“A building that should be treated tenderly and remain undisturbed”

521 Spruce Street, just before restoration in 1964.
Photo from PhillyHistory.org.

“Immediately south of Independence National Historical Park,” wrote historian Louis Mumford  in 1956, “down as far as Lombard Street…is a district that should not be left to time, change and the conflicting aims of real-estate operators. This district has become nondescript—a mixture of seedy residences, lunchrooms, factories, lofts, tombstone-makers’ sheds, old burial grounds and historic churches… This part of Philadelphia is still known as Society Hill, and it still contains many houses that justify the name… rows of elegant dwellings of impeccable craftsmanship, which only need a little loving care to be nursed back to life.”

Mumford imagined more of what was already underway—a sweeping and positive transformation of an inner city when the very term was synonymous with decay.  Philadelphia had discovered its lightning-in-a-bottle solution, the key to Center City’s turnaround and Society Hill’s success. It wasn’t so much about historic landmarks or landmark developments, although these would be part of the mix, but hundreds (and thousands, city wide) of residential properties with age and character where Philadelphians could  make history theirs.

The city planner behind Philadelphia’s array of projects, including this calculus, knew he was onto something. And by November 1964, Edmund Bacon had parlayed success into fame with a TIME magazine cover story featuring his own façade framed by old and new icons of Society Hill. “Renewers of the city want not only to bring people back from the suburbs to shop, but back to town to live,” wrote TIME. “Society Hill is studded with 18th-century houses and historic landmarks, and Bacon opened up vistas around them by chopping out the factories and dingy warehouses, threading greenery through them and building new houses in harmony with the 18th-century beauties.”

By the fall of 1964, Ford and Mary Jennings had snagged their diamond-in-the-rough at 521 Spruce Street and were well on their way to a state-of-the-art renovation and restoration. As Bacon held forth for TIME, the Jennings’ held hopes that their plans would be approved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Construction began shortly after, and soon 521 Spruce was awarded the city’s 289th historic plaque. The Jennings installed it with pride beside their brand new front door.

If the door wasn’t historic, the doorway was. Five-twenty-one Spruce seemed liked any many other houses in Society Hill—but this one carried an extra-added association with its first resident, John Vallance. In 1792, the year the house was built, Vallance, Philadelphia’s leading artist/engraver was at work on illustrations for America’s first encyclopedia and the famous L’Enfant plan of the soon-to-be-new national capital in Washington D.C.

Renovated and ready for its historic plaque.
Photo from PhillyHistory.org.

Twentieth-century Philadelphians had come to expect as much of their past. Everywhere you turned in Society Hill stood something remarkable, but just as remarkable was the success of the neighborhood’s revival. The sheer scale of this turnaround was one of the main reasons why Society Hill earned a place on the National Register as “the first large-scale urban renewal project to plan for historic preservation.”  No single project, or even collection of developments, could have surpassed the crowd-sourced community building achieved in Society Hill in the third quarter of the 20th century.

But in all this renewal, something special about these gems was getting lost. It had tugged at Mumford in the 1950s when he wrote of the nearby Headhouse at 2nd and Pine Streets: Here was “a building that should be treated tenderly and remain undisturbed.” An appreciation of the nuances of patina and accrued features  had fallen by the wayside. Now something harsh and hard had replaced it. In the rush to restore, preservationists purged all but the distant past, or a facsimile of it, anyway. Evidence of intervening time, and, by default, the building’s sense of itself—its very authenticity, was compromised. That’s the irony of Society Hill: buildings that had survived in spite of preservation were suddenly being “saved” at the hands of it.

Nuance didn’t have much of a chance as this dynamic played out. At the Headhouse, which underwent restoration as well, a feel for the complex past gave way to a simpler, cleaner, and ultimately less interesting interpretation. At 521 Spruce, and at hundreds of other properties, the elusive patina and the authenticity of acquired age wouldn’t–and didn’t—stand up to the untender restoration aesthetic that came to define Society Hill.

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