Sunday, December 18, 2005

Ed Bacon's Last Words on the Dilworth House

Ed Bacon died in October, at the age of 95, but the famously feisty city planner continues to fight battles in cyberspace. In what may be his last interview before his death, you can hear him speak eloquently and forcefully about the need to preserve former Mayor Richardson Dilworth's house on Washington Square. The audio clip comes via the webpage of the Society Hill Civic Association, which has been fighting developer John Turchi's attempt to strip the house of its historic status.

Nothing much has been heard about the case for several months, not since the city Historical Commission's designation committee unanimously rejected Turchi's request to decertify the historic house - opening the way for demolition. After the committee rejected the idea, Turchi's last hope was having the full commission override their decision. But Mayor Street asked him to put the request on hold so he could study the issues. Street spent almost two hours recently listening to Society Hill Civic reps make the case for preservation.

Turchi originally bought the house to live in it, but changed his mind and decided instead that it was the perfect site for a condo building. Turchi hired Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi to design a 13-story tower on the narrow site. Just one problem: the house is designated as historic and historic houses are untouchable. Turchi tried to do an end run around the law by having Dilworth's home "decertified" - an increasingly common tactic in Philadelphia's historic areas.

Oddly enough, the Dilworth house is not one of Society Hill's great 18th Century houses. It's a fake colonial that Dilworth had built for his family in 1957, when Bacon was beginning his historic effort to revive Society Hill as a middle class neighborhood. The former mayor wanted to do something to demonstrate his commitment to the project, so he moved his family into the heart of the neighborhood, then considered a slum. Dilworth actually tore down two historic houses to build his fake colonial, but we forgive him - historic preservation was in its infancy then. His house isn't important for its architecture or for its age; it's important as the physical manifestation of a great moment in Philadelphia history.


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