Eugene DiOrio on the history of the City of Coatesville Historical Commission
Eugene DiOrio History of Historic Commission.mp3
At the City of Coatesville Historical Commission meeting, Wednesday March 2, 2011
“The Historical Commission got established in 1964 and came about through the efforts of 3 people: myself, Stuart Huston and then Mayor of the City who was known as Jacob Wagner. The City at that time was approaching some anniversaries and Mr. Wagner thought it would be good to have some City commission to handle anniversaries, exhibits and all that sort of thing; that was his idea.
Stuart was anxious to develop a sister city relationship, which during the Eisenhower Administration, this people to people program got started and he thought this would be a good piece of public relations for Coatesville. So we did that and we actually did effect a sister city relationship with the City of Greenock, Scotland. In fact on the wall is their coat of arms which was given to us. We had a few people come, I went over to Scotland. Nothing really developed, so it really collapsed.
My interest was to start preservation. I was always fascinated with that. In the period of the late 50s and 60s I watched with great dismay landmarks all over this county were being destroyed by highway programs. And (in) New York, which I used to visit frequently I watched a lot of great things being destroyed.
Well then in 63 I made my first trip to Europe spent, most of it in Paris and was fascinated to see how they are using historic preservation to retain the ambiance the beauty and the charm of their City.
So I got keen on having the idea of having some sort of historic preservation ordinance. Well there weren’t too many cities that had it at the time. So I went to Harrisburg and I talked to the people at the State Historical Museum Commission. I went to Washington and I talked to the people in the National Trust and eventually I actually drafted the ordinance myself, which was passed by the City Council.
And it gave the Historical Commission; we didn’t call it a HARB Board at that time, It gave us permission to survey the City, this responsibility; choose buildings, properties which we felt were important to start, architecturally, community whatever, make up a list and that was to be duly filed with the City Engineers Office. So if somebody comes along with a building permit to alter, demolish, whatever, it was supposed to be reviewed by the Historical Commission.
We didn’t have absolute “shall shall not” power. It was still subject to the City Council. Well the Commission got very busy and over a period of years we came up with a long list of buildings.
We did not create a historic district. At that time the State advice was, not enough in Coatesville to create an historic district. So we picked individual buildings. I mean there were some obvious choices; there are others that were questionable…We did it in 3 stages:The first was the City roughly from the Brandywine to about 5th or 6th Avenue and then the rest of the East End and then the West End. And this was all faves. The Commission worked for a number of years. Unfortunately we really never had strong support from either the business community or the City Government. And when push came to shove, if some good building was going to be destroyed the Historical Commission was considered foolish; it didn’t happen.We got into this major fight with the Thompson Building, which was a Victorian office building at the corner of 2nd and Main which the City working with the County Redevelopment Authority wanted to demolish. And the Historical Commission fulfilling its duty said no, a great fuss developed. And it turned out that the State got involved with this because this is being done with redevelopment money and the State people found out to qualify with the State money you were supposed to file a report on whether or not this building could be preserved.
So the State Historical Museum Commission got in it with both feet. I don’t think they really thought the building was that great but they had been annoyed because there had been situations which Federal money, State money was used without making the reports. So they got in it and held it up.
Of course I became the man with a target on my back in Coatesville, because I was fighting this. Tony Melillo who was head of the County Redevelopment Authority at the time said, well, what do we do? I said, Tony we get an architect. Get a state architect, get somebody who knows something about historic preservation and if they say it can’t be saved, fine. The Historical Commission will withdraw its suggestions.
Well it didn’t happen. The State felt that it should be preserved, so the building sat. It didn’t get demolished right away and of course, we were holding up progress of the redevelopment of Coatesville. But eventually the building was demolished and was gone and then it stood as an empty lot for some years until finally the Coatesville Savings Bank was put on that corner. Well in anger the Historical Commission was, as the City Council said, “Declawed”. They were going to abolish it completely but they removed its review powers except for a handful of buildings which were on the National Register. Well you know that in the meantime the National Preservation Act had created the National Register of Historic Places. And we had before all this calamity put about 4 or 5 buildings on it. Obvious ones like the Lukens Main Office, Terracina and Greystone. So Council backed off and said, well we won’t touch things that are on the National Register. But beyond that we had absolutely no power. The Historical Commission was completely declawed.
Then came another fuss with the Huston House; the one that stood on the ground between Terracina and the Main Office which was not on the National Register and which Lukens in 1982 decided to demolish. And there was a public outcry. And I’m getting calls, “Well Gene, why doesn’t the Historical Commission do something?” “Well I’m sorry, we have no power.” So it was demolished, it was cleared. Well, you know the whole thing was pretty well gone.
Then the next thing that happened was a group that was called Coatesville Action Corporation, CAP; they got involved with this and they hired Jane Davidson, the County’s Historic Preservation Officer to look under the possibility of creating a historic district. This was not done by the City, not done by me. So they hired her and Jane of course was extremely knowledgeable about this sort of thing. She had served on the Presidents National Committee. So Jane proceeded with the CAP’s backing and funding to make a survey and came up with a plan to put the whole center of the City on the National Register; everything from the Brandywine to 6th Avenue. So this was conceived; by this time even some of the dimmest bulbs in town recognized that historic preservation is a catalyst for redevelopment, which is why CAP wanted to do it. So Jane worked, I went all over the City with her she prepared this and we had block by block; every building was recognized, granted that every buildings that weren’t great. So the City seemed to be delighted. It was passed. Jane pulled all the strings and the Department of the Interior put the whole center on the National Register. (Mark Milanese, “First to fourth, Fleetwood to Oak; 600 properties, still on.”)
I remember the City people were pleased and I remember we had a function in West Chester and I said, “How are you going to police this?” Nobody on the Council seemed to know. They seemed to be delighted it was on the National Register now. This was going to be a great tool for revitalizing the City. I said, Well you know you have declawed the Historical Commission. It has no review powers except for a handful of buildings that were on the National Register, now you have the whole City. Well nobody seemed to know what to do. Well then finally, Pilotti, who was Codes Director and Fire Chief, brought in a group of experts who revised and reviewed the City Ordinances. They came up with a new ordinance which created the Historic Architecture Review Board. So that was created and I was asked to chair it, which I did.
Well we did a lot of work. I mean for example we worked very hard to save Scott High School, which a lot of people wanted demolished and while it wasn’t coherent to details at least it was basically preserved. So the HARB Board worked and there was some question as to what its position was vis-à-vis the Historical Commission; was it the parent or the child or were they independent? Questions came along; well there was a group that wanted a church in the East End landmarked. Who was going to do this? Well I think the Historic Commission is good at that. The HARB Board should stick to its function of reviews.
Well then a few years ago, while Janssen was here, we had a property owner, who I won’t identify, but a property owner who came to City Council to get a permit to make revisions to his property and when the City told him what he could do and what he couldn’t do he became infuriated. And made a big fuss and went so far as to go to Harrisburg and talk to the Bureau of Historic Preservation, which is a division of the Historic Museum Commission. Well they checked out the ordinance and found that the City hadn’t conformed to the ordinance under which the HARB Board was created. This is a technical slip. Now National Park Service approved the whole Historic District, so there was no problem there. But what we found out was that the ordinance had to be approved by the Bureau for Historic Preservation in Harrisburg. So I called a meeting and I got one of the people down here, got Jane Davidson here, Janssen and Krack were there and it was the same time you remember we had that Knight Group from the University of Miami that got very much into historic preservation. And we looked at it and they looked at it and they came up with, hey this is no biggie, here’s the model ordinance and all you have to do is pass it and your HARB Board will be legal. Well the Janssen Administration wanted no part of it and neither did Krack. So it never got reactivated. So HARB is dead, I mean you could knock anything in the City down. You have no legal protection for any of it.
If the City wants the HARB Board they have to get in touch with the State Bureau of Historic Preservation which is a division of the Pennsylvania Historic Museum Commission and get their people down here. We drafted a model ordinance with that help from the people at Knight Ridder. The City just never wanted to do anything about it.
Then the laugh was about a year later when Janssen was still here, he asked me to go on a meeting. He had a group of people come down from the Historical Commission. Told them they were going to expand the historic district into the West End. And in the meantime he is walking up and down the street, well we’re going to tear this down, the people from Harrisburg walked away from him. One of them said you know he missed his calling; he should have been a circus barker. There was no support for it.
So right now, to my knowledge you have no legal mechanism for any kind of review, permits and there have been some things that shouldn't have happened recently in the City. But there’s no real preservation. And of course what was very sad, and you mentioned this, was the corner at 3rd and Main. Those buildings were all landmarked individually and they were all part of the Historic District but the Redevelopment Authority wanted them down, so they’re gone."More is coming concerning the City of Coatesville Historical Commission in later posts.