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Q&A: Caroline Boyce Talks Saving Historic Places in Philadelphia

Preservation Alliance's executive director will be stepping down in June

Last week the Preservation Alliance announced that Caroline Boyce would be stepping down as executive director after three years leading the non-profit advocacy organization. Taking her spot will be Paul Steinke, the former general manager of Reading Terminal Market.

Before she begins her new gig—she'll continue to serve on various preservation boards and committees and start a new consulting business for non-profits called Inter-Mission—Curbed Philly chatted with Boyce about her tenure at the Preservation Alliance, including the highs and lows, and where she thinks Philly needs to improve when it comes to saving historic places.

When is your last day at the alliance?

So my last day will be June 30. The month of June will be a transitional month—Paul Stenke will actually come on board June 1. He and I have known each other for many years. So if I could have picked someone long ago that I thought would be fabulous to step in, I don’t think I could have scripted it any better. He and I got to know each other years ago through Preservation Pennsylvania and it’s been really valuable to have him on preservation board of directors during my tenure.

What are some of the final responsibilities you'll be wrapping up before June?

We have the Preservation Achievement Awards in June, but another thing I’m putting finishing touches on is our architecture walking tour program. We’re focusing on 20 tours that we will be doing on a regular basis through the course of the tour season, which is May to October. We've focused our attention on this program for the past three years to see how we could freshen it up and make it more relevant and appealing to a broader audience. We'll also be releasing in the not-too-distant future a midcentury modern walking tour.

Looking back on your three-year tenure, what are some of your proudest accomplishments?

My focus has been on reaching a broader audience, while at the same time working to save buildings and create a sustainable organization. One of the things that I’m very proud of that helps to achieve the goal of reaching a broader audience is Extant Magazine. One thing we’re doing in Extant is bringing more attention to our endangered properties list. We took the opportunity to restructure our endangered list and now call it Places to Save, because the real goal is to save these buildings. It's an alarm bell, but it’s also a call to action.

Is there a certain property that's near and dear to your heart that was saved during your time at the alliance?

So the Fairmount Park Visitors Center [in LOVE Park] really leaps to top of the list for several reasons: It represents a number of things that I’ve been focusing on, one which is mid-century modern architecture and design. And it just felt good to see people grasp the significance of that little jewel of a building.

Another one is Joe Frazier's Gym on North Broad. It's a gymnasium where boxer Joe Frazier practiced but even equally important, it became a kind of a community center. He was very concerned about the use in the community and it became a gathering place for them as well. We were successful in getting the building historically designated in the National Register of Historic Places and in the city of Philadelphia, which means it has the ultimate degree of protection.

What about any structures or buildings that didn't have such happy endings?

The Legendary Blue Horizon. That building is still standing, but the disappointment for us was that we attempted to get the interior of the building designated historic by the city and we were not successful in that regard. So, we are still ever vigilant about what will be become of the Legendary Blue Horizon, particularly the interior.

How would you compare the state of preservation in Philly from the day you started to today?

I think that the big issues are still the big issues. We have some critical needs that need to be addressed. One of them is that there needs to be a historic inventory surveyed of buildings in Philadelphia to identify ones that are eligible for historic designation. There are vast areas that have not been inventoried. It would be a useful tool for the development community, for neighborhood organizations, and historians. That inventory is really greatly needed in light of the World Heritage City designation.

Following the completion of that inventory, there is a need for a comprehensive historic preservation plan for Philadelphia. And also, increased funding for the Historical Commission, so that they can address the backlog of historic district nominations that have been submitted to them.

You represent Pennsylvania on the National Trust of Preservation. Are there other cities that you think the Philadelphia Historical Commission would do well to model itself after?

Every city has its own personality and structure and kind of political framework that it’s dealing with. To point to another city to say we should have our preservation structured modeled after that other city, I'd be hard-pressed to find a city that would be an exact fit. But if you do look at other large cities across nation, like Chicago, New York, and so forth, their infrastructure is much more robust on staffing their historical commissions. There's much to be learned from cities like that and Boston.

Final question: What's your favorite historical building in Philadelphia?

The Rohm and Haas building. There are many places in Philadelphia that I love, but there is something special about that building to me. It's stunningly beautiful as a midcentury modern building, particularly at night. At first glance it appears to be very simple building, but when you start walking through and around it and looking at the level of detail, from wood paneling to the knobs on cabinets to the use of plexiglass panels in the upper floor areas, to those chandeliers, to the structure of the port columns in the first floor area, it is full of detail and "Aha!" moments. It's a very special place.