A Passion for the Past

Understanding the Forces behind the West Chester Preservation Awards before than annual ceremony on 10/17

The West Chester Armory underwent significant renovations to become the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center, for which it won a Preservation Awards. photo Timlyn Vaughan Photography

by Kate Chadwick

In 1969, New York City’s iconic Grand Central Station was teetering on the brink of urban extinction. The twin forces of disrepair and the financial distress of the station’s owner, Penn Central Railroad, put the iconic building in danger of being torn down and replaced by an office building. The Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), which had helped to implement the city’s Landmarks Law, fought to keep the station’s owner from obliterating the historic building, but it looked like all hope was lost when the New York State Supreme Court overturned the station’s landmark status and decided in favor of Penn Central.

And then a minor miracle happened. One of the city’s best-known and most-beloved residents, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, having read about the decision in the New York Times, called the MAS office and offered to help. A committee was formed to endeavor to save the station, and, after a hard-fought battle that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, that fight was won. The victory set a precedent for historic preservation not only in the Big Apple, but nationwide. And while the star power of Onassis assisted in pushing the issue into the headlines, it was her passion for the cause that ultimately propelled it. As she said at the time, “If we don’t care about our past, we cannot hope for the future.”

A similar passion for the past can be found right here in the borough of West Chester in the present day, as the Preservation Awards committee gets ready for its annual event, to be held on October 17, to honor those working on behalf of historic preservation in our own community. The objective is a simple one. “Our core mission,” says committee Chairman Allen Burke, “is to elevate awareness and appreciation of West Chester Borough’s rich character and to encourage its preservation.”

Burke lives in the borough (“and I am never leaving”), having moved here 22 years ago to work for QVC. Although he retired in late 2011 and started a consulting firm, he serves on the borough’s planning commission and has been on the board of the West Chester Downtown Foundation (WCDF) and Historic Preservation Awards committee since 2014, having spent most of that time as chairman of the latter. “I became involved because of my love of West Chester and the extraordinary historic architecture we have been blessed with,” Burke said. “The borough has a kind of magical attraction that few can clearly define. I think it has a lot to do with our architectural gifts, and the people who gave so much to save them for us.”

Indeed, a look through the 2018 winners include renovation and/or restoration projects that are textbook “architectural gifts.” There are nods to Ruby Jones Hall at West Chester University, Biddle Guest House on High Street, the residential restoration at 401 West Union Street, the restoration and renovations of the historic Dower House and Chimney Hill residences on Goshen Road, as well as an adaptive reuse award for Iron Hill Brewery, which occupies the site of the former F.W. Woolworth Five and Dime Store.

“The borough has a kind of magical attraction that few can clearly define. I think it has a lot to do with our architectural gifts, and the people who gave so much to save them for us.”

West Chester Preservation Awards committee Chairman Allen Burke

Bernardon architect Phil Yocum is one of the two remaining original members of the Preservation Awards committee. He remembers that as a child growing up in Exton, West Chester was his family’s destination for both shopping and socialization. “From an early age I appreciated the unified character of the borough, with its downtown commercial district, square, brick houses and sidewalks,” he told us. “A strong early influence was sitting with my Grandmother Chandler on her porch at the corner of Dean and Darlington Streets, chatting with all the neighbors. It taught me the important social value of traditional towns.”

Phil credits his family and the town of West Chester for setting his course. “My family continually instilled an appreciation of Chester County’s history, and of West Chester’s architectural character,” he told us. “An interest in architecture naturally led me to focus on historic architecture in my professional career.” As a member of the West Chester HARB (Historic Architectural Review Board) since 2007, Yocum has had the opportunity to review and comment on numerous proposals. “I came to appreciate the quality of architectural work being done here,” he says.

It wasn’t just the town’s architecture that was significant in Yocum’s estimation. “The abundance of local authors, historians, and educators is also unique for a small town, “ he said. “A program recognizing West Chester’s significant historic preservation projects and educational efforts was a logical next step.”

Yocum was approached in 2009 by local architectural historian Jane Dorchester, who asked him to join a group she was developing into what would eventually become the West Chester Preservation Awards Program. “My understanding is that the idea originated with the board of the WC Business Improvement District (BID), who then asked Jane to formulate the program. The BID recognized that the borough’s historic character was a strong component of its economic success. Our original group staged the initial awards ceremony in 2011, a modest breakfast event at Chester County Historical Society.” (The CCHs building, it’s worth noting, is itself a recipient of an adaptive reuse Preservation Award in 2017, having past lives as a horticultural hall, an opera house, and an army post, before acquiring and then combining with the adjacent YMCA to form a contiguous space.)

In the intervening years, that program — along with that modest breakfast event — have both grown significantly. Now entering its ninth year, the Preservation Awards and its tireless committee members have reached a continually wider audience to better promote the historic preservation of West Chester. That former modest breakfast event is now a stylish catered evening affair attended by 200-plus people, and one “that is both a social and educational experience,” Yocum says. The awards program is sponsored by the West Chester Downtown Foundation.

The Fountain at Marshall Square Park was installed in 1889, and it’s restoration earned a Historic Preservation Award. photo Timlyn Vaughan Photography

There are three categories of awards: the Bricks and Mortar Award, given for architectural projects that exemplify best preservation practices; the Service Award, given to people and educational projects that help preserve West Chester’s history; and Legacy Awards, granted to both individuals and organizations who bring about a better understanding of the borough’s history as well as the preservation of its historic fabric. As Jane Dorchester herself wrote in County Lines magazine in 2017, “It’s not just business owners, residents and government officials who have worked to preserve as much of West Chester’s historic character as possible. It’s also architects, contractors and artisans who physically preserve, restore and rehabilitate West Chester’s buildings so they can continue to tell the town’s story.”

Indeed, according to Yocum, the focus is to both educate and preserve, and that means there are a variety of construction projects, large and small, past and present, worthy of being singled out, and not always for keeping a building exactly for its intended purpose. “Over the years, the program has recognized projects that adapt historic buildings for new uses, construct sensitive additions, provide careful stewardship over a long period, restore important public features — such as the fountain at Marshall Square park — and even brand new buildings that significantly contribute to the neighborhood’s historic character. Recently the awards program has recognized some of the borough’s early preservation projects, such as the Sharples Works, that first illustrated the potential economic benefits of preservation.”

“We feel it’s also important to expand the public’s understanding that preservation goes beyond physical structures. The program has recognized authors, educational programs, and walking tours…”

West Chester Preservation Awards committee member Phil Yocum

Another key example of that adaptive reuse was the conversion of the former Armory on High Street into the present performing arts home of the Uptown! Entertainment Alliance, a 2017 Preservation Award winner, and a project with which local preservation leader and WCDF board member Roy Smith was heavily involved. Or, as Allen Burke puts it, Smith “was a key driving force” behind both it and “a plethora of borough enhancements.” Smith, a resident of West Chester since 1998, was Chairman of the West Chester BID when the Downtown Foundation was formed, and, already being involved in many aspects of preservation, he told us it was a natural fit for him to join the board.

Formerly occupied by the 56th Stryker Unit of the National Guard, the Armory building was being outpaced by its occupants, particularly for the storage of Stryker units — “think small tanks,” says Smith — on site. As plans progressed for a new facility to be built in northern Chester County, the building was ultimately abandoned in 2013. The Pennsylvania Department of General Services took on the task of disposing of the building, listing it for sale for $960,000, with the proviso that anyone who agreed to rehabilitate the Armory according to federal historic preservation guidelines would receive a 20% discount on that list price.

Troops pose outside of the West Chester Armory in 1925.
The armory is now known as the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center and is the recipient of a Historic Preservation Award.

Right around the same time, according to Smith, the fledgling Uptown! Entertainment Alliance was looking for space in the borough for what was its initial plan: to bring a movie theater back to West Chester. “With the assistance of the two state representatives, Senator Andy Dinniman and Representative Dan Truitt, Uptown! was given first right of refusal to purchase the building,” Smith said. A for-profit investment company, The Uptown! Bravo Theatre, LLC (UBT), was formed to help raise funds for the purchase and conversion of the Armory, and became the owner of the building when it closed on the sale in December, 2015.

By that time, it had become apparent to the founders of Uptown! that there was a need greater than just a movie theater, the plan for a performing arts center took hold, and the focus shifted to financing the conversion into a suitable venue. It was through a combination of grants, donors, investors and loans, structured into a fairly unique financial package, according to Smith, that resulted in raising the nearly $5.2 million needed for the conversion to take place. The result is a 327-seat main stage, a second floor performance space that can hold up to 100 people, an intermission room with a bar and seating, and a lower level that serves as both additional performance space and as a theater school.

“Now just entering its third year of operation, the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center is an unqualified success, offering entertainment for a wide range of interests — Broadway quality theater, jazz concerts, opera, improvisation, a young person’s theater school, and a whole host of musical performances from classical to contemporary,” Smith told us. “And yes, fulfilling the initial founder’s dream: movies. In addition, the building has provided a much-needed meeting space for corporations and community organizations. During its first two years of operations, attendance at nearly 500 events totaled more than 50,000.”

According to Phil Yocum, the goals of the committee extend beyond recognition of literal brick and mortar and include recognizing individuals and their initiatives. “We feel it’s also important to expand the public’s understanding that preservation goes beyond physical structures. The program has recognized authors, educational programs, and walking tours,” he told us. “Last year we recognized the efforts of [the late] Kay Eby Moore for her work to create the West Chester Old Fashioned Christmas and Christmas Parade. That original 1980 event kindled the public’s appreciation of the Borough’s unique historic character, encouraging support for creation of the West Chester Historic District in 1988.”

Another example is Ray Ott, Jr., who received a Preservation Legacy Award in 2017 for his significant contributions to West Chester conservation efforts, both as a professional planner and as a private citizen. In the mid-1980’s, Ray nominated the West Chester Historic District (aka the West Chester Business District) to the National Register of Historic Places, where it was listed in 1985, according to the WCDF website. Ott was instrumental in the adoption of the Historic District Ordinance in 1988 and the formation of the Historical and Architectural Review Board (HARB) in 1989, as well as an early advocate of the Main Street Program. He championed the BID in the 1990s and has occupied a seat on its board since its inception. Ott’s firm, Ray Ott & Associates, is responsible for both 1999’s West Chester Comprehensive Plan and 2010’s West Chester Comprehensive Historic Preservation Plan. The latter was one of the first historic preservation plans in the Commonwealth and is now used as an example for other municipalities. As a local resident, Ott talks the talk and walks the walk, leading educational tours and restoring several historic properties.

His recognition by the committee serves as yet another way to reach West Chester residents and encourage them to think in terms of preservation, even just in their own little corner of the world. “We try to encourage the average homeowner to see the value in maintaining their property, cleaning the masonry, or carefully repairing their porch,” Yocum said. “West Chester is fortunate to have citizens who largely respect the unique character of the town and the associated responsibility of property ownership.”

The front porch of this pre-1850 home at 210 S Walnut St was removed in 1965. Using designs from porches built in the same era, the were able to reconstruct a porch that matched historic precedent. photo Timlyn Vaughan Photography

There is no monetary prize associated with the Preservation Award — just the well-earned accolades. “Bronze plaques are installed on construction projects selected for recognition each year,” said Chairman Allen Burke. “The awards committee has also discussed creating a self-guided walking tour of the past winners. This could further the educational mission of the awards program. The building/project must be within the confines of the Borough of West Chester, and it must be public space. Home interiors do not qualify, only exteriors, public spaces like businesses do. And people can nominate their own home — we love that.”

Whether you live or work in a historically significant building or not, there is always one right around the corner, and it’s one of the things that makes West Chester so fundamentally… West Chester. “Historic Preservation is a hallmark for West Chester, with more than 4,200 structures within the borough listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” said Malcolm Johnstone, Executive Director of the West Chester Business Improvement District. “It’s more than just an inventory of attractive buildings. It’s our culture.”