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How 4 Historic Pennsylvania Landmarks Got New Leases On Life

The East Park Canoe House, with renovations complete, stands before the Schuylkill River.

Carl Dress still feels a rush of excitement whenever he passes a historic building on his walks through Philadelphia.

“There’s a real joy in taking a building that’s derelict, with broken glass and frayed brick, rejuvenating it and recapturing its history,” Dress said. “You’re taking something that’s been forgotten and turning it into something useful and making it a jewel of the city once again.”

With a catalog of award-winning restoration projects under his belt, Dress is one of the city’s most trusted voices on historic preservation and serves as the co-chair of AIA Philadelphia’s Historic Preservation Committee. Dress made the choice this summer to bid farewell to Heritage Design Collaborative, a firm he co-founded, to lead the Philadelphia office of Klein & Hoffman, a Chicago-based structural engineering and architectural firm. 

In his new position, Dress will take the reins on Klein & Hoffman’s restoration of venerable Philadelphia structures like the Overbrook Presbyterian Church, built in 1889, and the Church of the Holy Trinity, which has stood at the northwest corner of Rittenhouse Square since before the Civil War. Bisnow sat down with Dress to talk through the projects he’s proudest of from his career and what he loves about breathing new life into Philadelphia’s historic landmarks.

East Park Canoe House

Copper flashing and roof details at the East Park Canoe House, before renovations and after

Completed in 1914, the East Park Canoe House was used as a Schuylkill River boat launch for more than 50 years. As boating and boat racing faded away as Philadelphia pastimes, the building fell into disuse. It was condemned in 2008 before a move from Temple University to transform the Canoe House into a home for its crew teams rekindled interest in the building.

The four-year renovation process left almost no surface untouched while maintaining the building’s historical charm and integrity. Dress oversaw the restoration of the building’s stucco exterior and original wooden security grilles and doors. The most important touch for Dress was the replacement of the original Spanish tile roof. Fortunately, the original manufacturer of the tiles, Ludowici, is still in business today.

“It was really a soup-to-nuts project,” Dress said. “At one point we had the building wide open, with no roof, no windows and no doors. Enclosing and finishing that project inside and out was the culmination of great effort and teamwork.”

While his main goal was to bring back the historic character of the building, Dress was also charged with making sure the Canoe House would last into the next century. So his team used modern-day techniques — like cold fluid-applied roofing and flashing systems — to areas that lie out of sight from external viewers.

John James Audubon House at Mill Grove

The John James Audubon House at Mill Grove in Audubon, Pennsylvania

When John James Audubon came to America in 1804, he moved to a house built in the 1760s at Mill Grove, 10 miles northwest of downtown Philadelphia, in a town that would later bear his name. The building, and the 130 acres it sits on, remained a private residence until 1951, when it was turned over to the county to form a nature preserve.

During that transfer, according to Dress, a misguided architect chose to add masonry and portico details to make the house look more time-worn than it actually was. When the Audubon society decided to restore the house and make it into the educational center of John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Dress and his team had the job of removing the 20th-century patina to return the building to its original appearance.

“There was a rough layer of finish smeared over the whole thing,” Dress said. “Once we removed that, you could see how well-constructed and beautiful the original chimneys and porticos were.”

Pennsbury Manor

Historical preservation work at Pennsbury Manor

Twenty miles up the Delaware River from Philadelphia is Pennsbury, the site of William Penn’s original estate, where he lived from 1699 to 1701. While the estate fell into disrepair through the 19th century, a fervor to preserve colonial American buildings during the 1930s led to a massive reconstruction effort. Dozens of Pennsbury structures and sites — including outbuildings, fences and the colonial revival-style manor itself — were re-created as architects and historians thought they might have looked 200 years earlier.

In 2013, the Pennsylvania Department of General Services selected Dress and his team to complete an assessment and design on many of the historical structures. They undertook the rebuilding and waterproofing of some of the wooden structures and repointing of the masonry of Pennsbury Manor. Though some of the buildings and details added in the 1930s are anachronistic, Dress said they are part of the charm.

Amos Hall

Lincoln University's Amos Hall in 2013, before renovations

Amos Hall originally served as a gymnasium and bathing facility at Lincoln University, a historically Black college in Chester County. But after stints as a dining hall and a dormitory throughout the 20th century, the building had been abandoned for around a decade before Dress and the rest of a project team led by CuetoKearney Architects set out to restore it in 2018.

“The façade was immaculate; it was in keeping with the best-preserved buildings of that era,” Dress said. “It has a Midwestern sort of feel, like a Frank Lloyd Wright or Louis Sullivan. Lincoln had nothing else like it on campus.”

Inside, construction crews turned the dormitory layout into one that could function as classrooms and offices. Outside, Dress’ team worked to decide what parts of the brick façade could stay and how to treat the masonry around the windows.

“The interior can take on a life of its own,” Dress said. “But the façade is sacrosanct. You want to see this building from the outside as the original planners intended.”

This feature was produced in collaboration between the Bisnow Branded Content Studio and Klein & Hoffman. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.