Out with the old?

by Pete Mazzaccaro
Posted 2/18/21

 

Last week, the Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee of the Chestnut Hill Community Association heard several hours of testimony and discussion about a proposed set of townhouses for 30 W. …

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Out with the old?

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Last week, the Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee of the Chestnut Hill Community Association heard several hours of testimony and discussion about a proposed set of townhouses for 30 W. Highland Ave.

When the proposal first became public late last year, it was not without controversy. As is typical with most development plans in any historic community, the architect’s renderings are weighed against decades – and in the case of many neighborhoods in Philadelphia, centuries – of architectural history. More often than not, the verdict is swift and dismissive. Such was the critical consensus on McEwen’s plans.

In comments made on Facebook of a story we published in January about the plan, which was accompanied by a rendering of the proposed homes, the planned houses were called “boxy,” “ugly” and “eyesores.” And like other contemporary architectural works before them, including the recent addition to the Engine 37 firehouse a block away, they were accused of not “fitting in” to the architecture of Chestnut Hill. It’s not likely that a pending vote of support from the community association will dissuade these critics.

I think everyone is entitled to their opinion, but the criticism of the new architecture “not fitting in” with the rest of Chestnut Hill’s architecture isn’t one that makes a lot of sense. New buildings should generally resemble new architecture. To mimic that which is already here would only diminish the truly great works of architecture we already have. Not to mention, the arguments about architectural styles “not fitting in” were leveled at some of the Hill’s most historic properties, like Robert Venturi’s “Mother’s House” and the one Louis Kahn built nearby.

Miles Orvell, a professor of English and American studies, an author and vastly more articulate on architecture and historic preservation than I’ll ever be, made in these pages what I think is the best defense for preserving the 1903 building on the site that’s slated for demolition. Orvell argues that the unremarkable “blue-collar” (my term, not Orvell’s) are as worthy of preservation as the stately manor homes most of us would agree are worth saving.

“If we throw away this history and seek to replace it with buildings that maximize profit at the expense of our remarkable shared streetscape, we'll be slowly but surely changing the character of the place into a replica of suburban townhouse development,” Orvell wrote.

Orvell’s argument is one I have a lot of sympathy for. Too often the history of an area’s working-class is left out of the narrative. But ultimately, eight new homes full of tax-paying citizens who will shop on Germantown Ave. and eat at local restaurants seem to be worth the tradeoff. Preserving the Hill’s historical character is a job that’s never done but embracing an ever-evolving mix of residential architecture is also an important part of that work.

Contemporary architecture shouldn’t “fit in” in any sense that implies it looks identical to homes built here 150 years ago. New homes should be judged on their own terms. And if their addition is one that makes Chestnut Hill better, then we should all be for it.

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