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Credit: Melissa Tustin-Gore

Residents of Hamilton Court are about to see an upgrade in amenities, but it may come at the cost of the old building’s history.

In late August, real estate development company Post Brothers Apartments revealed its plans to renovate Hamilton Court, an apartment complex on 39th and Chestnut streets.

The developers said the bottom floor of this building will be neighborhood retail and the second story will be a gym for residents. The retail businesses plan to be operating within a year, and the new courtyard will be completed in two years.

Post Brothers intends to spend around $250 million on developing Hamilton Court and six other properties, including Garden Court Plaza and 4400 Walnut Apartments, Philadelphia Magazine reported.

Hamilton Court was built in 1901 as a grand apartment building with a U-shaped design to emphasize the inner courtyard, which contained gardens and a fountain. The apartment was built for Penn students when there was a market for luxury housing for students, according to School of Design professor Aaron Wunsch.

“This is not unique to Philadelphia. Areas around many of the Ivy League [universities], you would get these neighborhoods of high-end apartment buildings,” he said. “For example, in Cambridge, Massachusetts where I grew up, people would often refer to it as the ‘gold coast.’ To the extent that there was a West Philadelphia gold coast, you can believe that Hamilton Court was one of its crown jewels.”

Hamilton Court is named after William Hamilton, whose Woodlands estate once covered 300 acres, virtually all of University City.

The once-luxury housing complex still accommodates Penn students. According to Naked Philly, however, some of the commercial spaces in the complex have not been used in years.

Civic associations across Philadelphia are trying to preserve historic architecture while simultaneously trying to modernize the buildings. But according to Urban Studies professor Elaine Simon, these groups have lost some of their influence due to the new zoning code, which encourages higher density buildings to accommodate the city’s growing population.

“Developers have a lot more discretion and the ability for community members has been cut,” Simon said. “You have to show a lot of interest and backing in the community to get something through. Before this new zoning code was adopted, there were more ways in which the historic fabric of the city was protected without as much community intervention.”

Wunsch said the new zoning code is definitely making a big difference in the world of historic preservation, along with the tax abatement, which gives newly constructed buildings a 10-year break on property taxes.

“The zoning code along with the tax abatement has led developers rushing in, literally doing everything they can to get ahold of property,” Wunsch said.

In order to protect historical buildings, organizations like the University City Historical Society have been trying to include them on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. If on the local register, the prospective developers would have to testify before the Philadelphia Historical Commission.

Hamilton Court is on the National Register of Historic Places, which incentivizes developers by giving them substantial tax credits if they renovate the historic buildings based off of Secretary of the Interior’s standards.

But the Post Brothers’ renovation plans, which looks like a “combination of a spaceship and the Louvre,” will not get any tax credits, Wunsch said.

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