Monday, September 28, 2009

Civil War Museum Staying in Philly

After a rough few months for the Civil War Museum of Philadelphia, the museum has announced that it is still working to stay in Philadelphia.

Established in 1888, the museum shut down in 2008 in preparation for moving from its long-time home at 1805 Pine Street to the former First Bank of the United States building at 3rd and Chestnut Streets.

But then the economy tanked.

The state withdrew its $10 million pledge to support the move, leaving the museum without sufficient funding to keep its new lease with the National Park Service, which owns the First Bank building.

The Civil War Museum then warned in late July that it had only weeks to find an alternate location before it would start looking outside the city. Of course, the museum had tried to leave the city before (in 2001), and public outcry changed its plans.

Now, the museum has announced that it has a bit more time for the search because it is temporarily splitting up its 3,000-item collection at the Gettysburg National Park Visitors Center, the National Constitution Center, and the African American Museum of Philadelphia. The Civil War Museum hopes to open in a new Philadelphia location by 2014 at the latest.

Meanwhile, 3rd and Chestnut will still be getting a new museum -- right across the street from the First Bank building.

Also in July, the Park Service announced a land-swap deal that will put the private American Revolution Center (ARC) and its planned Revolutionary War museum in the former visitor center at Independence National Historical Park.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who wondered at the oddly perfect timing of this war museum switcheroo, but thankfully, it didn't sink the Civil War Museum.

The former NPS visitor center (left) and the First Bank building (right). Photo: Google Maps.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Philadelphia History on the Web

I'm nearing the finish line on my project with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which means I'm tying up a lot of loose ends.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been updating and expanding the Alliance's inventory of African American historic sites in the city. And with an October 1 deadline looming, I can't put off the toughest decisions about what to do with conflicting or absent information. Do I ignore it, try to context it, or fix it?

Like all public historians, I have limited time and resources to solve these thorny issues. So I make decisions on a case by case basis, and try to use the most efficient sources at my fingertips. For this project, that often means using the Web.

Here are a few of my favorite online sources for information about Philadelphia buildings:

* Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network -- The Interactive Map Viewer is fun to play with even if you're not researching city properties. For my project, the 1875, 1895, 1910 and 1942 layers helped me solve more than a few property mysteries.

* Philadelphia Architects and Buildings -- This database incorporates a wealth of information about individual buildings, including links to other resources like HABS files in the Library of Congress. You can also read up on individual architects. You might have to look up a property several different ways to find what you're looking for. You can search by street name, by specific location, or by building info, among others, but I've found some properties only by searching all three ways.

* -- The City Archives has been getting accolades for years now for its database of historic photos. You can search by address or intersection, by keyword, and more. Sometimes you end up with a photo of a sewer grate, but this site is a treasure trove of easily accessible information.

*'s Historic Street Name Index -- The City Archives also hosts this neat little tool to look up old street names in the city.

* Pennsylvania's Historic Architecture & Archaeology (ARCH) -- Although a little out of date now (it was last updated in March 2007), the state has a searchable database of National Register and National Historic Landmark properties. Even better, you can view many of the original scanned applications.

* Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program -- The state also has a searchable database of its historical markers.

For leads on other resources about Philadelphia, check out these subject guides:
* Bryn Mawr's Places In Time: Historical Documentation of Place in Greater Philadelphia;
* Penn's Philadelphia History Research Guide; and
* Temple University's Philadelphia Guide.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Historical Commission (and More) To Be Shuttered Oct. 2

Only three days left until the city of Philadelphia sends out layoff notices to some 3,000 workers in preparation for its October 2 "doomsday" budget deadline.

Of special interest for public historians: the Philadelphia Historical Commission and all Free Library of Philadelphia branches will cease operations under the current proposed plan.

That is, unless the state Legislature approves the tax and pension changes Mayor Michael Nutter has requested.

If you're new to this alarming and disheartening subject, the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote a brief round-up over the weekend to catch you up on all the relevant issues. You can also read Mayor Nutter's most recent letter to the Legislature here. The situation is looking grim.

Now, if all the libraries close, I think we're all clear on the impacts. All the libraries will be closed.

But what, exactly, will this doomsday plan mean for historic properties in the city?

KYW Newsradio quotes Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Historical Commission, as saying that historic properties "would be at risk" if the commission ceases operations on October 2. But the same story indicates that projects needing the commission's approval "would be delayed."

Does that mean everything needing Historical Commission review would be on hold until the staff is re-hired, at some point weeks or months in the future? Or will it be open-season on tearing down or altering properties in the city?

I hope we won't need to find out, but time is running out.

If you haven't already contacted your state legislators, please click here to do so. (This link takes you to the Free Library's advocacy page, where you can find your elected officials and a suggested letter urging them to act.)

UPDATE: Crisis averted, at least for now. On Sept. 17, the Legislature approved the tax and pension changes Mayor Michael Nutter requested. Nutter's "doomsday" budget is off the table. Read Nutter's letter to his staff here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Jewish Archives Moving North to Temple

Big news in the local archives scene: the Philadelphia Jewish Archives Center is now part of Temple University's Urban Archives. You can read the official announcement here.

I'm guessing this may not attract much media attention, but I for one am dying to know more details:

How will the collections and finding aids be integrated? Is this a merger, a strategic alliance, or something else? Is there a PJAC endowment that will help cover the cost of preserving and providing access to all these materials at Temple?

Yes, these are geeky archivist questions. But I also wrote my Masters thesis about PJAC's landlord for 20 years: the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies, which itself merged into the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) in 2002. (I'll write a longer post about the Balch and my thesis soon.)

According to PJAC's web site, the archive was founded in 1972 as a project of Federation of Jewish Agencies and the Philly chapter of the American Jewish Committee.

As early as 1979, PJAC board and staff were discussing whether to become affiliated with another institution. Everyone agreed that it would be best to affiliate with a Jewish educational institution, and staff reached out to Gratz College.

However, by 1981, PJAC was still independent. The board concluded that they would need to entice institutions with an endowment to cover the archive's operational costs.

The next official mention of merger was in 2000, when PJAC apparently reached out to the National Museum of American Jewish History. That institution declined.

Meanwhile, in 1985, PJAC moved into space at the Balch Institute, on 7th Street just below Market Street. After the Balch-HSP merger, HSP sold the former Balch building, and PJAC moved to new quarters at 125 N. 8th Street. However, rent for the new space was three times higher than at the awkward Balch building.

Four years later, PJAC moved again, this time to Temple's Urban Archives.

So just when did PJAC's board and staff start talking to Temple University about coming to campus? And did anyone seriously discuss having PJAC follow the Balch collections to HSP?

Regardless, I'm glad to hear that PJAC has found a home at Temple. Perhaps this influx of additional archival materials will prompt the university to give the very-deserving Urban Archives more financial resources, too.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Preserving Old Buildings

I've had a crash course in historic preservation this summer, so I was intrigued by this discussion posted on H-Public late last week about the standards used to decide if a property warrants a local historic designation.

Public historian Alex Bethke vents his frustrations with the San Diego Historic Preservation Commission, of which he is a member, and its interpretation of what qualifies as architecturally significant.

Bethke worries that the commission is too lax in its approval of properties, leading to lost property tax income for the city and "public misperception of historic preservation and inability to understand historical resource significance."

But Cathy Stanton responds by asking whether "the loose application of 'significance' is really such a bad thing"?

I'm with Stanton on this one.

While Bethke's San Diego situation may indeed be an extreme, I think that a broad interpretation of what qualifies as "significant" helps, rather than harms, preservation efforts.

Sure, not every building can be as historically significant as Independence Hall, or as architecturally significant as Fallingwater. But many "lesser" properties nevertheless contribute to a neighborhood's character and history. Plus, we already have such limited tools for preserving old buildings that I hesitate to take any out of the toolbox.

At least here in Philadelphia, local designation on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places helps encourage developers and homeowners to keep old buildings standing.

The Philadelphia Register does little if anything to educate the public about history, or architecture, or residential or industrial patterns within the city. But it was not meant to. Heck, sometimes the Philadelphia Register doesn't even prevent a building from being demolished. (Check out the recent flurry of activity to save the Hillman Medical Center on Chestnut Street).

I think we need to add more enticements for preserving old buildings, not set stricter requirements for what is "worth" saving.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

City Smells

Artist Jason Logan created an unusual walking tour for the New York Times this week, tracing smells in Manhattan. You can explore his interactive map here.

Logan points out that city smells are particularly strong in the summer, and he faithfully lists the bad with the good as he navigates the city.

At Stop 3, he smells fermentation, apples and fear. At Stop 17, he notes enigmatically, "No scent."

Logan's piece is about the present, not the past, but his map reminds me of the work of historian Mark Smith, who has written extensively about sensory history. (For a good overview of Smith's thinking, check out this 2007 essay.)

Smith argues that we should include all of our senses in examining and understanding history. He encourages historians not only to "see" the past, but also to consider smell, taste, sound and touch.

So I wonder: What would appear on a walking tour of scents in Philadelphia in 1890 as compared to 1960? What common denominator smells would connect 17th century Philadelphians to their modern equivalents? Intriguing questions.