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May 2, 2014

Loss of historic vitrolite art deco facade in center city

Still suffering from the loss of the Boyd Theatre, Art Deco enthusiasts and historic preservationists have focused their watchful eyes eight blocks eastward. Less than a month after demolition of the Boyd’s auditorium got the green light, a Vitrolite panel fell from the iconic façade at 1106 Chestnut Street, resulting in the hasty removal of the entire glass facing.

Blending foreboding black vertical dashes with dazzling and ornate individual panels, the building’s façade was one of the area’s few remaining examples of Streamline Moderne—a late style of Art Deco that emerged from Germany’s Bauhaus art school in the 1930s and expressed an excitement over emerging technological advancements.

Built in 1933—five years after the Boyd—1106 Chestnut opened as a Dr. Scholl’s Foot Comfort Shoes store with a design from Chicago architect Markham Ashberry. In 1986, the building was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places for its “outstanding example of a glass commercial façade rendered in the Art Deco style.” Specifically, this façade featured Vitrolite, an opaque, lustrous–and very heavy–brand of structural glass manufactured in the United States until 1947. Two years later, Joseph Nadav purchased the building for $1.1 million and opened a new outlet for City Blue, the store he’d begun around the corner at 13th & Market in 1981.On April 11th, a panel of the Vitrolite crashed to the ground. In response, the City’s Department of Licenses and Inspections issued an “unsafe” violation, according to L&I spokesperson Rebecca Swanson. The violation required that Nadav immediately rectify the problem by removing the loose pieces of Vitrolite. Nadav contracted William Proud Masonry to remove the faulty façade the same day, said Brian Nadav, Joseph Nadav’s son and vice president of City Blue.

At some point in the removal process, the decision was made to take down the entire façade, resulting in several more panels being inadvertently smashed. Since 1106 Chestnut is on the city’s Historic Register, major work cannot be done without first receiving permission from the Philadelphia Historical Commission. That didn’t happen because L&I instructed them to remove the entire façade, according to Brian Nadav.

“They said it was a safety issue,” said Nadav. “That day, by 4:30 William Proud [Masonry] had removed anything that was still up there that was at risk of falling down. At that point L&I still told Proud the rest of it needs to come down.” According to Nadav, they didn’t realize that by complying with L&I they were not complying with Historical Commission regulations.

But L&I says it never instructed either the contractor or the Nadavs to remove the entire façade. “Part of that glass façade collapsed on the public footway,” said Scott Mulderig, chief of L&I’s Emergency Service and Abatement Unit. “The department asked the owner to supply an engineer to report on the structural stability of the rest of it. We immediately ordered the owner to install a sidewalk shelter platform. The owner applied [for the platform] on the 16th and had it installed. My impression was that there still part of [the façade] up there that still had to be looked at, and then get the engineer’s report on how they’re going to stabilize it.”

Now, says Brian Nadav, he and his father are working to obtain a permit from the Historical Commission that would retroactively allow the façade removal. Historical Commission Executive Director Jon Farnham said that the Nadavs would need to appear before the Historical Commission regardless of how the events unfolded the day the glass panels were removed.

“Say there’s a case where there’s a façade of a building about to fall and L&I tells the property owner, ‘Take that down immediately. Don’t get anyone’s approval. Don’t get a permit, just do it right now’—which they have the authority to do—that owner would still then be without a façade on that building and would have to legalize the problem, even if it’s after-the-fact, with the Historical Commission,” said Farnham.

But again, the situation remains unclear: Brian Nadav claims that the Historical Commission has yet to sign on off on this permit, and Farnham says that he hasn’t been presented with one.

“L&I has the authority to order a property owner to make something safe without obtaining a permit or without obtaining the Historical Commission’s approval when there is a significant risk to public safety,” said Farnham. “The contractor then came in over the weekend and removed everything, which to my understanding, they didn’t have authorization to do and didn’t have a permit to do.”

“The violation requires the owner to repair the unsafe condition; how the owner does so—including any commutation with the Historical Commission—is up to the owner,” said L&I’s Swanson.

While the law is pretty clear that all repairs must be reported to the Historical Commission, Brian Nadav suggests that better communication between L&I and the Historical Commission might have saved him the headache—and money. “It’s confusing because [since] they don’t talk to each other, they don’t communicate anything to us,” he said. “We’re going to get this resolved. We just have to see where the funds come from.”

Replacing the glass won’t be easy–or cheap. A factory in the Czech Republic is the only remaining producer of Vitrolite, and its black glass is closer to a deep purple. Current structural glass products would probably be used instead, but the project will be expensive either way.

“To produce the color and pattern and swirl… It’s going to be very difficult to match the existing pattern,” said Terry Webb, president of nearby Eureka Metal & Glass and chairman of the Architectural Glass and Metal Association. “You can replicate it with today’s product, but it won’t be the exact same process. It won’t be a dead match.” He added that any remaining Vitrolite might need to be removed, “so that the new glass doesn’t have the tiniest bit of difference between the historical glass and the replacement glass.”

The Historical Commission met with Nadav this week, outlining restoration options for his building with the help of area specialists, according to one Historical Commission employee. So the burden falls on Nadav, who is now in the process of getting quotes on repair prices.

Replacing the glass might cost somewhere north of $50,000, according to Webb. Should Nadav wish to keep the building as-is he can plead his case before the Historical Commission itself. If they rule against him, Nadav is obligated to repair the damaged façade. He could then appeal, and taking this hypothetical even further, should Nadav win a court battle, 1106 Chestnut—without its signature “historic” feature—would likely be removed from the city’s Register of Historic Places.

Would the Historical Commission help to facilitate for the building’s restoration? Unfortunately, no, said Farnham. “There’s no money in the Historical Commission budget for any work to any buildings, whether they’re publicly or privately owned. Our budget covers staff salaries and very little else,” he said. “There never has been any money to acquire or stabilize buildings.” While some local agencies in places like California offer tax credits for historic properties, Farnham explained, Philadelphia is not one of them.

Nadav could potentially apply for a federal grant, but odds are that he’ll have to pay to restore the Art Deco glass out of pocket, or else convince the Historical Commission–or an appeals court–to OK the façade’s removal. Either way, the next move is his.

Source: HiddenCityPhila