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)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Philadelphia's Ugliest/Most Unfortunate Buildings, Part 1

As I opined in my previous post, Philadelphia's architectural heritage is second to none in America. This is so despite the best efforts of modernist planners to eradicate much of that heritage through scorched-earth attempts at "urban renewal" in both Old City and Center City West. In both cases the city, its planners, and its architects replaced what they viewed as "outdated" structures with "modern" buildings that reflected the aesthetic sensibilities of their time while simultaneously thumbing their nose at the built environment into which they were plopped down (typical blather about the new creations' "sensitivity to their context" notwithstanding). Indeed, the remaking of Philadelphia along these lines has continued apace for the past 60 years, driven by corporate priorities, the quest for trendiness and, above all, by the dominance of the automobile, a mode of conveyance not particularly well-suited to a city whose street grid and corresponding scale were essentially laid out by its founder in the late 17th century.

The results have not, in my opinion, been pretty. To be sure, many of the gems of the city's past remain, but one has to look harder for them among the behemoths that have increasingly dominated the cityscape. A few of these newer structures have even proven worthy to stand alongside the gems of the past, while others, while not distinguished, at least fail to offend.

Many, however (most?), do offend. Or at least they offend my aesthetic sensibilities. And the scars they have inflicted on the urban landscape are quite pronounced due to their sheer size and corresponding prominence. Efficiency and cost-effectiveness are all well and good, but they do not mitigate, and are insufficient to excuse, the banality and, often, sheer ugliness of their designs.

50. Mt. Olive Holy Temple (SE corner, Broad and Jefferson Streets)

This is a church building?! Ugh ...
(photo by author, September 2012)

Philadelphia is singularly blessed and cursed by its sheer volume of impressive ecclesiastical buildings dating from the early 18th to early 20th centuries. Many—a few of which will be spotlighted in forthcoming posts on the city's best buildings—are well-preserved and home to thriving congregations. Others, however, sit abandoned with but a sliver of hope for a future (e.g., Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal at 43rd and Chestnut [see my earlier thoughts here]; Church of the Assumption at 12th and Spring Garden [see here]; Hope Presbyterian at 33rd and Wharton in Gray's Ferry). Alas, others have met (e.g., St. Boniface in Kensington in 2012; St. Bonaventure in Fairhill in 2013) or are now meeting (The Church of the Atonement in Cedar Park) their appointments with the wrecking ball.

The Mt. Olive Holy Temple is emphatically not one of these structures. Not surprisingly, it is not affiliated with either the Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant denominations responsible for these other glorious churches. Instead, it is the flagship church of the Pentecostal Mt. Sinai Holy Church of America, whose main claim to fame is its long-held belief in a gender-inclusive Episcopate. Indeed, the church was led by women from its founding in 1924 by Bishop Ida B. Robinson until the accession of Bishop Joseph H. Bell, Sr. in 2001.

Church of the Incarnation
The enigmatic, forbidding, and windowless triangular structure unfortunately fits in well with its shabby surroundings on its stretch of Broad Street in Lower North Philadelphia. Things were not always so, however. Indeed, in the Victorian age the stretch of North Broad from Fairmount north to Susquehanna was lined with hotels, grand structures like the Metropolitan Opera House, and mansions of the newly-rich industrialists of the period such as Peter Widener, William Elkins, and Robert Foerderer, only a few of which remain standing. In the ultimate irony, Mt. Olive Temple stands on the site of the grand neo-Gothic Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, built in 1870 and abandoned in 1942 because of changing neighborhood demographics, the congregation being absorbed into the present Grace Church and the Incarnation in Port Richmond.

Broad Street north from Master, ca. 1908, with the Church of the Incarnation on the right
(postcard from author's personal collection)

49. Goldtex Apartments (12th and Pearl)

Architect's Rendering of the Newly-Remodeled
Goldtex Apartments (
I will no doubt get in trouble for this one. For years the derelict former Goldtex textile factory, built in 1905, stood prominently just north of Center City in full view of motorists on the Vine Street Expressway, seemingly losing windows and gaining graffiti by the week. Thus when brothers Mike and Matt Pestronk bought the old factory and hired Post Brothers to revamp the property as luxury apartments, rejoicing could be heard throughout the region as another piece in the revitalization of Callowhill ("the Eraserhood") was falling into place. Now, to be fair, the views, especially from the south-facing apartments, are spectacular, the interior furnishings are top-notch, and the concerted effort to make the building environmentally friendly with a green wall and roof, is praiseworthy.

Under Reconstruction, November 2013
(photo by author)

Closeup of new facade, November 2013 (photo by author)

Still … I cannot help but think the building—and neighborhood, right by the old Reading Viaduct and numerous other century-old loft buildings—would have been better served by a straightforward rehabilitation of its gritty, concrete and small-paned glass, starkly industrial facade. I am aware of the "green" rationale for its new glass skin (though the camouflaging of its steel skeleton in such a starkly modern building is surprising). I also am keenly aware of the allure of trendiness in the wake of the startling transformation of nearby Northern Liberties by such aggressively modern structures as the Piazza at Schmidt's. Indeed, the use of composite aluminum colored panels is a significant aspect of the facades of a number of recent projects, including Temple University's new Morgan Hall and PMC's new apartments under construction at 19th and Arch.

Apartments at 1900 Arch Street, with Arch
Street Presbyterian Church at left
(photo by author, May 2014)
Morgan Hall

Nonetheless, I remain skeptical about the ultimate staying power of such architecture. To be sure, it isn't as boring as the plain glass skins that were all the rage in the 70s (more on those anon). Yet they seem so, well, gimmicky, poor and shallow substitutes for the ornamentation and detail that graced the substantial buildings constructed in the pre-War period. And how they will age is anyone's guess, though I have my suspicions. I hope I am proved wrong.

12th Street Looking North, with
Goldtex Textiles in the distance, 1958
The author with the Goldtex Factory
in the Background, January 2011
(photo by Daniel McGahey)

I leave you with a number of photographs of the Goldtex Building in its previous state of glorious dereliction from January 2010.

(photograph by author)

(photograph by author)

(photograph by author)

(photograph by author)
(photograph by author)

(photograph by author)

(photograph by author)

(photograph by author)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Architecture of Philadelphia: An Introduction to the Good, the Lost, and the Ugly

I love Philadelphia. "Of course," someone might interject, "it's your hometown." Yes, it is, though I haven't lived in the city or its immediate vicinity for close to 35 years. Moreover, anyone assuming such an assumed scenario simply doesn't know a thing about Philadelphia or its idiosyncratic denizens. The City of Brotherly Love, for all its surface similarities to other American cities, is in many respects sui generis among them; and it is in the city's differences from all other American metropolises that I glory. Indeed, what strikes me most about the town are its distinct dualities: history and modernity, dereliction and striking beauty, and, above all, blue collar grit and the highest of elite cultural offerings. Imagine, if you will, "Rocky" juxtaposed with "The Philadelphia Story"—"Philistines" and "Patricians," to use the taxonomy suggested by historian John Lukacs.

In many respects—despite centuries of changing demographics and the transition from industrialization to a deindustrialized service economy—Philadelphia has retained its unique character, derived from its 17th century Quaker origins. Like its founder, William Penn, Philadelphia's primary virtue is its modesty. Ostentation, trendiness, and self-promotion have never sat well with the civic psyche, and when these vices have been indulged, they have not served the city well. Nevertheless, geography—location smack dab in the middle of the New York-Washington corridor—and relative loss of influence to the south and west—despite its continued standing as the fifth largest city in the land, with a metropolitan area population approaching 7 million people—have conspired to cause this native modesty to morph into a self-loathing based in what can only be described as a congenital inferiority complex. Most Philadelphians, it seems, having unwittingly bought into the wider culture's worldview and associated assumptions, are convinced the grass is greener everywhere else (except, perhaps, Detroit). Such thinking, nowhere more in evidence than in white suburbanites' stereotypically uninformed comments on, validates the city's oft-repeated nickname of "Negadelphia." More insidiously, however, it has led to huge changes in the city's urban fabric over the past 65 or so years, changes which have done nothing to enhance, and much to diminish, its stature as a great world city.

The Independence Mall Area, circa 1947
One immediately thinks of three major developments in the second half of the 20th century. The first was undertaken by the National Park Service, who in 1948-63 created the Independence National Historical Park by a concerted scorched earth policy of demolishing 12 square blocks north and east of Independence Hall—save for the lucky few gems that played a role in the forming of the nation. As a result of this urban equivalent of a clear cut of an old growth forest, hundreds of 19th century Victorian buildings, both majestic and prosaic—the very sort which today comprise the bulk of the remainder of fashionable Old City—were summarily demolished, victims both of a shortsighted period architectural prejudice and a desire for colonial uniformity. The resulting "Independence Grass Lot Collection," as blogger GroJLart has memorably dubbed it, is, of course, quite nice for the suburban tourist looking to enjoy a simple experience of our nation's founding. But it is a nightmare both for the committed urbanist and the historian searching for authenticity in the evolution of the city's built environment. And as for the "monumental" modernist public and private buildings erected to frame the new Independence Mall, the less said the better (at least for now).

Independence Mall Today

Penn Center in the Early Days of Its Construction,
with City Hall at Left 
The second major development was another scorched earth undertaking, namely the creation of the execrable "Penn Center" office development out of the four square blocks taken up by the Pennsylvania Railroad's formidable Broad Street Station and its "Chinese Wall," both of which were demolished in 1953. Like the federal government's wanton destruction of acres of Old City, time has not been kind to the so-called "enlightened" urban renewal policies of famed architect/City Planner Edmund Bacon, let alone the cold, soulless, ├╝ber-banal building designs of Bacon's starchitect, Vincent Kling. The resulting corporate wasteland, to borrow the memorable words of Prince Charles, resembles nothing more than a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend."

Penn Center and Market West Today: What Were
They Thinking? (

The Philadelphia Skyline as it appeared in 1940

(linen postcard dated 11 May 1941,
from the author's personal collection)
Such developments, unfortunate as they may have been, nonetheless pale in significance in comparison with the fateful decision in the 1980s to jettison the informal "gentlemen's agreement" according to which no building would rise to a height taller than the great Calder statue of William Penn atop City Hall (548'). (for my previous ruminations on this subject, see my post here.) This agreement not only resulted in a flat skyline, with a host of 490' or so skyscrapers in the blocks surrounding City Hall. Never mind that, despite two prominent older classics from the early '30s (PSFS, PNB), most of these (fairly) tall skyscrapers were of hideous Penn Center vintage. More importantly, that agreement manifested a civic deference to tradition and to splendor—John McArthur, Jr.'s City Hall, at the intersection of Market and Broad Streets, and the terminus of the splendid Benjamin Franklin Parkway, still dominated the skyline—that immediately distinguished Philadelphia from every other American city. 

View of Philadelphia Skyline from Belmont Plateau, October 1984
(photo by author)

One Liberty Place, October 2012
(photo by author)
However, with the construction of Helmut Jahn's 945' One Liberty Place in 1987, the Quaker City's inherent architectural modesty—the public face, as it were, of its defining civic virtue—was discarded in one fell swoop. It matters little that the Chrysler Building-wannabe One Liberty Place is better than most buildings constructed since the end of World War II. The significance of this move is nicely captured by architectural historian Francis Morrone:
I don't think it matters if the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building had been put there. Some vital part of the city's soul—one of the last things that made Philadelphia better than other American cities—was forever lost in the reckless decision to allow this skyward development (p. 162).
In the three decades since that fateful decision, the march of taller-than-Billy Penn skyscrapers has inexorably marched down the Market Street corridor west of City Hall. These include the good (Bell Atlantic Tower, Mellon Center), the mediocre (Two Liberty Place, the memory stick-shaped Comcast Center), and the just plain ugly (the G. Fred DiBona, Jr. Building). As I write, Comcast is proceeding with their plans to construct the tallest building yet—indeed, the tallest building between New York and Chicago—the 1121' Comcast Innovation and Technology Center, on the very spot I attended college back in the 1970s, 18th and Arch Streets. To be sure, there are many who applaud such developments, seeing such construction as a sign of the city's vitality and imagining it to be a sign the city still matters in the 21st century. I am not one of them. What I see in such developments, and in the inane belief that such monstrosities as One Liberty Place and the Comcast Center are two of the five "Top Buildings or Works of Architecture in Philadelphia," is Philadelphia, or Philadelphians, conforming themselves and their patterns of thought to the mainstream American worldview, like the Israelites of old conforming to the Canaanites they ultimately supplanted in the land.

Philadelphia Skyline from Boathouse Row, August 2008
(photo by author)

Skyline as seen from Benjamin Franklin Parkway, September 2010
(photo by author)

But Philadelphia is not, and should not strive to be, New York, let alone such purveyors of shallow glitz like Dallas, Atlanta, or any number of auto-centric, fashionable Sunbelt cities. Indeed, I still believe that Philadelphia, despite its multifarious economic and social problems, is better than other American cities, though its true greatness is not found in the places many of its would-be defenders imagine it to be found. In particular, I concur with the aforementioned Morrone—a New Yorker, by the way—that "architecturally, Philadelphia, not Chicago or New York, is in my opinion the greatest American city" (p. vi). Indeed, no other city has such a wealth of distinguished architecture from every era of the nation's history, from the 17th to the 21st century. Despite this, it is sobering to think that what remains, particularly from the Victorian era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is only the remnant of what once dominated the streetscape of America's 3rd-largest city. Their good intentions aside, one can only be thankful that the modernist purveyors of such wanton destruction of the city's built environment didn't get their hands on more buildings in their misguided attempt at "urban renewal."

I am nothing if not opinionated. And so, over the course of dozens of lengthy perambulations around my hometown over the years, I have compiled lists of 50 of the best, ugliest/most unfortunate, and lost/lamented buildings in Philadelphia. Over the next few months I plan on posting these, in the hope that my fellow Philadelphians would learn to appreciate what we have been bequeathed by our forebears, and that my readers from elsewhere would be encouraged to reconsider what they may have thought about the city from afar.

Friday, June 6, 2014

D-Day, 70 Years Later

[This is an updated re-posting of my entry from 6 June 2012.]

Omaha Beach, Normandy, 6 June 1944

Today is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied amphibious landing of 83,115 men of the British Second Army and some 73,000 men of the American First Army on Sword, Juno, Gold, Utah, and Omaha Beaches in Normandy, whose success proved to be the decisive blow leveled against the forces of Hitler's Third Reich, guaranteeing Germany's ultimate surrender eleven months later.

Operation Neptune, the greatest amphibious assault in the annals of military history, was a tactical tour de force, whose very precarious launching in the face of the always-dicey weather of the English Channel tempts the Calvinist in me to see the directly causal hand of the all-sovereign God.  Its success forever guaranteed the reputations of its Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhouwer, and commander of ground forces, Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery (of El Alamein fame).  More importantly, the success of this operation, as Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill rightly noted, was crucial to the preservation of Western (he said "Christian," but I digress) civilization against the depredations of a barbarism worthy of the Huns and Visigoths of old.

Norman Forster
(family photograph)
My own connection with D-Day comes through my late, lamented Uncle Norman Forster, who served in the Royal Navy in one of the more than 1200 war ships that supported the landings that day.  It is one of the things for which I am most proud of him.  For, despite my general commitment to nonresistance and almost universal anti-war sentiment, I truly believe Churchill was right in this case.  Indeed, it is World War II, more than anything else, that has instilled in me the belief that so-called "just wars" do indeed exist, no matter how rare and subject to unjust prosecution (case[s] in point: the bombings of Dresden and [most likely] Hiroshima).  The sheer scope of Hitler's power and the worldwide threat he posed render silly — and offensive — putative comparisons with such petty tyrants as Saddam Hussein and terrorist masterminds like Osama bin Laden (of course, the politicians who invoke such comparisons know this as well; if not, they are intellectually unqualified for office).

As the ranks of those who are old enough to remember that day, let alone those who actually served, decrease by the day, the tendency will be to let the memory recede into the mists of time and dry, dusty history textbooks.  But we must never forget, both in honor of the thousands who served and the scores who paid the ultimate price with their lives.  And let us always remember that war, if fought justly, must never be engaged in the service of imperial ambitions or economic hegemony, but as the only viable defense of fundamental human rights and national sovereignty, in the hope of ultimately reintegrating the aggressive parties into the world community, not least for the benefits of their own citizens.

Scottish Piper Bill Millin storming Sword Beach with
the Commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade,
British Second Army, 6 June 1944