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 In both cases the city, its planners, and its architects replaced what they viewed as "outdated" structures with "modern" buildings that reflected the aesthetic sensibilities of their time while simultaneously thumbing their nose at the built environment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)

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