“It’s a win for Philadelphia history, and a win for the Jewish history of Philadelphia.”
That’s how Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, characterized today’s decision by the Philadelphia Historical Commission to put the University of the Arts’ building at 401 S. Broad St. — colloquially known as the Gershman Y — on Philadelphia’s historic register. The designation means that the building, which was constructed in 1924 as the Young Men’s & Young Women’s Hebrew Association, cannot be altered or demolished without express permission from the city.
The building was originally nominated for designation by the Preservation Alliance in July 2016; in December 2016, the Historical Commission’s architectural designation committee unanimously approved it. The university opposed the nomination from the start, and was unable to find common ground with the alliance.
The university softened its position a bit in recent days, objecting not to the designation entirely but to the use of certain language in the nomination, which was written by alliance consultant Ben Leech. In particular, Sklaroff requested that the characterization of the building as “good” be changed to “fair,” a concession that was granted today, as was the university’s request that the building material description be changed.
The university also asked that the designation be confined to two of the city ordinance’s 10 criteria for historic designation, rather than the four cited in the official nomination.
The commission’s final decision to grant the designation using all four criteria came after testimony this morning by university representative Michael Sklaroff of Ballard Spahr as well as by a university-affiliated engineer, who attested to the building’s troubled condition — a point the university has continued to insist upon, even as it continues to use it as a hub for many student organizations and administrative offices.
A representative for Center City developer Carl Dranoff spoke in favor of granting the building the designation, as did members of the alliance.
The building was designed by architects Frank E. Hahn and S. Brian Baylinson, and was the largest American Jewish institutional building of its kind at the time — and the first collaboration between a YMHA and YWHA.
Jewish community leaders involved in the Y coming to fruition included Albert M. Greenfield; Charles and Ellis Gimbel; Samuel and Jacob Lit; Joseph Snellenburg; Samuel Fels; Jules E. Mastbaum; and Samuel S. Fleisher.
“This is a building that should have been protected years ago, and we acted as soon as we found out it was threatened,” said Steinke, whose organization members started crafting the nomination last year after hearing rumors that the university planned to alter or demolish it. “We’re very happy. Today we saved the Gershman Y.”
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