Neighborhoods within Philadelphia may be designated as historic districts by either the City of Philadelphia or by the National Register of Historic Places, which is the official list of the historic places in the United States deemed worthy of preservation.
Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archeological resources. The University City Historical Society is involved in ongoing efforts to have the historic character of our neighborhoods recognized by both groups.
West Philadelphia and University City currently contain over 50 sites that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The most recent to be listed was the West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District. This nomination was a long-term project of UCHS. Volunteers from the society completed an exhaustive survey of the buildings in the neighborhood, describing and photographing almost every structure. The final report was begun by former UCHS president Jennifer Goodman and completed for UCHS by historic preservation consultant Cynthia Rose; it was submitted to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in January 1997 and approved by the National Register in February 1998. This report contains over 250 pages of description and documentation of over 3500 neighborhood buildings.
National Register sites and districts recognize important historical areas. No restrictions are placed on buildings included on the National Register, although owners of commercial properties may be eligible for tax incentives for appropriate rehabilitation of those properties. The National Register’s Heritage Preservation Services division can provide more information.
Local historic districts are regulated by the City of Philadelphia’s Historical Commission. The goal of these districts is to preserve the unique character of a district or neighborhood. The University City Historical Society has worked in the past toward getting Spruce Hill recognized as a local historic district.
The Spruce Hill Historic District nomination, made possible by a grant from the J.N. Pew, Jr. Charitable Trust, was prepared by the Preservation Coalition of Greater Philadelphia (now the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia).
The West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District nomination project was supported jointly by a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and by funds raised by the University City Historical Society.
Philadelphia Register of Historic Places
The local register is maintained by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Criteria for evaluation can be found HERE and includes exemplifying the cultural, political, economic, social, or historical heritage of the community and being the work of an architect who significantly influenced the historical, architectural, or social development of the City, Commonwealth, or Nation.
Inclusion on the Philadelphia register provides a historic district with regulatory oversight if an owner desires to alter the property. Alterations can include building additions; roof, window, or porch replacement; and partial or complete demolition. While window replacement can often be reviewed at the staff level, more invasive alterations must come before the PHC’s Architectural Committee for a public discussion of the effects of such proposals. Local regulatory oversight guarantees a public review process in which neighbors can participate. Preservation is a public good and local government gives a platform to discuss implications of alterations to our inherited patrimony.
University City has several local historic districts within its boundaries: 420 Row; Chester Regent; Parkside; Satterlee Heights; and the 3611-31 Spring Garden Street Historic District. The Spruce Hill Historic District was submitted to the PHC in 2002 but was not processed. The Powelton Village Historic District is currently in the works.
National Register of Historic Places
The National Register is the nation’s inventory of historic places at the local and state levels with corresponding documentation as to its significance. It documents the appearance and importance of historic resources significant in our history to give “a sense of orientation to the American people,” according to the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act which authorized the National Register. National Register properties and districts are managed by their state’s Historic Preservation Office; for us, this is the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
University City is proud to have three National Register Historic Districts within its boundaries. Powelton Village Historic District, West Philadelphia Streetcar Suburb Historic District and Garden Court Historic District.
Inclusion on the National Register is based on Criteria for Evaluation found HERE and recognizes the accomplishments and achievements of everyone who has contributed to the history of the United States. National Register properties are not under regulatory review if owners seek alterations, including demolition, nor do they invoke local historical ordinances or land-use codes. State and federal tax credits can be used to restore buildings in NR-designated districts for income-producing purposes and are terrific for revitalizing dormant and derelict properties.