Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Fighting Fire

Maybe you're tired of hearing me talk about Montgomery Hospital, but I have new info that needs to be disseminated, which I'll get to in a minute. First, I want to say that, to my mind, this is one of the most important fires raging in Norristown at the moment. It must be a fire, because so many of you are running from it, leaving it to someone else to extinguish.

Yesterday someone asked me where they could go to read up on the Montgomery Hospital issue, so I've added "Montgomery Hospital" to my Topics List for this blog. Scroll down the right column to find it. When you click on "Montgomery Hospital," every Diary entry that's dealt with it will come up. Other places for information include The Times Herald archives and the Norristown Preservation Society Facebook page.

On to the new info. New to me anyway. I spent some time reading documents concerned with the historical designation of the hospital property. Two years ago, almost to the day, the National Park Service sent a letter to the developer then working with Einstein to convert the hospital buildings into senior apartments. The letter stated that the hospital property "appears to meet the National Register Criteria for Evaluation and will likely be listed in the National Register of Historical Places." It goes on to list ALL buildings on the property, including McShea Hall and the 1975 Horsey Pavilion.

This is one reason the developer backed out 2 years ago. They couldn't raise the funding to rehab all the buildings. The Horsey Pavilion, because of its wide dimensions, is particularly difficult to convert to apartments. They didn't want to take the time to come up with a more viable plan.

Then I read a recent communication from an official at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, who confirmed that the original application for Historical Register identified the Horsey Pavilion as a "non-contributing component." This official believes that a development plan that included the removal of the Horsey Pavilion "would not jeopardize HR eligibility." So I got my hands on the draft of the application to see for myself. The "H" of the hospital was built in 3 phases, opening in 1939, 1947 and 1958. The laundry building is original, from 1939. McShea Hall was built in 1953 in the Modern Movement style, and since that's fairly rare in Norristown, the structure is also considered significant, but Horsey Pavilion is listed as incidental and can probably go. Had the developer asked that question 2 years ago, we might already have senior apartments in the historic buildings on the site. Without the Horsey Pavilion, a restoration project is VERY viable, and might even be to the advantage of the developer.

At the meeting last Sunday of citizens who are concerned, for various reasons, about the demolition of the hospital, architect Doug Seiler showed several examples of hospitals in New Orleans, Jersey City and Cleveland that have all been converted to apartments. The width of their building wings, along with the widths of Kennedy-Kendrick and Rittenhouse, are all within a range of about 43 to 55 feet. The width of the wings of McShea Hall and the "H" section of Montgomery Hospital is within that range, at about 45 feet--a PERFECT size for apartment conversion. A jobs comparison showed that restoring the hospital will bring more union construction jobs to town, and Doug's cost comparison showed that, with federal tax credits gained from NOT demolishing historic buildings, the costs of each plan aren't that far apart--they might even be about the same--and restoring the buildings would be much safer for the neighborhood.

One more important item. A part of Norristown's code (section 125-2) states:

"If the building is identified as a key or landmark building or is located in an historic district, the Building Inspector shall, within three days, notify the applicant, in writing, of this finding. No demolition permit, exterior or interior, may be issued. There shall be a review period for key or landmark structures of 120 days. The review period for buildings located in historic districts shall be 45 days."

So, if Norristown follows its own laws, no demolition can take place on the property without a 120 day review. Yet Einstein, at the Town Hall meeting, claimed they would begin interior demolition on March 1st. Was a demolition permit requested and issued? If so, why wasn't the law followed?

Rich Montalbano of Einstein also stated at the same meeting that the buildings weren't historic, yet one would think, since he's been in charge of the redevelopment side of the property, that he'd have been aware of the National Park Service letter that his developer received 2 years ago.

That's the latest. I'll update as I get new information. In the meantime, if you're not busy running from this fire, please remind  your council members about ordinance 125-2 and ask them to follow it until the mess gets sorted out.


  1. From Douglas Seiler: "Elena, Judging by your headline, I thought your post was going to point out the hazards associated with four-story wooden apartment buildings, such as the type the Einstein's developer has planned to replace the historic brick and concrete Montgomery Hospital. This photo is from a fire that happened yesterday in Heidelberg Township in Lehigh County. Remember the huge fire in Conshohocken a few years back? It too was a four-story wood apartment building. Sure, they meet codes, but would you want to live in one?"

  2. I am trying to find out who McShea Hall was named for. Obviously, a McShea. But which one? I believe the building was constructed in 1953.

  3. None of my sources say who McShea Hall was named for. If I find out I'll post it here.