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The House of Our Own bookstore is located at 3920 Spruce St.

Credit: Son Nguyen

Between new apartment buildings, storefronts, and dormitories, several development projects have transformed the image of University City — sometimes at the expense of the region's historic architecture. One Penn alumna however, is taking a stand for the preservation of the city's historical buildings.

2018 College graduate Corey Loftus has been submitting buildings to the Philadelphia Historical Commission since January 2018. Earlier this month, she won historical designations from the Historical Commission for three West Philadelphia Victorians. With this status, any plans to significantly renovate or demolish the buildings must gain the Commission’s approval — making it difficult to remove the buildings’ historic designs and renovate them in a way that would devalue their historic architecture.

Loftus wrote arguments that were more than 20 pages long for the historical significance of three Victorian buildings located at 3920, 3922, and 4525 Spruce St. At a Historical Commission meeting on Jan. 11, 2019, she won protections for the three properties. 

Credit: Son Nguyen 4525 Spruce Street

“It’s a long, bureaucratic process,” Loftus said. “There’s about ten criteria for a building to be put underneath, and the criteria can be anything from famous architecture to someone famous having lived there.”

3920 Spruce St., which is occupied by the beloved, locally owned bookstore House of Our Own, met the criteria. House of Our Own owner and 1971 College graduate Deborah Sanford said 3920 Spruce St. was once the residence of renowned Chinese architect and writer Lin Huiyin, who graduated from Penn with a bachelor's degree in fine arts in 1927.

Sanford said Lin lived at the building during her time at the University, where she was kept from pursuing a degree in architecture because she was a woman. Lin later went on to become a pioneer for women in her field as an architectural historian and had an enormous impact on Chinese architecture and culture.

Credit: Chris Doyle A gift from a customer honoring Lin, a former Penn student who lived in the House of Our Own Bookstore.

Sanford stated that professors and students have traveled from as far as Beijing to see the humble West Philadelphia bookshop.

“They come to visit the house, they’ve heard that [Lin] lived here, and they’re just in tears, they’re so emotional, about being in the place and standing in the house where she actually lived," Sanford said. “And the emotion behind that is something we’ve seen over and over again."

Sanford also explained how 3920 Spruce was designed by famed architect Willis Hale, and so Loftus’ nomination has helped preserve a layered architectural legacy.

“It’s just been extremely gratifying to see how much pleasure people have had in discovering this building,” Sanford said.

2016 School of Design graduate Amy Lambert, who has nominated buildings for historic designation before, said there are historic properties like 3920 Spruce St. all throughout Philadelphia and praised Loftus for her work. 

“These buildings are mnemonic,” Lambert said. “Corey’s work highlights that everything is not as it seems, and there’s some really rich history attached to everyday buildings.” 

Credit: Sophia Ciocca

House of our own is a family owned bookstore at 3920 Spruce Street.

But Lambert said Philadelphia’s system for designating buildings as historic is not conducive to preserving entire historic neighborhoods at once. 

Patrick Grossi, director of advocacy for the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia said he agreed with Lambert, and previously told The Daily Pennsylvanian that growing demand for housing results in developers replacing historic buildings with more profitable apartment complexes. Still, Grossi said individual efforts like Loftus’ can be a catalyst for a broader preservationist movement in Philadelphia.

“We would be thrilled to see people take nominations in their own little corner in the city," Grossi said. "It’s not necessarily going to stem the tide of demolition that we’re seeing, but it’s an excellent place to start and it’s something anybody with a little bit of help and a little bit of resources can participate in.” 

Loftus plans to continue participating. She said she nominated an entire block of houses on Chestnut Street from 42nd to 43rd Street and plans to submit nominations for properties like 4527 Pine St. and Saint Francis de Sales Catholic Church at 4625 Springfield Ave.

“I was an art history major at Penn, so I am super interested in the visuals, culture, and our built environment,” Loftus said. “I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and I was always interested in West Philadelphia architecture. I think I’m taking ownership for my city and making sure that Philly is protected.”

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