Historic Preservation

Posted December 4, 2017
  • Parker Building, 2017

  • Parker Building, 1900

PennDesign Students Rock the Vote for Germantown

The Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood of Germantown has a long and colorful history of Revolutionary War battles, abolitionist protests, the Underground Railroad, suburbanization, the Great Migration, and more. Linking Northwest Philadelphia with Center City, Germantown Avenue is lined with hundreds of historic buildings that track the development of the city from the 17th century to the present—hence its designation as a National Historic Landmark District. Two years ago, this unparalleled collection of sites led Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture Aaron Wunsch and Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning Francesca Ammon, both of whom teach in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, to engage with Germantown in their courses HSPV 600: Documentation, Research, and Recording (I) and HSPV 601: Documentation, Research, and Recording (II). Now, in a major victory for historic preservation in Philadelphia, the neighborhood will receive funding for the preservation of multiple sites as a result of students’ efforts.

Located at 5801 Germantown Avenue, Parker Hall stands out as a High Victorian Gothic design and a landmark for African-American history in Philadelphia. The building once served as a USO-style venue for African-American veterans of World War II and currently houses the ACES Museum, which pays tribute to minority veterans of World War II. Struck by the significance of this building and the stewardship of ACES museum director Dr. Althea Hankins, Wunsch and Ammon assigned a student to research it.

As part of HSPV 601: Documentation, Research, and Recording (II), a team of historic preservation graduate students documented Parker Hall with photography and measured drawings, under the guidance of Wunsch, research specialist and Lecturer John Hinchman, and Lecturer Joseph Elliott. Within a year, students, alumni, and faculty produced an abundance of evidence to support the case for the building’s preservation: MSHP’18 candidate Sarah Stratte wrote a draft nomination for the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places; MSHP’18 candidate John Giganti was an enthusiastic member of the drawing team; and alumna Charlette Caldwell (MSHP’16) contributed additional research while working for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

Armed with these materials from PennDesign’s preservation program, Andy Trackman of the Germantown United Community Development Corporation (CDC) successfully lobbied for Parker Hall and the nearby John Trower building (5706 Germantown Avenue) to be included in the 2017 Partners in Preservation “Vote Your Main Street” competition, sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express in partnership with National Geographic. Since 2006, this partnership has awarded $19 million in grants toward the preservation of more than 200 sites around the country, based on the results of online voting campaigns. This year’s competition showcased 25 Main Street districts, including Germantown Avenue and the sites nominated by the Germantown United CDC, and put the districts to a public vote.

For the month of October, Germantown United CDC encouraged supporters to participate  in the Partners for Preservation competition by email, Facebook, community events, and word-of-mouth. Germantown beat out the 24 other candidates to earn a $150,000 grant to preserve and provide structural improvements for Parker Hall and the John Trower Building. In addition, Germantown United CDC won an extra $10,000 for earning the largest increase in votes during one week of the competition.

Wunsch and others will work with Germantown United CDC to craft the scope of work for each building, and PennDesign students will continue to document additional buildings in the neighborhood. Wunsch also sees opportunities to partner across departments at the School, involving architecture, landscape architecture, city planning, and fine arts students in the community-based efforts to preserve, interpret, and design Germantown’s built environment.

Such opportunities were evident on a recent weekend when the ACES Museum hosted a Veterans’ Day ceremony while across the street, the citywide history and art project Monument Lab co-curated by Professor and Chair of Fine Arts Ken Lum, a work by artist Jamel Shabazz had been installed. Seen in close proximity, these landmarks of Germantown brought old and new into conversation, and demonstrated the value of design in community history, identity, and the public realm. 

[UPDATE: November 7, 2018] The ACES Museum, which is now fully stabilized and ready for restoration work, will be holding an ACES Veterans' Day gala this Sunday, November 11