Human remains from ancient cemetery found amid construction of Northern Liberties
Human remains from a nearly two-century-old cemetery have been found under a shopping mall parking lot in Northern Liberties, adding to the long list of historic and unknown Philadelphia graves discovered during construction.
For more than 50 years, the Fifth Street and Spring Garden Mall has seen a business rotation, most recently a beer store, nail spa and Dollar General.
But from 1832, the site housed the Fifth Street Methodist Episcopal Church and a small cemetery where church members rested, historical maps and Investigator Archives show. The cemetery was unearthed in the late 1800s, experts say, but some of the graves were missed, remaining hidden and forgotten under the sidewalk.
In May, father-son development team Neal and Victor Rodin – who also own the upscale Whole Foods complex near the Philadelphia Museum of Art – purchased 501-39 Spring Garden St. with a plan to build a -Building for use of apartments, commercial spaces and underground parking.
The developers hired archaeologists from New York-based environmental planning firm AKRF Inc. to research the history of the site in February, before starting construction.
According to a summary of AKRF’s work provided to the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum and reviewed by The Inquirer, historical records have shown that the church unearthed graves from the grave site in the 1860s and 1870s, before residences were built. be built on top. A gas station was then built and then the mall, according to the report.
The developers have asked the AKRF and contractors to test several sites on the property, and a 60-by-30-foot area in the parking lot has been identified as potentially containing a few remaining graves. The company excavated the space and a team of seven archaeologists hand-sifted the gravel before encountering a series of old coffins.
The document indicates that most of the graves encountered had been destroyed by past development or previously moved, but “a small number of graves” – likely missed in previous relocations – contained “dislocated human remains”.
The developers did not research the court permission before the team of archaeologists excavated and transported the remains, but said they didn’t think they had to. They planned to go to court after completing the recovery and connecting with the descending church, to get approval for the re-burial.
The remains were “documented, searched and transferred to the forensic laboratory located on Rutgers University’s Camden campus for storage in a suitable, air-conditioned environment,” the AKRF document said. A Rutgers osteologist, or bone specialist, examines the remains “non-destructively” to identify individual demographics.
In a statement, Rodins’ development company RREI LLC said it has engaged with the archaeological company to ensure the respectful and careful inspection and removal of objects since the cemetery was found.
In a city as old as Philadelphia, encountering cemeteries forgotten during construction is not unusual.
“Cemeteries are hit in Philadelphia about once a year and a half,” said Doug Mooney, president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, which operates a website that maps more than 300 current and former marked and unmarked cemeteries in the city.
Once the owners of the land discover the presence of the remains, Mooney said, state law requires them to go to the Philadelphia Orphans Court, which has jurisdiction over all unidentified remains, for permission to ‘exhume and recover the remains, then move them and re-buried.
“We figured the best practice would be to hire a full team of archaeologists to carefully document and move the remains to a safer location, instead of leaving them in the open once we have exposed the expanse. of the cemetery, ”said developer Victor Rodin. . “We were told that there was no rule that we had to initiate the Orphan Court at this time.”
Mooney said state law and court precedents clearly require it, but Philadelphia does not have its own ordinance requiring it, so agencies don’t always enforce state law.
Mark Zecca, who represented the Philadelphia Historical Commission for many years during his 20-year tenure in the city’s legal department, said it was heartening to hear that the developer took early steps to identify the remains, but that the appropriate legal measures must still be followed. .
“You don’t own the remains, these are human beings, these are not property, they are not dirt,” Zecca said. “Just because they’re in your soil doesn’t mean you own them. “
Zecca also criticized the Licensing and Inspections Department for not requiring developers to prove that they have filed a petition with the Orphans Court before providing permits.
“They should have said stop work and go to court,” he said.
L&I spokesperson Karen Guss said the developers’ process was appropriate and the permits were issued because they met all legal requirements. Guss said L&I was only made aware of the presence of human remains this week.
“The city does not have jurisdiction over what is on these properties,” she said. “And just because it’s not in the Philadelphia code doesn’t mean it’s the Wild West.”
The Fifth Street Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1832 by the Reverend Joseph Rusling. In 1882, the church had 350 members and a Sunday school with 374 students and teachers. A 1922 photograph showed that he served a great Russian congregation.
The cemetery’s find became public after a pedestrian walked past the construction site and noticed what looked like old coffins filled with water in the middle of the pit. He took a photo and posted it on the Northern Liberties neighborhood Facebook group.
Blue tarps covered the grave on Monday, although two coffin-shaped footprints are visible.