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)

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