Last week in Present Value, we shared the news about the recent addition of the William and Letitia Still House and Underground Railroad Way Station to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Since most Underground Railroad stations have been forgotten, finding the exact home of the Father of the Underground Railroad and protecting it underscores the importance and justification for undertaking the effort to maintain a historic register. It gives us today, and our future generations the opportunity to piece together our whole history.
625 South Delhi Street does not stand out as a monument to freedom. As Lonnie G. Bunch, III, Director of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, points out in one of the eight letters of support the nomination garnered from scholars and historians:
The powerful sense of connection with the past that comes from a specific historic site such as this is of vital importance. I am aware that the facade of the building was changed in the 1920s. However, the house’s significance has never depended on precisely how it appeared to the street. Indeed, its facade always covered the work taking place inside: meetings, discussions, and the harboring of fugitives striking out for freedom.”
The second installment of this short series on historic preservation describes the steps taken to discover the home and the process for designation in Philadelphia. The writer thanks historic archivist James Duffin for taking time to be interviewed for this story and the The Keeping Society of Philadelphia for their diligence in completing the research it took to complete the nomination.
An advertisement in in the Pennsylvania Freeman on April 24, 1851 that read: “Fashionable Dressmaking Done in the best manner by Letitia Still, Ronaldson street, first house above Shippen street, East side between Ninth and Tenth streets,” provided Duffin with the details needed to pinpoint 625 S. Delhi Street (which was Ronaldson Street before 1897) as the home of William and Letitia Still from 1850 until 1855. Before discovering the archived newspaper ad, Duffin and fellow historians relied on old city maps—the Bromley Atlas and the Sanborn Atlas—and McElroy’s 1854 Philadelphia City Directory (a precursor to the phone book) as well as other archived documents to determine that the 600 block of South Delhi Street was where the couple had once lived and sheltered freedom seekers. The ad provided the precise details needed to complete a Philadelphia Historic Resource Nomination form.
The nomination was submitted to the Philadelphia Historic Commission on December 11, 2017, it was accepted as complete on December 29. On March 9, 2018, The William Still House and Underground Railroad Way Station was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. This may seem like it was a quick process, but the research had taken a few years to complete.
Anyone can nominate a property to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, but the supporting documentation must include citations from accepted research sources. Depending on the type of resource being nominated, there are four to five stages involved in the process of adding a resource to the register:
- Submittal of a complete Historic Resource Nomination form;
- Review for completeness and accuracy by Historic Commission staff;
- Review by the Committee on Historic Designation who determines if the nominated resource meets one or more of the criteria for designation;
- The Committee on Historic Designation and Commission Staff will work with local communities on a Preliminary Assessment to define boundaries (for nominations of historic districts);
- Several Public Meetings are held to gather input on historic district nominations;
- Nomination and Recommendation at a Historic Commission meeting where public testimony is heard, and a vote is taken by the Commission.
The William and Letitia Still House and Underground Railroad Way Station qualified under two criteria: a.) the property has significant character, interest or value as part of the development, heritage or cultural characteristics of the City, Commonwealth or Nation or is associated with the life of a person significant in the past; and j.) the property exemplifies the cultural, political, economic, social or historical heritage of the community.
Support from historic and cultural advocacy organizations, scholars, historians, and community groups can bolster a nomination. The Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the National Center for History in Schools—powerhouse advocates for American history and culture, provided letters of support for the nomination of the William and Letitia Still House, as did a number of scholars in African American history.
What it Means for a Property to be Listed on the Register
Inclusion on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places is a significant status supporting the thesis that the history of certain properties is extraordinarily invaluable to the community at-large. Once a property is listed, it cannot be demolished or unsympathetically altered without approval from the Philadelphia Historic Commission, a design review process that must be completed before permits can be considered.
Anyone interested in pursuing the nomination of a property they feel has merit may want to begin with one of the several organizations that exist to help guide such an endeavor. Check out Philadelphia’s map of the city’s locally designated buildings. For a city that has been developing for nearly 340 years, there are relatively few historic designated properties. According to The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, there are nearly 11,000 listed on the local register, 2.5% of buildings in Philadelphia. When compared with 4.3% on average for other U.S. cities, the numbers pale. But there are efforts underway to address this. In May 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney established the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Task Force, which is charged with making recommendations to strengthen the city’s historic preservation practices. Econsult Solutions Senior Vice President and Principal Peter Angelides, PhD, AICP, was named to the task force and has provided analytics and financial guidance to the effort.
About Econsult Solutions – Historic Preservation
ESI provides comprehensive solutions for historic preservation to developers and organizations who are stewards of historic resources. The firm has undertaken several studies estimating the economic impacts of historic preservation. ESI’s principals have a long history with Historic Preservation. President Stephen P. Mullin was a member of the City of Philadelphia’s Historic Commission in the 1990s and has served on the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s Advocacy Committee for over a decade. ESI Senior Vice President Lee Huang served on the Preservation Alliance’s board during the early 2000s. Senior Advisors Craig Schelter and Alan Greenberger have long been involved in preservation efforts in Philadelphia.
Laura Burtner is a Marketing Assistant with Econsult Solutions with responsibilities for graphic design. She has published two historic resource guide books and designed museum panels for the Single Sisters House, a museum dedicated to Moravian women, for Historic Bethlehem Museums and Sites.