To keep a house cool, windows are strategically placed to get maximum airflow and catch breezes. High ceilings allow the heat to rise and not affect people. To keep a house warm, large windows let in the sunlight, fireplaces provide multiple rooms with heat, and thick walls offer good insulation for retaining that heat. You can easily save money on cooling and heating systems just by letting your house do its thing.
There are various financial incentives depending on the building and local government. Historic preservation can provide funds for rehabilitation, assisting in construction and material costs. For example, in Philadelphia, homeowners of historic property are applicable for the Home Improvement Loan Program and Property Tax Abatements on improvements.
Additionally, historic register designation increases property value because it sets the building apart from those that are ordinary and not designated. It makes a house more unique and desirable. Designation ensures that character-defining features are not removed or negatively altered. These character-defining features are the actual shape or footprint of the house, the type of roof, porch, column, arches, and stairs, and the materials used for constructing the house, like stone, brick, and wood. Included as well are the intricate details like cornices, moldings, brick patterns, and window surrounds. They are the features that distinguish the house as unique from other non-historic houses.
Why is historic preservation good for commercial districts?
Historic preservation enlivens the area and residents, creating a sense of pride for their community. They want to shop locally and encourage others to support their businesses. Preservation attracts shoppers, which is great because it brings in money to the stores in commercial districts. Tacony is perfect for shopping because it was originally designed as a pedestrian oriented town. It is easy to go from one store to the next without having to drive anywhere. Always remember, it’s not cars that buy things, but people that buy things!
Similar to homeowners, historic commercial properties are also applicable for financial assistance. Most notably, there are the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives, including tax credits of up to 20%. This reduces the taxes themselves (not just the income as with tax deductions), and makes a smaller dent in your bank account. Also available for historic commercial properties and organizations in commercial districts that promote preservation in Philadelphia are tax abatements, grants, and loan programs.
What is a local historic district and what does that mean?
A local historic district is an area of buildings and sites that their community and city government nominate as historically significant. Historic districts are one step beyond individually designated buildings on historic registers. They are essentially a collection of places that when put together as a whole, create a larger glimpse at the past and community heritage. Most importantly, local historic districts protect against demolition. Designation helps to maintain the integrity and character-defining features of a whole area of significant buildings.
Great examples of local historic districts are just down the road. In Center City, Rittenhouse-Fitler (designated in 1995), Society Hill (1999), and Old City (2003) Historic Districts are three very successful ones on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. There are multiple ones outside of Center City as well, such as Main Street Manayunk (1984), Diamond Street (1996), Girard Estate (1999), Spring Garden (2001), Parkside (2009) and East Logan Street (2010) Historic Districts. Main Street Manayunk Historic District faced similar issues to those in Tacony today (vacant storefronts). As soon as manufacturing jobs declined, people began deserting the neighborhood. It suffered from many empty storefronts along its primary commercial corridor, Main Street. Designation as a historic district and the arrival of good new stores and restaurants turned Manayunk around.
Below are some official definitions:
• Local historic districts are areas in which historic buildings and their settings are protected by public review, and encompass buildings deemed significant to the city’s cultural fabric. A property included in a historic district, valued for its historical associations or architectural quality, is worth protecting because it is a virtue to the special and unique personality of the city. – National Trust for Historic Preservation
• Municipally Regulated Historic Districts are areas that are either residential or commercial neighborhoods, or a combination of both. They are delineated by boundaries that include buildings, structures, objects, or sites that may be listed in or eligible for the National Register, and are subject to regulation and protection by local ordinance. Historic district ordinances generally contain provisions regulating demolition and exterior alteration of buildings and structures within the historic district. – Michel R. Lefèvre for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
• A historic district is a collection of historic resources that are linked geographically or thematically. – Philadelphia Historical Commission (Philadelphia’s Principal Public Steward of Historic Resources)
What is a National Register Historic District and what does that mean?
A National Register Historic District is similar to a local historic district in that it is historically significant for its association with an important person or event, or for its manifestation of architectural style and design. However, National Register Historic Districts have countrywide significance and the National Register of Historic Places manages them. They also do not provide protection unless the district uses federal funds. In Philadelphia County alone, there are about 65. Some of these have dual designation; they are local historic districts as well, such as Main Street Manayunk, Old City, and Society Hill.
A formal definition:
• National Register Historic Districts are areas that possess a significant concentration, linkage, or continuity of historic buildings, structures, objects, or sites designated by the National Park Service as worthy of preservation. – Michel R. Lefèvre for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
You might be asking yourself, why does all of this matter? Well, Tacony CDC, Historic Tacony Revitalization Project, and all other supporting partners are hoping the Disston Historic District will win local historic district designation on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. As you’ve learned throughout this article, becoming a historic district will spur rehabilitation with a federal tax credit for commercial properties. Designation will provide Tacony with more social, economic, and environmental value that will revitalize the community. We would love your support!
For reference and learning more about historic preservation, please visit:
• National Trust for Historic Preservation (http://www.preservationnation.org/)
o Historic Districts (http://www.preservationnation.org/resources/faq/historic-districts/#.UaUao2TF3ek )
• National Park Service (http://www.nps.gov/index.htm)
o Heritage Preservation Services (http://www.nps.gov/hps/)
o Technical Preservation Services (http://www.nps.gov/tps/index.htm)
o Preservation Terminology (http://www.nps.gov/history/local-law/arch_stnds_10.htm#rd)
• Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (http://www.achp.gov/index.html)
• Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (www.phmc.state.pa.us/)
• Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia (http://www.preservationalliance.com/)
o Financial Resources (http://www.preservationalliance.com/resources/financial.php)
• Preservation Pennsylvania
o Economic Benefits (http://www.preservationpa.org/page.asp?id=50)
• Economic Benefits of Preservation (http://www.preservation.org/rypkema.htm)
• Philadelphia2035: Citywide Vision (http://phila2035.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Renew_Historic-Preservation.pdf)
• Historic Preservation is Inherently Sustainable (http://www.portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/327273)
• Top Ten Myths about Historic Preservation (http://www.laconservancy.org/preservation/top_ten_myths.pdf)
• Preservation Design Partnership, LLC (http://www.pdparchitects.com/projects/digitaldocumentation-alliance__overview.html#Tacony)
• Historic maps of Philadelphia interactive viewer (http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/) … Fun to play with!
• Philadelphia Historic Districts (http://www.phila.gov/historical/registry/Pages/districts.aspx)
• Historical Society of Tacony (http://historictacony.blogspot.com/)
• Historic Disston: Tacony’s Company Town Preservation Plan (http://www.design.upenn.edu/files/2008_Disston_Final_Report_Part_1..2_-_Research__Analysis.pdf)
Photographs courtesy of the Historical Society of Tacony, Louis A. Iatarola Appraisal Ltd., and Maggie Smith