Historic Preservation

Posted May 1, 2020
  • Professor Francesca Russello Ammon

    Photo Credit: Eric Sucar, University of Pennsylvania Communications

  • 315 South American Street

    Photo Credit: Francesca Russello Ammon

The Preservation Alliance is Celebrating Preservation Month with Francesca Russello Ammon

In honor of National Preservation Month, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia will be featuring 31 historic preservation leaders in Philadelphia and the local buildings that have inspired them. To help kick off the month, Historic Preservation and City and Regional Planning Associate Professor Francesca Russello Ammon has written a short piece about a building in Philadelphia that inspired her. Her choice, 315 South American Street, is featured below.

315 South American Street is one of ten three-story, Greek Revival row houses that were built on either side of this narrow thoroughfare in 1847. Including a shared alley to its south, the building occupies a lot measuring just over 18 feet wide by 35 feet deep. When planners redeveloped the Society Hill neighborhood in the 1950s to ‘70s, the Historical Commission included the building on its list of historically certified properties. In this way, it was typical of hundreds of sites so designated as part of the neighborhood’s pioneering approach to restoration-based, rather than clearance-based, urban renewal. Today, it is a vital element of an historic streetscape that gives both the neighborhood and the city their distinctive feel. I selected the building for both its modest typicality of historic Philadelphia urbanism, as well as a two decade-long resident of the property who was foundational to the history of historic preservation in this city.

Penelope (Penny) Hartshorne Batcheler and George Batcheler purchased 315 South American Street from its landlord owner in 1968. Both husband and wife were architects, and they designed the restoration themselves. Penny Batcheler had been one of only three women enrolled in her undergraduate architecture program at Illinois Institute of Technology, from which she graduated in 1953. Two years later, she began working in Philadelphia as an architect with the National Park Service. There, she was a leading figure in the restoration of Independence National Historical Park, for which she scoured the archival records of the 18th-century buildings of Society Hill, located to the park’s immediate south. This foundational architectural research helped set the standards that building restorations would follow. At one point, she was the sole woman among a team of architects and preservationists working to restore Independence Hall. In parallel, she combined historical research with contemporary practicality to restore 315 South American Street, a somewhat younger, mid-19th century row house of her own.

In 2004, three years before she died, Batcheler joined with several other Society Hill residents to supplement the archival record of the neighborhood. They developed a collection of oral history interviews, which they called Project Philadelphia 19106, to document the area’s urban renewal from a resident perspective. Today, those interview transcripts are available as part of Preserving Society Hill, a public history website developed through a collaboration among myself, my students at Penn, and a handful of history-minded neighborhood women who have nurtured the initiative for more than a decade and a half. The project continues to bring the area’s history to life, just as Batcheler did for so many years from her home on South American Street.