The Philadelphia Historical Commission added Penn Home to its register of historic places in the city Friday morning, virtually preventing the recently closed retirement home, which had been in operation for 172 years, from potential demolition. The vote in favor by the commission’s board was unanimous.
“This is a historic community landmark,” said Fishtown resident Susan McAnally at the meeting. “As a resident of the neighborhood, we all sort of thought that one day we may end up living there as we walked past the gardens and looked at the beautiful porches.”
The property, at 1401 E. Susquehanna Ave., was nominated to the register by historian Oscar Beisert. Beisert told the Star last month that when word got out on social media around mid-August about Penn Home’s imminent closure, residents quickly began reaching out to him and asking him to nominate the building for historic preservation. He completed the building’s 46-page nomination in “maybe about five or six days,” he said.
At Friday’s meeting, community activist Venise Whitaker said that it was a place many residents hoped to retire.
“Every year at Halloween the kids would go there and go trick or treating,” she added. “It was a polling place, it was a place of worship, it was a place for many to end their lives that were residents of Fishtown. Hopefully, it will be reopened in some way for the community.”
When the facility closed at the end of September, many residents feared the facility would be purchased by a developer who would demolish the building in favor of a new apartment complex.
“In a vacuum of information, people are going to speculate,” said Michael Layton, one of the founders of New Kensington Community Development Corporation and one of its first executive directors. “We know that real estate values in Fishtown have gone through the roof and there’s hunger on the part of developers to get their hands on property.”
Whitaker detailed the neighborhood’s concern over the potential demolition of historic properties in Fishtown in an email to the Star.
“In September 2020, the quick removal of residents [at Penn Home] put a fear of future demolition in the minds of many Fishtown neighbors,” she wrote. “Many developers (not all) passing through Fishtown are using our neighborhood as a cash cow to line their pockets. We have seen more demolitions than reuse. A neighborhood should not fear development and construction improvements, but sadly that is currently our way of thinking.”
However, the property’s historic designation will now quell those concerns.
“I think it’s important both for all the historic character that has been discussed as well as for the mix of green space in with the building space that is now present in much new development,” said Fishtown resident Andrew Miller at the meeting.
Kristen Pomroy, a history undergraduate student at Temple University who spoke at the meeting just prior to the vote, said she felt that a designation of Penn Home would be a nod to the neighborhood’s residential history.
“It has always been a part of the community that’s grown up around it,” she said. “It’s so unique because you have a senior living facility that has always kept seniors in the community instead of the more traditional route of hiding them away when they became too old.”
Last month, Mark Sauer, Penn Home’s former executive director, told the Star he thought that the building was deserving of the nomination “based on its history.” He added that the resignation of one-third of the business’s employees – about eight of the 22 total people who worked there – was ultimately what resulted in Penn Home’s closure. The employees resigned over time out of fear that working in the facility left them vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, making it impossible to meet mandatory state minimum staffing requirements, Sauer said. Job postings were issued for the newly vacant positions but the few people who inquired didn’t show up to interviews.
In Beisert’s nomination, he argued in favor of the building’s historical significance in part due to the age of its original footprint, which he said is the oldest known structure in Fishtown. This part of the structure, which is the stuccoed section of the dwelling visible from Fletcher Street, was built in 1769 – before additions were tacked on in 1858, 1867, 1887 and 1958 (along with the annexation of the neighboring building in 1894). But Beisert also said the building was one of the oldest continually operated old-age homes in the city and one of the earliest founded for charitable purposes. The fact that it was founded and operated by women in the very beginning of its existence adds to the significance.
For most of its history, Penn Home provided housing for women in the community older than 59 years of age, according to Beisert’s research. That changed with an alteration to the charter in the ‘90s, which eliminated the gender restriction.