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#ThisPlaceMatters: Legendary Blue Horizon

27 Jan

After the Civil War, North Broad Street became one of Philadelphia’s leading addresses. North Broad was attractive to wealthy industrialists for two reasons. First, many of their factories and mills were located in nearby industrial areas. Second, the old money crowd in Rittenhouse Square snubbed their noses at the nouveau riche businessmen.

The brownstone mansions that lined North Broad were built to house the families of the industrialists. Between May 1912 and June 1913, the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge 54 acquired three brownstones to establish a new clubhouse. The buildings were renovated with the addition of an auditorium and ballroom.

blue horizon - vintage

In 1961, Jimmy Toppi Sr. purchased the property. Toppi renamed the buildings after “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” a song from the 1930 film Monte Carlo. The Blue Horizon hosted international, regional and state title fights. It was voted the #1 boxing venue in the world by The Ring magazine; Sports Illustrated called it “the last great boxing venue in the country.” The Legendary Blue Horizon closed in June 2010.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission added the Legendary Blue Horizon to the local register of historic landmarks in 2015. However, only the Broad Street façades were protected. Four years later, Orens Bros. is back before the PHC Architecture Committee to seek final approval of its design of the front façades. The developer plans to demolish the brownstones and construct a hotel.

blue horizon - front facade rendering

PHC staff recommended the Committee deny final approval of the design. And indeed it did. The Architecture Committee voted to send the developer back to the drawing board.

All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson provided public comment in support of the Commission staff’s recommendation:

The Legendary Blue Horizon is one of the few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. Before it was a beloved boxing venue, it was an entertainment destination. Duke Ellington performed in the ballroom that was added on by Philadelphia Lodge No. 54, Loyal Order of Moose. The members-only bar later became a nightspot open to the public. The Camero Room played host to jazz legends-in-the-making like trumpeters Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro.

The Legendary Blue Horizon holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Philadelphians as evidenced by its depiction on the Philadelphia Courthouse Mural commissioned under the Percent for Art Program. As you can see, the iconic stairs figure prominently in Philadelphians’ memories.

blue horizon - philadelphia courthouse mural

I posted the recent Philadelphia Inquirer report about the Orens Bros. proposal to All That Philly Jazz’s Facebook page. The post has gone viral. Why? This place matters.

The proposed hotel is appropriately named since it takes a lot of moxy to seek approval to cheapen a beloved historic landmark with modern add-ons, materials and signage. The proposed design erases the historic character of the front façades.

I agree with the Commission staff that the applicant’s design does not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. It would make a mockery of historic designation if the Committee voted to ignore the standards.

I recognize that financing of the project is outside the purview of this Committee. That said, it is important to note that in an earlier iteration of the project, Orens Bros. received $7 million in grants under Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) for what was then an $18 million project.

Of the $7 million in state grants, Orens Bros. drew down $748,578; the balance of the grants expired. The applicant spent nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in taxpayers’ money and walked away without sealing the buildings. The historic landmark is now exposed to the elements.

The first round of RACP funding applications closes on January 31. I fully expect Orens Bros. will again rattle the cup for a public subsidy for its now $22 million project. If the proposed design is approved, Philadelphians and other taxpayers would effectively pay for the demolition and defacement of a beloved historic landmark.

Orens Bros. Real Estate does not care about the Legendary Blue Horizon, but this Committee can make them care. The application should be denied on the grounds the proposed design does not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, specifically Standards 2, 9 and 10.

The applicant should go back to the drawing board and develop a design that does, in fact, preserve the front façades and respect their historic character.

Orens Bros. can appeal the Architecture Committee’s decision to the full Philadelphia Historical Commission. Or they can accept the “denial with hope” decision. Stay tuned.

No More Auction Block for Black Americans

1 Jan

On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln went into effect.

Emancipation Proclamation - Jan. 1, 1863

The executive order changed the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in 10 designated states and areas then in rebellion against the United States:

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in English North America. There will be a year-long commemoration of 400 years of African American history.

#400Years African Ameican History

As the nation gears up to mark this milestone, K. Hovnanian Homes is gearing up to degrade Abolition Hall, a former Underground Railroad station where fugitive slaves found shelter on their journey to freedom. The purpose-built structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ignoring the reasoned opposition of Friends of Abolition Hall and allies, the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors voted to allow Hovnanian to build 67 townhouses within a stone’s throw of the historic landmark.

While the case winds its way through the courts, we’re taking the case for saving Abolition Hall to the court of public opinion. To that end, we launched VillagesatWhitemarsh.info which redirects to Abolition Hall Deserves Better. For the next 400 days, we will curate news and information to raise awareness among prospective Villages at Whitemarsh buyers that they would be buying into a cookie-cutter development that was built on hallowed ground. So caveat emptor.

Abolition Hall Deserves Better -Villages at Whitemarsh

If you have stories that you would like to share with this crowdsourced project, please contact Abolition Hall Deserves Better.

Remembering John Brown

2 Dec

December 2 marks 159 years since freedom fighter John Brown’s last moments on Earth.

Horace Pippin - John Brown Going to His Hanging

The fiery abolitionist is near and dear to my heart. Many years ago I visited John Brown’s Fort in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

John Brown's Fort

I’ve lost count of the number of times I touched base with my hero at the National Portrait Gallery.

John Brown - National Portrait Gallery

I also regularly visit John Brown at the Metropolitan Museum and share with him what’s going on.

The Last Moments of John Brown - Thomas Hovenden

So you can imagine my reaction when I learned a development project, the Villages at Whitemarsh, would encroach on the studio where Thomas Hovenden painted “The Last Moments of John Brown.”

Abolition Hall, an Underground Railroad station where runaway slaves found sanctuary in the purpose-built structure and surrounding fields, was converted into a studio after the Civil War. The developer, K. Hovnanian Homes, wants to build 67 generic townhouses a stone’s throw from the historic landmark.

Hovnanian won the first round but the fight is far from over. Friends of Abolition Hall appealed the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors’ approval of the developer’s conditional use application.

John Brown’s “body lies a-mouldering in the grave. But his soul goes marching on.” Indeed, I believe to my soul that Abolition Hall deserves better.

To add your voice to those who oppose the desecration of this historic landmark and hallowed ground, please contact us.