Demolition Issue in Philadelphia (Miss.)

An article in the Neshoba Democrat gives a good in-depth discussion of the issues surrounding the demolition request that First Baptist Church in Philadelphia has filed.

A request to demolish or move an historic home adjacent to The First Baptist Church to make way for a daycare center will be discussed by the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Commission at a public hearing on March 2.

It’s so rare to see such good research into architects and builders as the Democrat has done here:

The Baptist parsonage and several other houses in the same area along Pecan Avenue were designed by the now late Starkville architect Tom Johnston.

Among them are what were originally known as the Marion Perry, Walker Jones, Henry Mars and Gully Yates homes.

The Presbyterian manse on Poplar Avenue was also designed by Johnston and built by the late Tom DeWeese.

The article goes on to give some context for this decision, namely the recent permit by the preservation commission for the demolition of the old Coca-Cola building downtown:

The preservation commission on Jan. 15 gave the Board of Supervisors authority to demolish the old Coca-Cola building at 425 Center Ave., downtown.

That building was constructed in 1926, according to a history of the Coca-Cola company published in The Neshoba Democrat in 1985.

Yates Engineering Corp. told supervisors in early November that it would be cost prohibitive to remodel the Coke building, citing such deficiencies as bowed wood columns/beams; diagonal cracking in the southeast exterior wall; roof leaks; and inadequate (or no) floor/roof connections to exterior walls.

I’m not on the historic preservation commission, I don’t live in Philadelphia, and I don’t know all the issues and history involved, so I can’t tell them what decision to make; obviously, my bias is toward maintaining historic buildings and districts and not allowing demolition. But here are some issues I think the commission should consider as they make their decision:

1.  Does the building contribute to the architectural or historic character of the district? The answer, at least according to this article, seems to be “yes.” Most (not necessarily all) houses designed by architects were given real individual care and show a higher level of sophistication in their design than the surrounding catalog or spec houses.

2.  Is the building structurally sound? According to the article, the Coke building was not sound, so the precedent the preservation commission set was that there must be a legitimate and irreparable problem with the building for a demolition permit to be issued. But if this house is sound and the only reason to tear it down is that it’s in the way, giving it a demolition permit would be setting a precedent for other owners who decided they needed, say, a parking pad for their RV or a larger house or a whole variety of things.

3.  Is there any compromise available to allow First Baptist room to expand and still keep the house? Is an addition to the back of the house out of the picture? The phrase “demolish or move” in the first sentence of the article seemed to open the door to the possibility of moving the house. Based on my experience, the problem with this option is that often the owner just goes through the motions of trying to find a buyer and then comes back to the commission 6 months or a year later saying that it’s just not working and they need to tear it down.  This might be especially true during this economic downturn.

At any rate, my preference obviously would be for First Baptist to continue using this house, possibly adding onto the back to meet the needs of their child-care ministry. Barring that, while it’s never ideal to move a building, it does give it a chance at life again and could help the preservation commission avoid setting the dangerous precedent of allowing people to demolish buildings in the historic district whenever they say they need to, which essentially negates the whole purpose of a historic district.



Categories: Demolition/Abandonment, Historic Preservation, Philadelphia, Preservation Law/Local Commissions

2 replies

  1. The local paper reported the meeting this week and can be read at:
    http://www.neshobademocrat.com/main.asp?FromHome=1&TypeID=1&ArticleID=18434&SectionID=2&SubSectionID=297

    This was a difficult hearing for the HPC to rule upon. The building did not have an advocate for its preservation. Although the end result was probably going to be the same, it is a shame that the church wasn’t required to show the burden of proof that removal of the parsonage was the only viable solution the church was allowed. Further discussions with the church, day school, and commission might have led to a win-win solution. But I’m not sure.

    The hearing seems to have been so tinged with Christian proselytizing that I don’t think the issue of the historicity, significance, much less economic burden were discussed to a satisfactory level.

    However, leaving all this out of it, what is a preservationist’s role to be if the local community and/or owner doesn’t advocate for preservation?

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  1. MissPres News Roundup 6-19-2009 « Preservation in Mississippi

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