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 philly.com, 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? (image@en.wikimedia.org)

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.


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