Understanding The Johnson Street Dispute

by

Marc Stier

President, West Mt. Airy Neighbors

 

Reprinted from the Mt. Airy Times Express and Germantown Courier, September 22, 2004

 

The current dispute over the West Johnson Street properties has been among the most complicated and contentious issues WMAN has dealt with in the six years I have been involved in the organization. I would like to explain to the communities of Mt. Airy and Germantown what this issue is about and, also, what it is not about.

What This Dispute Is About

The fundamental issue for WMAN in this dispute is the protection of two historic and architecturally impressive buildings. Anyone who has seen the Nugent Home, more recently known as Edgewood or Edgemont, knows that it is an architectural masterpiece. While the aesthetic charms of the Presser Home, more recently known as Mt. Airy Commons, are more subtle, it too is a special building that was designed by two notable Philadelphia architects, Paul and Seymour Davis. The Presser Home is linked to the life of a very important Philadelphian, Theodore Presser, whose music publishing company and magazine, The Etude, was internationally famous. In addition, both the Nugent Home and the Presser Home are important because they are among the earliest examples of a once-new phenomenon: an institution created to care for the elderly in their retirement.

These buildings have long been a concern of West Mt. Airy Neighbors, West Central Germantown Neighbors, and the other community associations in the area. Two years ago we worked to close the personal care facility in the buildings. We were concerned, first, because the facility treated its residents abominably and created a nuisance for the neighborhood. We also were distressed because the conditions of these two once beautiful buildings—and the lovely gardens between them—had severely deteriorated. Neighbors—and those who walked or drove through the neighborhood—were appalled by the decline into shabbiness of two buildings that had for years adorned the community.

Once the personal care facilities were closed, we waited to see who might purchase the properties. Some of us were relieved when Blair Christian Academy took an option to buy them. Blair has been a good neighbor and we thought both buildings would be renovated for the school. To our distress, however, it soon became apparent that Blair intended to demolish the Presser Home. So, in March of 2004, some of the leaders of the community organizations began to talk about protecting the buildings by applying to the Historical Commission to have them listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Buildings. The energy of our volunteer organizations lagged when Blair withdrew from a zoning hearing in April. Thus the whole community owes an enormous debt to Stephen Anderson, a neighbor of the buildings and an architect, who applied to have the Presser Home designated in early June. More recently, John Gallery of the Preservation Alliance submitted an application for the Nugent Home.

Impacting Your World Christian Center now wants to join with Blair Christian Academy to purchase the properties. We were impressed when we met their Pastor, Ray Barnard. Impacting Your World Christian Center is a church that is making important contributions to its members and the broader community. The sheer size of the 3000 member church—and the parking and traffic problems its presence on the narrow Johnson Street might create—worries some neighbors. But no one has any doubt that Impacting Your World would be a wonderful addition both to this neighborhood and to West Mt. Airy in general.

We were concerned, however, when Pastor Barnard and the church’s architect, John Teets, told us that their plan to build a 125,000 to 140,000 square foot facility would require that both the Presser and Nugent buildings be demolished. At our first meeting with Pastor Barnard, we told him that it would be hard to convince us that the good his church would bring would outweigh the destruction of two buildings that are not only historically and architecturally significant but also a much loved presence in the neighborhood. Impacting Your World can do its good work elsewhere—this is, after all, the third location they have considered. But the beautiful and historic buildings on Johnson Street cannot be replaced. Once they are gone, they are gone forever.

That is not to say there is no possible room for compromise. Indeed, I initially gave some thought to the possibility of agreeing to the demolition of the Presser Home if the Nugent Home were to be restored. It is not that I don’t care for the Presser Home. But, along with some others, I was worried that it was functionally obsolete. I feared that, as a result, historic designation might result in that building standing empty and unused for many years until it was essentially demolished by neglect. It is hard to forget the sad story of the Mayfair House at Johnson Street and Lincoln Drive which, despite the best efforts of community activists, could not be rehabilitated at a reasonable cost and thus became a nuisance for its neighbors until it was demolished.

Others in the community thought the prospects for the Presser Home were not so bleak. They pointed out that while the buildings had been shown to operators of nursing homes or personal care facilities, we had heard of only two potential buyers who had considered historically appropriate rehabilitation of the buildings as either subsidized or market rate housing. We learned that those two developers had thought that redevelopment of the buildings for housing was possible. And we have come to believe that a more extensive effort to market the buildings might turn up still other potential developers.

So, at the moment, we do not really know whether the Presser Home can be rehabilitated and used again as some kind of residence.

Another possible compromise was floated by the church last week, when they suggested that they might allow some other organization to restore the Nugent Home and make use of at least the fašade of the Presser Building for their new church. This would not be a true historic rehabilitation of the building and it would not meet the requirements of historic designation. But it could save some of the presence of the building in the community.

The preference of most neighbors, and thus of WMAN, is for the exterior of both buildings to be restored to something close to their original condition and for them to be used for something close to their original purpose. But we are certainly willing to entertain this new possibility proposed by the church.

Prior to the hearing to consider the historic designation of the Presser Home on September 10, I discussed the possibility of jointly seeking a continuance with the church. But, as a condition of doing so I requested that Impacting Your World allow one or two architects or engineers to examine the buildings so that we could have an objective report on the possibility of returning them to their original residential purpose in an historically appropriate rehabilitation.

The church rejected my proposal, so we decided to move forward with historic designation. But we remain open to considering Impacting Your World’s plans. When (and if) the Presser Building receives historic designation, the church can still propose that the Commission allow it to modify the building. And, if WMAN and the neighbors were convinced that this is the best way to save the building, we would stand with the church before the Historical Commission.

The fundamental dispute between the community organizations and the majority of neighbors on the one hand, and Impacting Your World, on the other, then, has to do with the importance of protecting those buildings. This is an entirely legitimate dispute, about which people can have reasonable disagreements.

Those who have spoken for Impacting Your World say that the church makes an important contribution to the life of its members and the communities in which they live. We do not disagree. But when they say we should care about people not buildings, we answer that we can care about people by caring about buildings. People can be inspired to better their lives by many things. A beautiful sermon and a dedicated and charismatic Pastor are among them. But so are beautiful buildings and grounds and the reminder of the work of a long dead benefactor of mankind.

The leaders and members of Impacting Your World talk of the spiritual ideals embedded in their church. We can readily see them. But we believe that the hand of God can be seen not just in an impressive church but, also, in the beauty of nature, the work of great architects, and the lives of important men and women who are memorialized in the buildings that bear their name.

What This Dispute Is Not About

Along with these legitimate differences of opinion, there is another point of contention, one that everyone in Northwest Philadelphia should find distressing. I have tried to ignore it. But I can do so no longer. For some—thankfully not most—of those speaking for the church have said that the community groups and the neighbors seeking historic designation are motivated by racial or religious bigotry against a church, a majority of whose members are African American.

This charge is absurd if only because we sought historic designation for the buildings long before we knew that Impacting Your World was interested in this property. The application for historic designation of the Presser Home was submitted on June 10. We did not know that Impacting Your World had an option to purchase the properties until early August.

Since we have learned about the church’s interest in the area, we have never offered any objection to the church itself. We have none. We have met with representatives and members of the church three times. Last week I spent hours talking to one of their attorneys trying to work out an agreement to jointly seek a continuance at the recent hearing on the historic designation of the Presser Home.

Anyone who knows this neighborhood, or the larger communities of Germantown and Mt. Airy of which they are a part, will recognize that racial bigotry plays no role in this dispute. Those who make this claim obviously do not know that a majority of the people who live in the immediate vicinity of the two buildings are African American. The same is true of the near neighbors who have signed a petition supporting historic designation for the Presser Home. West Mt. Airy is nationally known as one of a handful of fully integrated communities. Roughly half of West Mt. Airy has been black and half white for over forty years.  Integration in the part of Germantown just south of Johnson Street goes back even longer. In addition, those of us who have led the community in this dispute are both black and white and have a long history of working together.

Nor is it plausible to say that we oppose the church on religious grounds. There are seven churches, representing a wide variety of sects, within a few blocks of the two buildings. And West Mt. Airy and Germantown are among the most religiously diverse communities in the entire United States.

Given the appalling history of racial and religious bigotry in this country, it is not hard to understand why people are on the look out for it. We all should be. And, especially in these communities, all of us, black and white, know that the fight for racial tolerance and against bigotry is a long way from being over. Just because we live in integrated neighborhoods, we live with and work to overcome the legacy of racism every day of our lives.

We also can understand why some who support the church might look to racism as an explanation for our reaction to their plans. One of the most extraordinary things about Impacting Your World is the spirit of its members and their evident devotion to each other and Pastor Barnard. The members of the church believe in each other and in their mission. And well they should, because it is incredibly impressive. I fear, however, that precisely because they are so devoted to it, some members of the church find it hard to understand why everyone does not share the same view. And thus they find it hard to understand why most of the residents of Johnson Street and the surrounding blocks, and most of the residents of the broader communities of which they are a part, believe that these wonderful, historic buildings should be protected, even if that means that the church may have to find another new home.

Those who fail to understand the ideals that motivate our concern for these buildings have attributed evil motives to us. But, in doing so, they have failed to truly see us.  

Some compromise between our positions may yet be possible. It is also possible that we will continue to disagree. I am not troubled by disagreement—it is the very welcome price of freedom. And I have no doubt that Impacting Your World will find a suitable new home, here or elsewhere. But I would be deeply troubled if our disagreements turned ugly because of false and malicious accusations. Thus I ask everyone involved in this dispute—Pastor Barnard and the members of Impacting Your World; the residents of the neighborhoods; and the leaders and members of West Mt. Airy Neighbors, West Central Germantown Neighbors; Pomona Cherokee Civic Council and Duval Street Civic Association—to live up to the ideals we share and keep our disagreements civil and respectful of one another.