Historic buildings vs. the wrecking ball

Nobody is rushing to tear down Independence Hall, Carpenters Hall, or Christ Church. But in a city that trades heavily on its colonial image, lesser known historic buildings are falling to the wrecking ball.

The problem, activists say, is negligent property owners and a city not committed to preservation. City officials, in turn, say tight budgets, trimmed staffs, and a slow economy make saving buildings difficult.

``Once they come down, 150-year-old buildings never come back,'' says Richard Thom, vice president of the Old City Civic Association.

Preservationists say they are encouraged by Mayor Edward Rendell's moves to promote tourism in the Independence Hall area and to curb ``demolition by neglect.'' But some doubt the efforts will reverse a destructive trend.

In Old City, a neighborhood of 18th- and 19th-century commercial buildings near Independence National Historical Park, four locally registered historic buildings have been torn down in the past nine months with city approval.

It started in October, when officials reversed policy and allowed demolition crews to raze the Elisha Webb Chandlery, an 18th-century warehouse, to make way for a restaurant parking lot.

City officials say Philadelphia generally loses two or three such buildings a year, while preservationists estimate that five to 10 structures are razed. The city grants demolition permits for a historic building when the structure is dangerous or the owner shows economic hardship. Preservationists say some owners purposely allow the buildings to crumble to clear the land for more lucrative ventures.

WAYNE SPILOVE, Historical Commission chairman, emphasizes the administration is committed to preservation, and Bennett Levin, the city's Licenses and Inspections commissioner, denies his office allows building to deteriorate by failing to enforce codes.

The Historical Commission, which now oversees 5,000 local landmarks and two historic districts, is preparing to designate six new districts encompassing 10,000 buildings. The designation means owners need commission approval for any changes to building facades.

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