Lancaster Mews, a row of apartments and businesses on the 3600 block of Lancaster Avenue will keep its 19th century architecture after a city commission ruled on its importance.
Last month, sites around the city were given historic designations by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Along with Mews, Satterlee Heights and the Edward Corner Building in Fishtown were also selected, protecting the locations from any permanent changes to their exterior or architecture, especially demolition.
Like many properties in the Powelton Village neighborhood, Lancaster Mew’s property owners had plans to demolish the historic block in order to develop low-cost student housing after plans surfaced earlier this year.
The historic designation marked a success for the Powelton Village Civic Association as well as the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
“The only way we knew we could stop them was to preserve it,” said George Stevens, president of the Lancaster Avenue 21st Century Business Association. “Now the playing field is a little bit more level.”
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Businesses have been slowly leaving the 3500 and 3600 blocks of Lancaster Avenue in recent years due to a rising student population and increasing property taxes.
In the past decade, Drexel University’s student population has increased 49 percent, to 26,359, with nearly 74 percent commuting or living off campus.
“I lived above the store when we were at 3519 Lancaster,” said Mark Masters, owner of The Fencing Academy of Philadelphia.
Masters first set up shop on Lancaster Avenue in 1997, after moving his fencing training school from 39th and Warren streets. He stated that the neighborhood has changed considerably over the years.
“When the student population started hitting a certain level, we just got tired of being woken up at 4 o’clock in the morning by partying college students,” said Masters. “This area is now re-gentrifying, and redeveloping very very quickly.”
Lancaster Avenue, as stated in the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s proposal, stood as the nation’s first highway in the 1700s, connecting the parcels of lands granted to the first buyers of William Penn’s Philadelphia. It later made way for trolleys and middle-class commuters who wanted to live further from their jobs in Center City, for which Mews was built in the 1870s.
“We want to preserve as much of that as we can for the next generation,” said Stevens.
In 2013 the Powelton Village Civic Association considered pursing a Historic District designation for the neighborhood that would stop the destruction of historic sites. Instead the PVCA opted for a conservation district designation assigned by a state committee. According to the Pennsylvania Association of Conservation Districts, there are no such designations in Philadelphia to date.
At the moment the owners of Lancaster Mews plan to fight the historic site designation. Legally, they are obligated to keep the original façade of the building including the architectural detail, but can make modifications to the inside as well as the rear of the block.
Stevens grew up in neighboring Mantua and remarked at how his neighborhood has vastly changed.
“A lot of historical areas are being wiped out,” said Stevens. “You lose your history because of that.”
– Text, video and images by Alex Udowenko.