Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: November 12, 2008
Byline: Jennifer Lin
Archaeological controversy over foundation discovered at SugarHouse site
Torben Jenk knows this about old neighborhoods in Philadelphia: The land holds mysteries.
And now, one of them has embroiled the local historian in an intensifying archaeological debate with the developers of the SugarHouse casino.
This mystery centers on parts of a stone foundation that workers uncovered Monday morning, several feet below the surface on the northwestern edge of the 22-acre SugarHouse site in Northern Liberties and Fishtown.
Jenk and his supporters — including neighbors, historians and archaeologists — contend it is a remnant of an important 18th-century building. They say the foundation unearthed under the giant SugarHouse billboard on North Delaware Avenue near Frankford Avenue is a footprint of Batchelor's Hall, a club built in 1729 for educated Philadelphia men such as botanist John Bartram.
The project manager of the SugarHouse casino, Terrence McKenna of Keating Consulting, challenged that conclusion yesterday. The foundation is not that of Batchelor's Hall, he said, but of a 19th-century building.
McKenna cited an analysis of the construction methods, layers of surrounding soil, and rubble found between the foundation walls. He said the foundation was probably for a building 17 feet by 23 feet — much smaller than Batchelor's Hall.
"It's a nonstory at this point," McKenna said.
The disagreement continues a tug-of-war over the historic significance of the SugarHouse site that has been going on between McKenna and Jenk for almost a year.
SugarHouse needs a federal permit to build into the Delaware River and to fill in a channel. But before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can issue the permit, the company needs to document the historic properties and relics on the site.
In studying the property, the company's archaeologists from A.D. Marble & Co. discovered one of the city's largest troves of Native American relics: hundreds of stone fragments and tools dating back 3,000 years. That discovery alone will warrant mention in the National Register of Historic Places, state experts say.
Jenk has worked with local preservationists and neighbors to document other properties that might be buried at the site. Among their most important finds was a map locating a British fort that stood on the property in 1777 — a structure not mentioned in the company's first archaeological report to the Army Corps.
In the 1700s, the waterfront was a commercial hub with shipyards, a cotton mill, a brass foundry, a bank, shops for a blacksmith and carpenter, as well as homes and Batchelor's Hall.
For months, Jenk and supporters had pushed McKenna to look for Batchelor's Hall. McKenna, citing the conclusions of the project's archaeologists, refused. Tempers flared.
In a letter to the Army Corps on Sept. 24, McKenna called Jenk "a distraction in this process." He also said flatly that "no evidence exists" of Batchelor's Hall.
But at a meeting last month of all the consulting parties to the Army Corps, McKenna surprised Jenk and his supporters by telling him if he could pinpoint the precise location of Batchelor's Hall, they would look for it.
That's what happened Monday morning.
Armed with copies of his maps, Jenk watched as a backhoe scraped away the soil under the big SugarHouse billboard.
In a few hours, a corner of the foundation appeared.
Jenk was elated, saying, "We found a 279-year-old building with a 204-year-old survey!"
He said he took a closer look at the foundation and concluded it was made of glazed bricks and river rocks, held together with coarse mortar, probably made of oyster shells and suggesting an 18th-century structure.
"I gave them a map, and the map said Batchelor's Hall was 110 feet from Shackamaxon Street," Jenk said. "And it's right there, exactly where I told them to dig — to the foot."
McKenna disagreed and yesterday said that A.D. Marble would submit a report to the Army Corps explaining why the foundation was of 19th-century vintage.
Jenk said he is not trying to stop the casino project but simply trying to find the truth about what might be buried in the ground.
"My whole goal," he said, "is to show Philadelphia that history survives underground."