The Archaeology of Philadelphia History
I stopped by the site of the first President's House the other day to watch arch-aeologists patiently work their way through the sedimentary layers of Philadelphia history. They've already found an astonishing trove of artifacts, as reported in today's Inquirer story by Stephan Salisbury, including the original foundations of the house where George Washington established the forms and conventions of the world's first democratic presidency. The National Park Service has set up a terrific viewing platform where you can watch the archaeologists sift through the dirt. It's a lot more mesmerizing than you'd expect. The building was torn down in 1832, before we learned to appreciate that our society's accomplishments are embedded in the physical forms of buildings.
While I was hanging over the rail, watching the foundations of Washington's White House reveal themselves, I couldn't help wondering whether, someday, future historians will be doing the same thing at Front and Chestnut Streets, where two buildings that existed concurrently with the President's House are being razed. The pair occupy the last intact Front Street intersection, and are probably the among the oldest surviving commercial buildings in Philadelphia.
That, of course, meant little to the developers, who own the parking lot next door and will have more space for cars once the buildings are out of the way. The owners, the Spear Bros., claimed the buildings were imminently dangerous, and an L&I inspector concurred. Higher-ups at the agency had initially challenged the inspector's ruling, but gave in on the issue this week after some bricks were said to have popped out of a wall. I can't help wondering why the city didn't take it upon itself to make the buildings safe. It could have sent the bill for repairs to the owners, who acquired the property two years ago in full knowledge of their condition.
I did note that workmen in orange vests and helmets were wandering in and out of the building, apparently unafraid of its imminent collapse. A few men were tossing bricks off the roof onto the sidewalk. Whether or not these buildings are really in imminent danger of collapse, I can't say. But I certainly felt in imminent danger of being hit by a carelessly thrown brick.
My Changing Skyline column today focuses on an unsung landscape architect named John F. Collins, who specialized in narrow, difficult empty lots into intimate pocket parks. We need someone like him today to stitch up Philadelphia's growing collection of untended wounds, like the nearly unbuildable site of Friedman's Umbrella building on Third Street, which was hurriedly razed after a fire three years ago. It remains empty and unloved still.