A little more than a decade ago, Lorraine Gomez and her husband, Gerald, both military veterans, decided to leave the South Jersey suburbs and move back to Gomez’s old neighborhood in Parkside. “Why live with all this overhead when we can live in a beautiful place?” asks Gomez, who lives in a historic Victorian rowhouse on Viola Street, just a block south of Parkside Avenue and West Fairmount Park.
In 2007, Gomez and 10 of her neighbors formed the Viola Street Residents Association (VSRA) to help bring the revitalization they saw happening nearby onto their own block. Beginning in the 1990s, the Parkside Historic Preservation Corporation had restored 20 of the late 19th century mansions on Parkside Avenue, and in 2008, the Please Touch Museum moved into a refurbished Memorial Hall.
“We saw a lot of work on the perimeter of the park and inside the park but not much on the interior of the neighborhood,” Gomez says. Now, Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia, as part of its home repair program in West Philly, is helping Gomez and 17 other residents of the 4200 block of Viola Street restore their rowhouses.
Although Habitat has done historic restoration projects elsewhere in the country, this is the first time Habitat’s Philadelphia affiliate has attempted to preserve buildings according to historic specifications.
Seven houses, all on the north side of the block, are part of the Parkside Historic District, one of a handful Making Preservation Work in Parkside of neighborhoods on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The Flemish revival brick rowhouses,designed by Henry E. Flower and built by brewer Frederick Poth in the late 1890s, feature tawnycolored brick façades with copper bay windows and a hint of the modern, thanks to the exposed steel beams over the porches.
The first week of work on Viola Street drew about 170 volunteers, who made repairs on the facades and porches of the 18 homes as well as basic interior safety upgrades, such as installing railings, smoke detectors and bathroom grab bars. The project continued for several months, with around 20 volunteers working each week.
To Aaron Wunsch, an assistant professor of historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania, Habitat’s Parkside initiative provides a promising model for future programs. “This is, in many ways, the direction I would like my field to go in,” Wunsch says. “It brings the mission of Habitat into the world of preservation.”
However, Wunsch has heard much naysaying about preservation projects in lower-income neighborhoods. “I hear it all the time from people: ‘If you care about social justice, why are you working with buildings?’”
In fact, Wunsch says, social justice and historic preservation go hand in hand. “My answer is, it allows people to stay in their neighborhood, where generations of their families may have lived,” he says.
For critics who claim that preservation work wastes money that could be better used on new construction, Wunsch says it’s a matter of short-term versus long-term investment. “You could restore a full oak window sash, and it won’t need any real work for another 50 years, or you could install a new vinyl window. You’ll get a five-year warranty, but after that, you’re on your own.”
Cassie O’Connell, director of Habitat’s The Other Carpenter program, says home repair, even in the short run, is much more cost-effective than new construction, which is Habitat’s traditional mode. The $140,000 it takes to build a new house in Philadelphia could go to stabilizing between 30 and 40 existing houses, she says. Preservation may add costs, but the alternative — allowing the homes to fall into further disrepair — is untenable. And if anyone doubts Habitat’s commitment to historic preservation, O’Connell says, he or she should just look across the street. On the south side of the block, where Habitat is working on buildings outside of the historic district, they are still trying to retain the character of the brick rowhomes.
The problem, Wunsch says, is making the preservation process more flexible for small projects like this one. “The last great piece of this puzzle,” Wunsch says, “is how do we get local preservationists to be flexible and let go of the purist approach where everything has to be up to Colonial Williamsburg specs?”
Habitat’s Viola Street project isn’t the first time volunteers have done preservation work in Philadelphia. Lauren Drapala, of the Young Friends of the Preservation Alliance (YFPA), says that the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust, her former employer, relies on help from students, interns and volunteers for its preservation workforce.
“But you definitely need a certain amount of knowledge going in to a preservation project — knowledge a volunteer might not have,” says Drapala, who works as an architectural conservator with Building Conservation Associates.
Drapala and Meg Kelly, another member of the YFPA, stepped in to help organize volunteer work on the restoration of windows on Viola Street. Kelly surveyed the windows, labeled them and trained volunteers in restoration techniques, allowing Habitat to move forward with a clearly organized plan.
Bringing in experts like Drapala and Kelly who are willing to donate their time and can work closely with volunteers may be part of the answer to the question of how to reduce the cost of historic preservation in districts like Parkside. The work YFPA did on Viola Street allowed Habitat to do more with the limited funding already in place, Drapala says. “We had a great opportunity with this project to help a community that we don’t normally get to serve,” she says.
The project has also gotten a boost from Sean Solomon, who bought his house on Viola Street for $5,000 in 1998 when it was slated for demolition and restored the facade and much of the interior to their 1890s specifications. Solomon created drawings for several historically accurate porch railings, submitted them to the staff of the Historical Commission and then brought them to an architectural millwork shop to be built. He is also doing restoration work on a number of windows for the Habitat project.
Habitat’s Viola Street effort may be the largest preservation project in the city thus far that relies on so much volunteer labor. But no matter how many volunteers show up for workdays, funding is still necessary to make a project like this happen. Thrivent Financial provided $40,000 and church groups in Philly raised another $15,000 for the work on Viola Street. “For future projects,” O’Connell says, “further funding will have to be found.”
In Parkside, the residents seem energized and committed to revitalizing their block, Gomez says. “Habitat really threw us a lifeline,” she says. “The neighborhood got a transfusion that day [the volunteers first came].”