Go With the Faux?

Whether to keep a colonial replica that helped revive a Philadelphian neighborhood

Washington Square, in Philadelphia's fashionable Society Hill neighborhood, is made up of a mishmash of new and old buildings, the most storied dating back to the 18th century, when the city was the nation's capital. The three-story brick mansion at 223-25 S. Sixth St. appears to be one such structure, a graciously preserved relic from the colonial era. But it was built in 1957. Architect George Edwin Brumbaugh designed the mansion for Richardson Dilworth, Philadelphia's mayor from 1956 to 1962, and now that the townhouse might be demolished, Philadelphia's preservationists are angry.

In 2001, developer John J. Turchi bought the Dilworth house for $1.75 million, expressing a desire to restore it. Turchi had experience rehabbing structures in the Center City area (of which Society Hill is a part). Instead, Turchi approached the noted architect Robert Venturi with a plan to raze the Dilworth house and replace it with a high-end, high-rise condominium complex.

That would be a violation of local law, says John Gallery, the executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia. "City ordinance allows only two justifications for demolition," Gallery says. "First, the demolition must be necessary to the public interest, and second, financial hardship must preclude the use of the building for any other purpose. The proposal to demolish the residence of former Mayor Dilworth does not meet either of these standards."

Complicating the issue is the fact that the Dilworth house is not even 50 years old and is a replica, not the real thing. Everything about the place is faux-Georgian, right down to the pediment and doorway. Nevertheless, the Philadelphia Historical Commission considers the house architecturally "significant," the highest of three possible designations.

The house symbolizes the evolution of the entire neighborhood during the latter half of the 20th century. In the 1950s, Society Hill was derelict. Dilworth transformed the place, and though he authorized the demolition of several buildings, especially Victorians, he also encouraged wealthy residents to renovate many structures. Dilworth's brand of renewal made urban living fashionable again.

He himself moved into the neighborhood, despite its condition. But the construction of his mansion required the demolition of two 19th-century townhouses standing in its way. That Dilworth's house was born from the rubble of two historic structures makes the issues surrounding its preservation even more complex. Proponents of a Venturi-designed high-rise argue that the story of Washington Square has, from its beginnings, been one of demolition and new construction. Replacing a 1950s faux-Georgian with a structure that is wholly of its time would be in keeping with the spirit of the neighborhood. That argument, however, does not sway many Philadelphia preservationists. "The design merits of a new building are irrelevant," Gallery says. "Under the law, the house simply cannot be demolished."

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