Controversy on Philadelphia's Historic Commission Over Mayoral Pressure

As one of the most historic cities in the country, Philadelphia faces uniquely intense pressures between historic preservation and development. A new controversy on the city's Historic Commission offers the latest example of the dynamic.

2 minute read

October 19, 2021, 6:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

An image of a mural depicting Gloria Casarez on the outside of a gym on 12street in Philadelphia.

A controversy has erupted in Philadelphia surrounding the nomination of the 12th Street Gym property, shown here with a now-painted-over mural depicting Gloria Casarez, to the city's historic register. | Google Streetview

The processes of historic preservation in the city of Philadelphia are being called into question again as a new controversy embroiled the Philadelphia Historical Commission earlier this week.

"A city employee who serves on the Philadelphia Historical Commission has resigned from his job and commission post with an accusation that Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration pressured him to vote against the historic certification of a site of LGBTQ and Black history on behalf of a developer," reports Ryan Briggs.

The employee in question is Josh Lippert, manager with the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections, who had served as the department's designee on the historical commission since early 2019. According to Briggs, "Lippert singled out a 2019 vote over an effort to nominate the former 12th Street Gym property on 12th Street at Locust Street to the city’s historic register to stave off plans to demolish and redevelop the site into a 448-unit tower."

"The multi-property site included a building that was home to 19th century abolitionist Henry Minton and the Camac Baths — one of the first Jewish and, later, LGBT-friendly bathhouses in the city — as well as a mural to gay rights activist Gloria Casarez painted by artist Michelle Angela Ortiz," adds Briggs for additional context.

Lippert says he was pressured to act in accordance with the wishes of the mayor's office by former L&I commissioner David Perri, but didn't face any consequences after voting only to designate the bathouse. "Paul Chrystie, a spokesperson for the city, disputed that Perri had directed Lippert on how to vote, but maintained there would be nothing inappropriate about such an exchange," according to Briggs.

As noted in the article, local preservationists criticized the city's Historic Commission criticism for serving political and development interests even before this latest controversy. The controversy emerges a few months after a Philadelphia Inquirer opinion piece dubbed the city "Demodelphia."

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