Sophy Curson, the iconic upscale women’s clothing boutique at the southwest corner of 19th and Sansom streets, is marking its 90th year in business, an achievement celebrated by The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Elizabeth Wellington, who recently wrote of the history of the “stalwart Rittenhouse boutique,” detailing the store’s beginnings just a few months prior to the Great Depression.
But as the family business marks a milestone, the building the store resides in has become a subject of interest as well. Curson, the business founder and namesake who died in 2004, opened the store in 1929 next door to its present location. The elegant low-slung mid-century modern building that houses the high-end women’s shop now is not quite 90; its sleek structure of brick, glass, marble and wood — it looks as though it’d been specially fabricated as a “Mad Men” set piece — was designed in 1950 by Jewish architect Beryl Price, Curson’s brother-in-law, and constructed the next year. At nearly 70, the building is one of the last remaining examples of quintessentially mid-century modernist design in the city and is, according to architectural historian and preservationist Oscar Beisert, “perhaps the most intact building of that era in the city.”
“That building’s been maintained within an inch of its life,” Beisert said, and he’s committed to doing all he can to keep it that way.
Beisert is the director of the Keeping Society of Philadelphia, an organization dedicated to preserving and protecting historically and architecturally significant properties throughout the city. His nonprofit is a relative newcomer to the preservation scene, but Beisert has earned a reputation as a maverick, prolifically nominating buildings for historical protection on behalf of both the Keeping Society and seemingly any other organization around town that asks him to do the heavy administrative lifting.
The nomination process for a property to be considered for the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, and thus protection, is tedious and requires an academic’s understanding of architecture, design and history — and that’s what Beisert brings to it.
Beisert serves as director of Keeping Society as a side gig — he works full time for the Federal Emergency Management Area as a senior environmental protection specialist. And yet, the Keeping Society has 20 active nominations pending with the Philadelphia Historical Commission.
The Sophy Curson property at 122 S. 19th Street is one of them.
In addition to being the most historically intact building of its type, which Beisert cited in support of the building’s application, he also mentioned another basis for preservation that he wasn’t able to list on the application because it would have been too time consuming: Sophy Curson herself.
“I think of Curson as an independent Jewish businesswoman at that time and also as a local legacy — there really aren’t many buildings designated related to Jewish Philadelphians, like specifically designated for that reason,” Beisert said. “But still, in this case, I think the building stands on its own.”
Beisert’s quest for historical designations, which was detailed in a Philadelphia magazine profile of him in 2016, can raise some thorny issues.
“Especially in cities,” he said, “where there such a disparity between those who own and don’t own, preservation is critical to developing cities because it gives people a sense that they own their city, that they have a stake in their city.”
In many cases, as in the case of Sophy Curson’s nomination, preservationists like Beisert nominate without conferring with the property owners, in this case Curson’s niece, store owner Susan Schwartz, 88, and her son David, who runs the store.
David Schwartz said the nomination has “been an annoyance,” but it doesn’t change the future for the boutique that so many devoted Center City residents have been patronizing for almost a century. Sophy Curson has no plans to go anywhere, David Schwartz said; it’s business as usual now, through the 90th birthday and into the foreseeable future.
As for where Beisert’s nomination for protection of the Curson building stands, it’s in Historical Commission limbo.
“The nomination’s been tabled,” Beisert wrote in an email. “Very common in the historic designation process.”
That corner store is special. I am a New Yorker whose brother went to University of Penn.