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

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