Two years after the Stiffel Senior Center in South Philadelphia closed its doors for good — to the consternation of some in the Jewish community who lobbied to keep it open — the city has designated the building at Marshall and Porter streets as a historic structure.
The decision, made in June by the Philadelphia Historical Commission, doesn’t mean that the building will get a big plaque or anything like that. What it does mean, according to Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, is that it will be virtually impossible for a developer to legally tear down the building.
Making changes to the exterior of the building would also require going through a far more stringent process with the city than it would if it didn’t have the designation, said Farnham.
The Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia, a nonprofit group, had pushed for the Stiffel to receive historic status, as well as a dozen other properties, including Joe Frazier’s Gym in North Philadelphia. Activists who lobbied on behalf of these buildings have been invited to attend a celebratory event Oct. 15 at the Philadelphia History Museum, the former Atwater Kent Museum, on Seventh Street in Center City.
Stiffel opened in 1928 and for years served as a community and education center for Jews of all ages, the site of dances and basketball games in a neighborhood filled with Jews. In more recent decades, as the Jewish population in South Philadelphia dwindled, it had transitioned into serving an elderly population.
Of the 450 people served by the center before it closed, only an estimated 150 were Jewish, and of those, only about 50 lived in the immediate neighborhood.
The center, which was owned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, had been run by the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Philadelphia. When that organization disbanded in 2009, the newly independent Klein JCC took over the administration of the Stiffel Center. Two years later, citing an annual deficit of $200,000 on the building, Klein’s board voted to close down the facility.
Community activists mounted an unsuccessful campaign to raise enough funds to keep the center open. The Federation sold it later that year. It is reportedly on the market again.
Federation and Klein now run a weekly Shabbat program for seniors in Center City that serves many of the same people who attended Stiffel.
Barbara Rosin, who taught art at the center for 28 years and was active in the group that sought to keep Stiffel open, wrote in an email that the city’s designation “means that the Preservation Alliance and Historical Commission of Philadelphia both recognized the significance” that the building “played in the lives of South Philadelphia immigrants for over 80 years.”
“It was indeed the beacon for newly arriving Jews to America,” she added, “and provided all the help and support, as well as social activities that helped them acclimate to a new world.”