Tearing down a rowhome affects the homes next door. Owners on both sides are rightly concerned about the impact on their property.
That the adjacent property is designated as historic magnifies the concern. In many ways the historic property belongs to all Philadelphians.
This is the case right now with the John Coltrane House at 1511 N. 33rd St.
The City of Philadelphia and its Historical Commission recognize the great historical significance of the Coltrane House. The Commission added the building to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1984. In 2020 the City committed to provide matching funds for a grant to rehabilitate the home.
The owners of 1509 N. 33rd St., the home next door to the Coltrane House, have applied for permission to demolish the house. The application is under review.
The Department of Licenses and Inspections (L&I) will review the permit application for compliance with the Philadelphia Code’s demolition requirements and restrictions. For example, under the Code only hand-held equipment could be used to take down 1509.
The Philadelphia Code also requires that contractors protect adjacent properties during demolition and that any newly-exposed walls be sealed after the demolition is complete. L&I’s review of the demolition permit application includes the safety measures that the contractor is proposing for the protection of the Coltrane House.
Because of the historical significance and declining condition of the Coltrane House, L&I is working with the demolition contractor and property owner on adding extra layers of protection. Additional protections would include an assessment by a licensed professional engineer and the design and implementation of a specific monitoring plan.
Inspectors specializing in demolition will meet onsite with the contractor to make sure that they understand their responsibilities and are equipped to put the necessary protections into effect. Inspections over the course of the demolition project will confirm that the protections are in place.
Although it is next to a historic property, the Historical Commission has no say over whether the owner takes down 1509. The Historical Commission’s authority only applies to a designated property.
However, the buildings at 1509 and 1511 share a wall. If the proposed work will affect that wall of the Coltrane house the Historical Commission will review that part of the permit application.
The Commission will look to see that the proposed treatment of any exposed party wall satisfies historic preservation standards. It will ensure that the texture and color of the proposed treatment is historically appropriate.
The Historical Commission has no authority over any other aspect of the application or the demolition.
The City believes that there should be enhanced protections for historic properties not just in this case but whenever demolition, new construction, or excavation projects take place nearby. In consultation with the Historical Commission, L&I has developed a proposal to require a monitoring plan and oversight by an engineer if such a project is proposed for within 90 feet of a historic property.
The proposal is awaiting approval by the state Department of Labor and Industry and must also be adopted by ordinance as an amendment to Philadelphia’s building code.
The City and its agencies know the importance of the Coltrane House and are working to protect it.