Thursday, August 21, 2014

Philadelphia's Ugliest/Most Unfortunate Buildings, Part 2

Quite apart from Philadelphia's seemingly limitless supply of derelict buildings—many of which, after all, were architecturally quite distinguished, or even beautiful, when built—and the lowest form of developer-driven housingthink, if you will, of the "Graduate Hospital specials," with their street front garages and boxy, stucco bays—the city has a fair number of other downright ugly buildings in places, and by architects, one would think should have known better. Today's post highlights two such structures, at either end of Center City.

48. 2400 Pine Street

2400 Pine Street, 14 November 2009
(photo by author)

Perhaps I shouldn't get so worked up about this one. Indeed, in a 20th century neighborhood such an apparently nondescript structure would hardly merit a second look. But this is not a 20th century neighborhood. It is Fitler Square in the southwest quadrant of Center City, a 19th century neighborhood that is one of the most urbane and desirable in the entire city. Indeed, it is catercorner to the park that gives the neighborhood its name.

Fitler Square, north side, 2300 block of Pine St.,
14 November 2009 (photo by author)

2400's more dignified neighbors. Note the
entirely more sensitive modernist 2412 Pine

at the right (photo by author)

2300 Pine, as seen from Fitler Square
(photo by author)
An index of this neighborhood's significance is its inclusion, along with the adjacent, spectacular Rittenhouse neighborhood, in the Rittenhouse-Fitler Residential Historic District, set aside by the city in 1995. One can be thankful that the property under considerationbuilt, not surprisingly, in 1963is listed as a non-contributing element within the district's bounds. 

2410 Pine Street (photo by author)
What really galls, however, is not the banality of the building, but its identity as the office/studio and home—on the second floor above nine (!) garage doors on south 24th Street—of Norman N. Rice, Architect. For those unaware of who Rice was, he was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill architect. He was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied under the estimable Paul Cret and was a classmate of the famous Louis Kahn. After a stint in Paris in the office of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, he returned to Philadelphia and joined the firm of Howe and Lescaze, where, among other projects, he worked on the design of their famous PSFS building.

In later years Rice was actively involved in the Philadelphia Chapter of the AIA, serving as one of its directors in 1953-55 and 1962-63, its vice-president in 1958-59, and president in 1960-61. Later still he served as an architecture professor at his alma mater for 15 years, beginning in 1963.

Temple Beth Hillel
2400 Pine in 1968, with the home and garages in the rear;
Is that a 1959 Buick on the corner?
One might perhaps have expected, then, a better design for such an eminent architect's studio space. Then again, Rice was an exponent of the worst sort of modernism, as any perusal of his commissions indicates quite clearly (see, here, especially the hideous Rothner residence on School House Lane in East Falls). Those familiar with Philly's Main Line will recognize his brutal Temple Beth Hillel, built in 1966 on the grounds of the old Charles Dissel estate at the corner of Lancaster Ave. and Remington Road in Wynnewood. Fortunately for the synagogue, however, Rice's architectural monstrosity lies quite a distance away from Remington Road, one of the most pleasant in that beautiful suburb. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for his Pine Street studio.

47. Penn Mutual Addition, Walnut Street between 5th and 6th

The Penn Mutual Complex, 1999
The Penn Mutual Addition as seen from
Independence Square, 19 October 2013
(photo by author)

This building, unfortunately, is one that every visitor to Philadelphia sees, as it dominates the backdrop to the national treasure known as Independence Hall when viewed, as intended—that's another story for another time—from the formal axis provided by Independence Mall. 

Independence Hall with the Penn Mutual Buildings behind it
(photo by author, 30 July 2008)
The story of this building begins, as one might expect, in the 1960s, when the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company deemed its neo-classical headquarters building (1913, Edgar Seeler/1931, Ernest Matthewson)—itself a replacement for its 1851 building at 3rd and Dock—too small for the business they were conducting. Enter the chichi architectural firm of Mitchell/Giurgola, the ones responsible for such eyesores as the United Fund Building on the Ben Franklin Parkway and the late, not-so-great 1976 Liberty Bell Pavilion. (To be fair, they also designed the nice INA addition on the southeast corner of 17th and Arch.) As was their trademark, they designed different facades for each of the building's sides so as, in the words of the fawning Foundation for Architecture, to "[respond] uniquely to its environment" (Philadelphia Architecture: A Guide to the City [2nd ed.], 122). Somehow a dark glass curtain wall rising to a concrete roof is allegedly "responsive" both to its historic Georgian surroundings and the elegant, neo-classical neighbor to which it is attached. Perhaps, but lining up the floors of the two buildings seems to be low-hanging fruit to me.

The 6th Street facade of Seeler's 1913 building, as viewed from  
Washington Square, 1 March 2008 (photo by author)

Haviland's original building
at 510 Walnut (image@

One thing stood in the way: John Haviland's impressive 1839 Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company Building at 510 Walnut (enlarged to include 508 Walnut in 1902 by Theophilus Parsons Chandler, Jr.). The solution was original, a pioneering example of facadisme: demolish the buildings except for the front facade and incorporate the facade into the new building's design. In this case, Mitchell/Giurgola decided to use the facade as a screen to the building's entrance courtyard. Thus, it was thought, history could be preserved and economic "progress" could be achieved simultaneously.

The Haviland/Chandler building prior
to demolition (image@
The facadisme today
(photo by author, 19 Oct 2013)

Artist's concept of the tower, 1973
Perhaps the architects should not be faulted for the fact that the interaction of glass curtain walls with concrete has become a sort of cliché for standard 1970s architectural ugliness. At the same time, there is the matter of scale, one which the architects surely can be faulted. It is bad enough that the new building—despite "the constraints of a small site," as the Foundation for Architecture remarks in praise of the building's alleged "responsiveness"—overshadows its elegant neighbor and dominates the view of Independence Hall from the north. What is worse is the use of concrete itself. As usual, the original architectural renderings portray a bright and white building. Of course, as everyone knows, freshly-poured concrete always is white at first. But it never stays that way. And so we have been bequeathed with a building of dark glass and old, dirty brown concrete, hardly a pleasing backdrop to the most important historic structure in the United States. Then again, what did they expect if, as GroJLart so nicely puts it, they built a building out of "sidewalk."

No comments:

Post a Comment