Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christ the Lord

[Note: this is a reprint of my post from 24 December 2012.]

Govert Flinck, Angels Announcing the Birth of Christ to the Shepherds, 1639
Musée du Louvre, Paris)

Now there were shepherds nearby living out in the field, keeping guard over their flock at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were absolutely terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! Listen carefully, for I proclaim to you good news that brings great joy to all the people: Today your Savior is born in the city of David. He is Christ the Lord  (Luke 2:8-11, NET Bible) 

These are familiar words indeed to all raised in Christian households where the narratives of Jesus' birth play a prominent role in family and corporate worship each December. But it is their very familiarity that often renders us immune to the radical nature and theological importance of this angelic announcement. This is the only text in the New Testament in which Jesus is called Savior, Messiah (“Christ”), and Lord in conjunction with one another.

Of particular importance is the identification of Jesus as “Christ the Lord.” Jews of most stripes in the first century were eagerly anticipating—and in some cases vigorously trying to hasten—the coming of their promised Messiah, who by definition would be the “Christ of the Lord” (Greek christos kyriou) (cf. Luke 2:26!). But here Luke designates Jesus as christos kyrios, a difference of only one letter from the standard Jewish expectation (he uses the nominative rather than genitive case). This may appear at first glance to be only a minute, insignificant difference, but one would be mistaken to view it as such. Indeed, this grammatical difference demonstrates how the New Testament's portrait of Jesus breaks the bounds of Jewish messianic expectation.

Four times in Luke 1 the title “Lord” is used of God with reference to his sovereign deity (Luke 1:16, 46, 68, 76) in the context of his faithful sending of Jesus to fulfill the Davidic/Messianic promises found in Israel's Scriptures. Here in chapter 2 the angelic announcement hints at a deeper, indeed shocking, understanding of Jesus' identity. Luke later includes the bedrock Markan tradition of Jesus' own quotation of Psalm 110:1 (“The LORD said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand ...”) in which he interprets the text as a reference to the Messiah's enthronement alongside Yahweh himself, thereby demonstrating that the title “David's son” (i.e., “Messiah”) is ultimately inadequate in and of itself to describe who Jesus was (Luke 20:42-43).

The full theological import of this move only becomes transparent in Luke's sequel to his Gospel, the Book of Acts. There Jesus, the risen Messiah, is proclaimed to be worthy of the title “Lord” by virtue of his exercise of exclusively divine prerogatives. Forgiveness is received through repentance and baptism in his name (Acts 2:28). Healing and the power of salvation reside in his name (3:6, 16; 4:12; 10:43). The risen Jesus indeed is “Lord of all” and “judge of the living and the dead” (10:36, 42).

The significance of the angel's message that long ago night ca. 5 BCE is captured by the great Charles Wesley in his immortal Christmas hymn, “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”:

Christ by highest heav'n adored 
Christ the everlasting Lord! 
Late in time behold Him come 
Offspring of the Virgin's womb 
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see 
Hail the incarnate Deity 
Pleased as man with man to dwell 
Jesus, our Emmanuel 
Hark! The herald angels sing 
"Glory to the newborn King!" 

Messiah Jesus—the Lord!—was willing to condescend to become a human being, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “for us and for our salvation.” The baby Jesus we celebrate each December was the baby who, according to the divine plan, would ultimately, about 37 years later, die an ignominious death on a Roman cross to save his people from their sins—born, as Wesley said, that “man no more may die.”

One of the glories of the Christian message is that God himself has done for us what we could not and cannot do for ourselves, namely, offer God the obedience that is his due and die, in our stead, the death we earned by virtue of our sin. Let those of us who bear the name of Christ reflect gratefully on this as we celebrate his birth tomorrow. If any who read this have not done so, please consider the claims made by and about the baby of Bethlehem and, like the shepherds and Magi of old, bow down before him in faith as the crucified and resurrected Lord.

I leave you with a video of "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing" from St. Paul's Cathedral, London. The majesty of the setting and spine-tingling performance of David Willcock's famous treble descant by the Cathedral choir perfectly complement the incomparably profound words the choir and congregation sing. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Remembering Dad

(Note: This is an updated revision of my post dating 20 November 2012.)

Dad in the early 1940s

Thirty-four years ago C. F. D. Moule, in the Introduction to a Festschrift honoring F. F. Bruce on the latter's 70th birthday, claimed that he had "never known a man in whom the virtues of grace and truth were so perfectly wedded" as in the great Scottish New Testament scholar. As one who had the privilege of meeting that great man and benefiting immensely from his work, I do not doubt it. But I would not hesitate to say that the venerable Cambridge professor, who died in 2007 just two months shy of his 99th birthday and himself was once dubbed "Holy Mouley" because of his piety, could never have made that claim had he known my father, the Reverend Dr. John F. McGahey, who died  could it possibly be?  twenty-eight years ago today.

Dad at Winterthur, Delaware in the early 1940s

All these years later not a day goes by in which I don't think about him and his towering legacy. As a child, he was my hero  brilliant and athletic, yet kind and generous to a fault. In later years, he served as my role model and greatest teacher. Even though he was the first teacher at Philadelphia Bible Institute (later Philadelphia College of Bible, Philadelphia Biblical University, and now Cairn University) to hold an earned doctorate, he was chronically under-appreciated (one of his former deans, who later served as President of the college where I taught, referred to him as a "troublemaker" because he wouldn't simply do as he was told) and, ultimately, mistreated by that institution's administration (upon his 65th birthday, three weeks before his death, he was "informed" that he had to retire at the end of the year; what the ensuing events proved was that it was his teaching of the Bible that kept his long-failing heart alive). The same, happily, cannot be said of his family and students, both of which I can luckily count myself.

Dad receiving his Th.D. degree from John Walvoord and Charles Ryrie, May 1957

I inherited and learned many things from dad: the love of sports, books, and everything British; the importance of family  though I wish I carried through on the practical outworking of this as well as he did  and transparency of character; and the futility of both careerism and the quest for transitory material prosperity. Most importantly, however, I can confidently say that, humanly speaking, I am a Christian today because of him. Dartmouth historian Randall Balmer, himself the son of a prominent Midwestern minister, has said  correctly, in my view  that "conversionist" evangelicalism's greatest problem is the passing on of the faith from generation to generation. Dad had his theology straight, of course (more on that anon). More importantly, however, he served as a living, breathing, walking embodiment of St. Paul's message of "Christ crucified." In a word, his life served as an embodied apologetic for the Christian faith. As one who has painfully experienced the "left foot of fellowship" from so-called "Christian" "leaders," it would have been easy to throw it all away, like Esau and his birthright. Indeed, I know plenty of people, both raised as Christians and lifelong unbelievers, who reject Christianity because of the behavior of so-called "conservative Christians," not least those who deem themselves "leaders" of "evangelical" "ministries." And they have a point. But I know what genuine Christianity is because I have experienced it firsthand, not just in my "heart"  emotions, after all, are fleeting and can deceive  but in the life of one who paid more than lip service to the notion of the Lordship of Christ. And for that I indeed thank the Lord each and every day from the bottom of my heart.

Yesterday, as I am wont to do on anniversaries of his death, I listened once again to my tape of the memorial service held in dad's honor at our home church of Grace Chapel in Havertown. At this stage I can almost recite the various tributes by heart  the pained testimonials spoken by my brother and me, as well as the words of dad's best friend, the Rev. Dave Haines, former student (and my college roomie) Matt Meeder, and esteemed colleagues like Julius Bosco and the late, lamented John Cawood, Gordon Ceperley, and Sam Hsu. Listening to these tributes once again brought tears streaming down my face as I reflected that these were all testimonials of a greatness that is rare in this world, a greatness to which I could aspire but never achieve. That night twenty-eight years ago I chose to summarize dad's impact via the rubric provided by Professor Moule in his praise of Fred Bruce: grace and truth. Right now I would like to do so again.

Picture from 1965
(yearbook dedicatee)

When I reflect on what made dad special, my mind always returns to two characteristics of his that stand out. The first is his legendary zeal for the truth. This, I think, is the trait for which he is most famous among those who knew him only as a teacher or preacher. His nickname, which I later inherited for somewhat different, and less praiseworthy, reasons, was "the Snapper" or "Snappin' Jack." Indeed, anyone who ever took a course he taught can regale an audience with stories of dad's legendary (or infamous, depending on one's point of view) rants ("I get a kick out of these guys ...") against Arminians, charismatics, or the ever-popular covenant theologians ("Israel is not the church"). Writing about these brings a smile to my face even as I now disagree with his views on such matters as sanctification and salvation-history. For, like Luther and Calvin before him, dad took his stand on the Word of God as he understood it, and he was conscience-bound to proclaim only what he, through diligent study, believed to be true. Theology, in other words, despite the powerful pull of an anti-intellectual American pietism, mattered. And this meant, among other things, that truth, no matter how unpopular or inconvenient, must always trump the shibboleths of any human tradition, no matter how venerable or powerful. Today I honor his legacy, even if I don't always agree with his views, by adopting the same, entirely admirable stance, all the while realizing that doing so can result in having to pay the ultimate professional cost.

The second characteristic of dad's is one that his closest friends and relatives know best: his commitment to the doctrine of, and lifestyle determined by, graceDave Haines, his best friend from Newark dating back to the 1940s, said it best:
He was saved by grace and he never got over it. He knew that he was what he was by the grace of God; and if ever anyone ever spoke about anyone's failures, John would always say, "But for the grace of God, there go I" ... John was a personification of grace."
Indeed, I consider his commitment to the doctrines of God's sovereign grace, and the ramifications of these doctrines for how we must treat people, to be his greatest legacy. He embodied St. Paul's great principle of considering others to be more important than oneself (Phil 2:3) better than anyone I have ever known. And, as my brother said that night so long ago, he always thought the best of anybody. Never can I recall him ever saying anything negative about any other person. The reason for this is that he, in a way unparalleled in my experience, understood what St. Paul meant when he spoke of the grace of God. If indeed one is cognizant of having been dealt with graciously, one can never be an arrogant, condescending, or self-righteous person, for one will know in the depth of one's being that the favor with God she has received is entirely undeserved. The ramifications of this, as I learned from dad's example, are legion. But perhaps the two most important are as follows: (1) mercy and forgiveness ought to take precedence over strict justice, which can  and usually does  serve as a cover for vengeance and the assertion of control and power; and (2) people matter more than institutions and abstract rules, and thus one should always strive to be an advocate for the powerless. 

As I said, not a day passes that I don't think of dad. These twenty-eight years have passed remarkably quickly. Sometimes it is hard for me to appreciate how short life is, and that I am now only 7+ years younger than dad was when he passed into the presence of his Lord. But that means one thing: it won't be long until I too leave this earth to be with Christ, which, as Paul himself said, is "better by far" than remaining in this world (Phil 1:23). And, as that day approaches, I increasingly anticipate that day when we both can sit together at the feet of the one who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20). Marana Tha!

Dad shooting baskets in Persia while in the
Army in WWII

The two most influential men in my life: Dad and his brother Bill, Havertown, 1985
(photo by author)

Dad and family, Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, Early 1950s

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Chico Ruiz and the Demise of the 1964 Phillies

[Note: This is a revised updating of my post from 21 September 2012.]

Chico Ruiz stealing home, Connie Mack Stadium, Philadelphia, 21 September 1964

Fall is my favorite season.  Weather-wise, the turn from summer swelter to autumn crispness, with its attendant azure-blue skies and the Northeast's brilliant displays of leafy color, is one of the most highly anticipated events of my year.  Yet the approach of the autumnal equinox each September 22-24 is marked by an event that, for me, brings back painful memories of childhood disillusionment and has left an indelible mark on my sporting psyche—and not only on mine, but on millions of Philadelphians of my generation: The Phillies blew a seemingly insurmountable 6 1/2 game lead in the National League with only 12 games to go by losing an unthinkable 10 games in a row.  The way this streak began was so bizarre, and how the mounting losses seemed so inexorable, certainly (in my mind) goes some distance in explaining—even if it doesn't justifythe pessimistic fatalism that has made Philadelphia fans infamous. It's hard to believe, but this defining event occurred 50 years ago today.

In the spring and early summer of 1964 I was 7 years old, a burgeoning sports fan who loved playing wiffle ball in the alley behind my row house apartment on Balwynne Park Road in the Wynnefield Heights section of West Philadelphia.  1964 was the first year I followed big league baseball in earnest, reading the box scores religiously, collecting the Topps baseball cards my dad bought from the Jack and Jill ice cream truck that made its nightly rounds in the neighborhood, listening to By Saam’s calls of Phillies games on WCAU radio, and going for the first time to see the Phils at old Connie Mack Stadium in North Philly. 

At the time, I obviously had no clue of the Phillies’ sad-sack history: only two pennants (and zero World Series victories) in their 81-year history, 17 last place finishes in the span of 29 years between 1919-1947, and a record 23-game losing streak in 1961.  All I knew was that in the months of April, May, and June of 1964 the Phillies were locked in a two-team battle with the Willie Mays-led San Francisco Giants for supremacy in the National League.  On June 15, when my family left for a summer at Deerfoot Lodge in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, the Phils and Giants were deadlocked in first place with 34-23 records.  The Giants, not surprisingly, were led by pitcher Juan Marichal, who on June 15 had an 8-2 record and a typically low 2.42 ERA, and the incomparable Mays, by consensus baseball’s premier player.  In 1964 Mays was hitting .400 as late as May 23, and on June 15 was still hitting .360 with 18 homers (despite not having hit any in the previous 18 games) and 48 RBI in 57 games.  The Phils didn’t have the same level of star power as the Giants (or the Reds, Braves, or Cardinals for that matter).  Indeed, 38 year-old manager Gene Mauch utilized a platoon system for 5 of the 8 positions, with only light-hitting second baseman Tony Taylor, rightfielder Johnny Callison, and 22 year-old rookie third baseman Richie (“call me Dick”) Allen playing every day.  Callison, though, had his best season in ’64 with 31 homers and 104 RBI.  And Allen was a revelation, running away with the NL’s Rookie of the Year award by hitting .318 with 29 homers while leading the league in triples (13), total bases (352), and runs scored (125).  The “Wampum Walloper” remains the single most powerful (non-steroid using) hitter I have ever seen, and his torrid start in ’64 was a prime reason for the team’s quick start out of the gate.

Phillies 1964 World Series Tickets(photo @
tag/1964-world-series/ )
During my summer in New York, the Phillies pulled away from the Giants, who were hurt both by the loss of Marichal due to back spasms for nearly a month in July and August and an inexplicably poor season by first baseman Willie McCovey.  When my family returned to Philly at the end of August and the Phils returned from a short, 6-game road trip to Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, we came back to a city reeling from the race riots that decimated, once and for all, Columbia Avenue in North Philadelphia just a mile south of Connie Mack Stadium.  But the Phillies were still in first place with a seemingly secure 5 ½ game lead over the Cincinnati Reds, 6 ½ over the Giants, and 7 over the surging St. Louis Cardinals, who had rejuvenated themselves by trading for speedy outfielder Lou Brock on June 15.  When, on September 20, ace Jim Bunning defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-2, to run his record to 18-5 and lower his ERA to 2.33, the Phillies came home to North Philly with the aforementioned 6 ½ games lead with just 12 games left on the schedule.  Printing presses in Philadelphia proceeded to print World Series tickets for what appeared at the time to be inevitable, and 90,000 were sold within hours.  But, alas, it was not to be.

September 21, 1964 is the most infamous day in the infamous history of Philadelphia sports.  The Phils were at home against the second place Reds, with 12 game winner Art Mahaffey facing John Tsitouris, who had been a disappointment with a 7-11 record.  The game remained scoreless until the 6th inning when, with one out, rookie Chico “Bench Me or Trade Me” Ruiz (for more on Ruiz’s tragically short life, see here) singled and sped to third on a single to right by Vada Pinson, who was gunned down by the rifle-armed Callison at second trying to stretch it into a double.  That brought up Frank Robinson, one of the league’s most feared sluggers, with 2 outs.  Then Ruiz did the unthinkable — “the dumbest play I’ve ever seen,” according to teammate Pete Rose: he attempted a naked steal of home with the right-handed Robinson (!) at the plate, risking decapitation and the wrath of the irascible slugger at the same time.  But it worked.  Mahaffey, noting Ruiz’s break for home, was distracted enough to uncork a wild pitch outside the reach of catcher Clay Dalrymple, enabling Ruiz to score the game’s only run.  Amazingly, this was the second time in three games the Phils had been defeated by a steal of home, the Dodgers’ Willie Davis having performed the same feat in the 16th inning of the game that started on the 19th.

At first both the team and the fans took the loss in stride.  After all, they still had a 5 ½ game lead over the Reds.  But as the losses began to mount, the team tightened and, even worse, manager Gene Mauch, whose facility at small ball and strategic matchups had been instrumental in the team’s overachieving success that year, began to panic.  Most famously, Mauch used starters Jim Bunning and Chris Short multiple times on only 2 days’ rest, with predictably bad results (for detailed analysis of this and other of Mauch’s managerial failings contributing to the Phils’ demise in '64, see here).  When on September 28-30, the Phils were swept by the Cardinals in a 3-game series at Busch Stadium, they had amazingly lost 10 in a row, and fallen 2 ½ games behind the streaking Redbirds, who had won 8 in a row.  Even though they rallied to defeat the Reds in the final two games of the season, they fell one game short at the end when the Cardinals rallied from behind to defeat the lowly Mets on the strength of the bats of Bill White and Tim McCarver and the arm of Bob Gibson, who won his 19th game of the season in relief.

All these years later, I still recall these events, and the anguish they caused, as vividly as if they happened yesterday (actually, I could only wish to recall yesterday’s events so vividly!).  In moments of thoughtful reflection, I can see how they influenced my own fandom at a fundamental level.  For me, losing and choking are the expected results whenever my Philly teams play.  I am never surprised when a Philadelphia team snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, whether it is the 1968 Sixers losing three straight to the aging, and clearly inferior, Celtics, the 1977 Sixers losing four straight to Bill Walton’s Blazers after taking the first two games easily, or the 2000 Flyers losing three straight to the New Jersey Devils after taking a 3-1 series lead.  I am never surprised, but always angry, when clearly superior Philly teams fail to win championships, whether that team is the 1980 Eagles or the 2010-2011 Phillies.  I am likewise never surprised when Philadelphia players fail to live up to their early promise or hype, whether it be Dick Allen, George McGinnis, Donovan McNabb, Eric Lindros, or Ryan Howard.  Frustration, in my experience, has been the norm, and we Philadelphians of the old school are known to voice that frustration in ways that more “refined” and less star-crossed fans of other cities rarely do.  But it is this very history of frustration that makes the city’s rare championships —the 1960 Eagles, the 1980 and 2008 Phillies, the 1967 and 1983 Sixers, and the 1974 and 1975 Flyers — all the sweeter because of their very unexpectedness.

Time heals all wounds, so the saying goes.  In a sense, I guess that’s true.  Today I look back at the 1964 Phillies, with names like Covington, Gonzalez, Taylor, Rojas, Wine, Baldschun, Dalrymple, Bennett, and especially Callison, Allen, Bunning, and Short, with more fondness than I do the more successful Phillies of 2007-2011.  To me, they remain bigger than life, despite their failure.  But that failure taught me a dubious “lesson” I wish I could unlearn, but deep down inside know I never will.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Philadelphia's Best Buildings, Part 2

48. Stephen F. Girard Building, 21 South 12th Street

47. One South Broad (Lincoln-Liberty Building, PNB Building)

Philadelphia's Ugliest/Most Unfortunate Buildings, Part 2

Quite apart from Philadelphia's seemingly limitless supply of derelict buildings—many of which, after all, were architecturally quite distinguished, or even beautiful, when built—and the lowest form of developer-driven housingthink, if you will, of the "Graduate Hospital specials," with their street front garages and boxy, stucco bays—the city has a fair number of other downright ugly buildings in places, and by architects, one would think should have known better. Today's post highlights two such structures, at either end of Center City.

48. 2400 Pine Street

2400 Pine Street, 14 November 2009
(photo by author)

Perhaps I shouldn't get so worked up about this one. Indeed, in a 20th century neighborhood such an apparently nondescript structure would hardly merit a second look. But this is not a 20th century neighborhood. It is Fitler Square in the southwest quadrant of Center City, a 19th century neighborhood that is one of the most urbane and desirable in the entire city. Indeed, it is catercorner to the park that gives the neighborhood its name.

Fitler Square, north side, 2300 block of Pine St.,
14 November 2009 (photo by author)

2400's more dignified neighbors. Note the
entirely more sensitive modernist 2412 Pine

at the right (photo by author)

2300 Pine, as seen from Fitler Square
(photo by author)
An index of this neighborhood's significance is its inclusion, along with the adjacent, spectacular Rittenhouse neighborhood, in the Rittenhouse-Fitler Residential Historic District, set aside by the city in 1995. One can be thankful that the property under considerationbuilt, not surprisingly, in 1963is listed as a non-contributing element within the district's bounds. 

2410 Pine Street (photo by author)
What really galls, however, is not the banality of the building, but its identity as the office/studio and home—on the second floor above nine (!) garage doors on south 24th Street—of Norman N. Rice, Architect. For those unaware of who Rice was, he was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill architect. He was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under the estimable Paul Cret and was a classmate of the famous Louis Kahn. After a stint in Paris in the office of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, he returned to Philadelphia and joined the firm of Howe and Lescaze, where, among other projects, he worked on the design of their famous PSFS building.

In later years Rice was actively involved in the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA, serving as one of its directors in 1953-55 and 1962-63, its vice-president in 1958-59, and president in 1960-61. Later still he served as an architecture professor at his alma mater for 15 years, beginning in 1963.

Temple Beth Hillel
2400 Pine in 1968, with the home and garages in the rear;
Is that a 1959 Buick on the corner?
One might perhaps have expected, then, a better design for such an eminent architect's studio space. Then again, Rice was an exponent of the worst sort of modernism, as any perusal of his commissions indicates quite clearly (see, here, especially the hideous Rothner residence on School House Lane in East Falls). Those familiar with Philly's Main Line will recognize his brutal Temple Beth Hillel, built in 1966 on the grounds of the old Charles Dissel estate at the corner of Lancaster Ave. and Remington Road in Wynnewood. Fortunately for the synagogue, however, Rice's architectural monstrosity lies quite a distance away from Remington Road, one of the most pleasant in that beautiful suburb. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for his Pine Street studio.

47. Penn Mutual Addition, Walnut Street between 5th and 6th

The Penn Mutual Complex, 1999
The Penn Mutual Addition as seen from
Independence Square, 19 October 2013
(photo by author)

This building, unfortunately, is one that every visitor to Philadelphia sees, as it dominates the backdrop to the national treasure known as Independence Hall when viewed, as intended—that's another story for another time—from the formal axis provided by Independence Mall. 

Independence Hall with the Penn Mutual Buildings behind it
(photo by author, 30 July 2008)
The story of this building begins, as one might expect, in the 1960s, when the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company deemed its neo-classical headquarters building (1913, Edgar Seeler/1931, Ernest Matthewson)—itself a replacement for its 1851 building at 3rd and Dock—too small for the business they were conducting. Enter the chichi architectural firm of Mitchell/Giurgola, the ones responsible for such eyesores as the United Fund Building on the Ben Franklin Parkway and the late, not-so-great 1976 Liberty Bell Pavilion. (To be fair, they also designed the nice INA addition on the southeast corner of 17th and Arch.) As was their trademark, they designed different facades for each of the building's sides so as, in the words of the fawning Foundation for Architecture, to "[respond] uniquely to its environment" (Philadelphia Architecture: A Guide to the City [2nd ed.], 122). Somehow a dark glass curtain wall rising to a concrete roof is allegedly "responsive" both to its historic Georgian surroundings and the elegant, neo-classical neighbor to which it is attached. Perhaps, but lining up the floors of the two buildings seems to be low-hanging fruit to me.

The 6th Street facade of Seeler's 1913 building, as viewed from  
Washington Square, 1 March 2008 (photo by author)

Haviland's original building
at 510 Walnut (image@

One thing stood in the way: John Haviland's impressive 1839 Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company Building at 510 Walnut (enlarged to include 508 Walnut in 1902 by Theophilus Parsons Chandler, Jr.). The solution was original, a pioneering example of facadisme: demolish the buildings except for the front facade and incorporate the facade into the new building's design. In this case, Mitchell/Giurgola decided to use the facade as a screen to the building's entrance courtyard. Thus, it was thought, history could be preserved and economic "progress" could be achieved simultaneously.

The Haviland/Chandler building prior
to demolition (image@
The facadisme today
(photo by author, 19 Oct 2013)

Artist's concept of the tower, 1973
Perhaps the architects should not be faulted for the fact that the interaction of glass curtain walls with concrete has become a sort of cliché for standard 1970s architectural ugliness. At the same time, there is the matter of scale, one which the architects surely can be faulted. It is bad enough that the new building—despite "the constraints of a small site," as the Foundation for Architecture remarks in praise of the building's alleged "responsiveness"—overshadows its elegant neighbor and dominates the view of Independence Hall from the north. What is worse is the use of concrete itself. As usual, the original architectural renderings portray a bright and white building. Of course, as everyone knows, freshly-poured concrete always is white at first. But it never stays that way. And so we have been bequeathed with a building of dark glass and old, dirty brown concrete, hardly a pleasing backdrop to the most important historic structure in the United States. Then again, what did they expect if, as GroJLart so nicely puts it, they built a building out of "sidewalk."

Friday, August 15, 2014

Philadelphia's Lamented Lost Buildings, Part 1

Philadelphia certainly doesn't owe its status as, pound-for-pound, the greatest American city for architecture to the movers and shakers, both political and economic, that have shaped the city over the past three-quarters of a century. Even a brief perusal of photographic images from the city's past is sufficient to bring melancholy to the soul of any Philaphile, or even any committed urbanist. Such images give ample testimony to the havoc wrought on the city's landscape by the noxious brew of postwar automobile culture and the distinctively American vices of aesthetic philistinism, cost-cutting greed and "efficiency," and knee-jerk preference to the "new" over anything old.

The consequences of this brew are visible all over town, not least in the old river wards from Queen Village to Fishtown, where thousands of historic structures, many dating to the 18th century, were leveled for "progress" provided by the construction of Interstate 95. Similar mass levelings occurred, as I have written before, with the federal government's creation of the Independent National Historical Park and the city's creation of the brutal Penn Center from the 1950s-1980s. 

Of the hundreds of lost buildings from which to choose, I have selected 50 to showcase. In today's first post, I highlight two buildings which, while certainly fine structures, are more notable for their historical importance than their architectural distinction. The first, moreover, is one with which I have more than a little personal connection.

50. YWCA Building, 1800 Arch Street

(postcard from the author's 
personal collection)
The YWCA Building at 1800 Arch was designed by Benjamin D. Price and built in 1891-92 in the shadows of the old "Chinese Wall." It is an early and prime example of the direct influence of the Chicago school of architecture in Philadelphia. More importantly, it was the first steel-framed "skyscraper" to be built in the city. Nevertheless, when, in the 1970s, the building served as the home of the tiny Philadelphia College of Bible, where I was a student, the building was considered an albatross and an eyesore. After all—sarcasm alert—how could buff brick and rusticated limestone compete with the fashionably sterile modernism of Penn Center to its immediate south? Thus the college picked up and moved to suburban Langhorne in 1979, a year after I graduated, and the place was leveled for a parking lot the following year. 

The YWCA in its early days

In this case, however, the story has a somewhat happy ending. After 34 years of being a surface parking lot in the heart of Center City—how could this possibly be?—the site is now being developed by Comcast Corporation as the future home of the tallest building between New York City and Chicago. The Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, as it will be called, is designed by starchitect Sir Norman Foster and will rise 1121' feet. Though not Foster's best design, it certainly could be worse.

PCB's main building as I remember it in the '70s,
with the turret dome missing from the NE corner
The Y's stunning neighbors at 
1814-18 Arch, before demolition
for a parking lot, 1927

Demolition of PCB Building, 1980

Rendering of the proposed Comcast Innovation and Technology Center. We'll see if it actually ends up looking like this.

49. Penn Mutual Building, 241 Dock Street

The unpretentious, Italianate Penn Mutual Life Insurance Building, designed by C. P. Cummings, was constructed in 1850-51 at the northeast corner of 3rd and Dock Streets in the heart of Old City. Its claim to fame lies in its being one of the earliest cast-iron buildings in America (i.e., its facade was made by bolting cast-iron plates together). The company abandoned it in 1913, however, for a fine, larger building at 6th and Walnut designed by Edgar Seeler, which is still extant. By the middle of the 20th century, with 19th century architecture decidedly out of fashion, this relic was deemed expendable when the federal government was developing the Independence National Historical Park. Hence it was unceremoniously demolished in 1956 and replaced by the hideous "old" Independence Visitor Center, now in the process of demolition in favor of the only-slightly-better, faux colonial Museum of the American Revolution. With the city's dearth of remaining cast-iron structures—unlike in New York's SoHo—it would have been preferable to fix this one up. At the least it would have fit well with many of the buildings on nearby Chestnut Street.

The old Penn Mutual Building prior to demolition

The "Old" Independence Visitor Center

The future Museum of the American Revolution

Friday, June 13, 2014

Philadelphia's Best Buildings, Part 1

Making a list of Philadelphia's 50 best buildings is a well-nigh impossible task. There are simply too many of them for such a small list. In particular, dozens of impressive churches and hundreds of spectacular dwellings must largely be passed over in favor of civic and commercial buildings that prove more distinctive and (often) prominent. Indeed, only 5 churches land on this list, which means such great buildings as St. Peter's Episcopal, The Church of the Gesu, Arch Street Methodist, and Spruce Street (Tenth) Presbyterian must be omitted. Likewise, only three dwellings make the list, one from colonial times and two spectacular 19th century block-long rows which make their impression in their totality even more than in their constituent parts. and this means no Hill-Physick-Keith House, no Thomas Hockley House, no remnant of Rittenhouse Square's elegant residential past, and no example from Mt. Airy or Chestnut Hill, not even George Howe's famous High Hollow.

Today I begin with two examples two hundred years apart in age (proving that, despite my pronounced aesthetic preference for older architecture, there are still some examples of distinguished 21st-century design).

50. Millennium Hall, Drexel University (223 North 34th Street)

(photo by author)
Millennium Hall, April 2010
(photo by author)

Erdy McHenry's Millennium Hall, built in 2009, was a striking and welcome departure from Drexel University's previous examples of institutional "design." Indeed, apart from the Wilson Brothers' grand 1889-91 Main Building and Frank Furness's 1876 Centennial Bank (now used as the university's alumni office), Drexel's campus was a horror, largely consisting of the worst sort of modernist monstrosities that routinely mar college campuses all over the country.

Millennium Hall, in an instant, changed all that. The staggered, twisting form arrests the eyes in ways that more banal modernist buildings simply do not. Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron complains of Millennium Hall's "rough treatment of [its] neighbors," in particular, its "abrupt change in scale from the largely Victorian neighborhood." While her criticism of the Hall's ground floor is justified, this criticism based on context is peculiar, to say the least. For the "context" of this building is not primarily the Victorian neighborhood to its north, but the Drexel Campus to its south, particularly its banal red brick immediate neighbor, Kelly Hall. And such contextual concerns somehow don't figure in her glowing review of McHenry's glitzy, goofy, Hancock Square in the formerly industrial and brick rowhouse Northern Liberties.

Millennium Hall and the spectacular Vic-
torian neighborhood of Powelton to its north,
April 2014 (photo by author)
(photo by author, April 2014)

49. Girard Warehouses (18-30 North Front Street)

The Girard Warehouses at left, with the similarly handsome
Trotter Warehouses on the right, September 2012
(photo by author)
The Girard Warehouses are among the oldest extant commercial structures remaining in Philadelphia, dating to 1810. The stunning simplicity of their design, with stone first floors and red brick on the upper four floors, with simple, sharply cut cornices, makes for a powerful composition. Not long ago they appeared headed for the dustbin of history, long vacant with a collapsed rear wall. Thankfully, Brooklyn-based owners BRP Development Corporation painstakingly rehabilitated the structures and turned them into luxury apartments, assuring their continuance on the streetscape for years to come.

Collapsed rear wall of the Girard Warehouses, July 2007
(photo by author)

Front Street facade of the Girard Warehouses prior to restoration, July 2007
(photo by author)

The restored warehouses, October 2011 (photo by author)

(photo by author)

(photo by author)

(photo by author)