Documenting Philly's Architectural ‘Gems’
Spurred on by a second-year studio in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation with Lecturer Fon Wang, three students in the program started Philly_Gem, an Instagram account to educate Philadelphia residents about the city’s historic buildings. Starr Herr-Cardillo, Evan Schueckler, and Kyle Toth were studying Jewelers’ Row in Center City East when the developer Toll Brothers announced plans to purchase multiple buildings on Sansom Street in order to build a high-rise condominium on the site.
What led you to Jewelers’ Row?
SHC: In our second-year studio, we were divided into three groups and each group assigned a different site in Philadelphia. Our site is Jewelers’ Row, which is one of the oldest diamond districts in the country and spans a couple of blocks in Center City. Recently, some of the historic buildings on Sansom Street were purchased by the developer Toll Brothers who want to demolish them to build a 16-story residential tower. Most people assumed that the area was protected, but it wasn’t, so the project is moving ahead. The case sort of embodies many of the issues facing preservation in Philadelphia at the moment. We live in one of the oldest cities in the country, yet very few of our buildings are actually protected under historic designation compared to cities of a similar size. Also, city policy is very focused on growth and development, which makes sense given that the population was declining for the past few decades. Now that it’s growing again, though, it may be time to revisit some policies and make sure that we’re not incentivizing growth at the cost of historic resources. It definitely adds a layer of irony that Philadelphia was recently designated a World Heritage City, though that is definitely good publicity.
Why start an Instagram account?
SHC: Jewelers’ Row was really eye-opening for people in the preservation world. We figured a good place to start was to begin raising awareness of how many wonderful historic parts of the city are virtually unprotected. A key goal for preservation moving forward should be to integrate with more city development policy, so that we help protect assets that make Philadelphia special.
KT: We aren’t just looking to save old or important things. We’re trying to get people to see and appreciate the beautiful resources Philadelphia has to offer. We also wanted to involve people in identifying buildings around the city that might not instantly come to mind as “historic Philadelphia.”
How do you see Philly_Gem evolving?
SHC: We really want it to be about celebrating how great Philadelphia is, not just “doom and gloom” news about what we are losing or what has been lost. I hope Philly_Gem can grow from focusing solely on architectural “gems” to drawing attention to cultural resources, people and history in Philly
Was Philadelphia part of your decision to study here?
SHC: I’m from Tucson, Arizona, which is very different in feel. But I thought that I would really like it here because so many people talk about what a great city it is. I literally couldn’t have imagined how much I’d love it. For studying historic buildings there’s nowhere better, and the opportunity to have an impact here is a big part of Philly’s appeal.
KT: I grew up in central New Jersey, and Philadelphia, more than New York, has always been somewhere that I’ve wanted to live. I think I would have chosen to go to Penn regardless of its location, but Philadelphia is definitely an added bonus.