Monday, August 31, 2009

Which One Will It Be?

The Vitetta Group and Kelly/Maiello have issued a number of renderings of the Pennsylvania Convention Center expansion over the past few years, but it's never seemed clear which one will materialize on North Broad Street over the next year or so. The top rendering seems to be the most likely outcome as it is the one most commonly displayed at the site.

What I've noticed lately when passing the construction site is that all of the renderings seem to exaggerate the width of Broad Street. They also seem to somehow underscore how tall the building actually is. In other words, this is a massive building on a relatively narrow street. I have no problem with density but this isn't a series of structures making up a block, they tore those down. The is one structure a full block long. I think that one of the other two designs would be more appropriate for the relationship between the structure and the sidewalk. The horizontal lines on the above rendering will carry the eye across and already long structure and cause a dizzying effect from the sidewalk in relation to the height. The more compartmentalized designs below as well as the lighter shade of the finish would be more appropriate for a relatively narrow street scape.

Unfortunately very few renderings were ever offered of this project. The only other perspective seemed to highlight the existing high rise and demolished facades more than the actual bulk of the construction. It will be interesting to see how this stadium-size building will play out two blocks from City Hall. One thing we certainly need to watch out for is the inevitable reclamation of surrounding property for more surface lots.

SS United States

She currently serves as a dramatic backdrop for customers enjoying a plate of Swedish Meatballs at the Ikea Cafe, but after the United States Lines SS United States was launched in 1952 she would live on to hold records for both east and westbound transatlantic crossings at 3 and a half days. She was decommissioned in 1969, sold in 1978 and passed hands several times before ending up docked in South Philadelphia near I-95. The ship is on the National Register of Historic Places in large thanks to the SS United States Foundation and the SS United State Conservancy both recently active in attempts to purchase the ship from those more interested in her guts than her soul. Star Cruises is currently looking for a buyer for the subject of a recent documentary SS United States: Lady in Waiting. Last month H.F. Lenfest pledged a matching grant of $300,000 to help the SS United States Conservancy purchase the ship and save her from being scrapped.

Casino anyone?

Ghosts of Market East

Speaking of the grand, old department stores like Strawbridge & Clothier - which stands vulnerable once again now that Foxwoods has been told to retreat to the river - Market East was once Philadelphia's booming hub of commerce. Like an outdoor European Arcade or precursor to the the American Shopping Mall, Market East was lined with about a dozen department stores ranging from the tiny Robinson's to the massive Wanamaker Building. Let's take a tour.

The recently defunct Strawbridge & Clothier's second building (see previous post) at their original location still stands empty. Designed by Simon & Simon in 1928, it compliments the adjacent Post Office at 9th and Market as beautifully preserved examples of large scale Art Deco design. It is significant to mention that Strawbridge & Clothier, a once mighty retail empire including Macy's and Hecht's, began at this location in Philadelphia.

The corner of the Gimbel's complex at 9th and Market is seen here in 1979 shortly before it was demolished for a parking lot, a.k.a. The Disney Hole, named for the would-be location of Philadelphia's failed DisneyQuest. Fortunately the Gimbel's office building still remains, seen in the background.

Robinson's quasifuturistic tiled 1940's facade still remains on Market East between 10th and 11th. A broken neon sign reading "Robinson" can be seen at the right of the building.

The sprawling Lit Brothers department store at 7th and Market was designed by a number of architects from 1859-1906 and still stands today as a shining example of what Market East could be.

Few realize it, but the Snellenburg Department Store at 12th and Market still stands today...sort of. Designed by James Hamilton Windrim and John Torrey Windrim in 1906, the first two floors of the building remain as the "placeholder" structure known as the Girard Block, which has been awaiting redevelopment for nearly three decades. Redevelopment of this block is undoubtedly a key in any potential Market East Renaissance.

You can't talk about department stores in Philadelphia - or the United States for that matter - without mentioning John Wanamaker. My father and grandmother have both told stories that begin with a trip downtown to meet their friends "Under the Brass Eagle". The present building designed by Daniel H. Burnham includes what was once the world's largest pipe organ. The organ still plays everyday at 5 P.M. and is the focal point of the store's famed Christmas light show. The Wanamaker Building still as a department store as Macy's, previously Lord & Taylor.

These are just a handful of the department stores that lined Market East between the early 1800's and the mid-1900's, not to mention the dozens that lined Chestnut Street and Filbert Street. Unfortunately today, the nostalgia outweighs the need when it comes to department stores. Shopping Malls supply the specialty needs while discount department stores supply the necessities. Sadly Market East has become such a ghost town that even K-Mart can barely survive. What this location needs is some sort of destination attraction, something to draw a crowd, improve public transportation, and create a residual market for shopping.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Foxwoods Re-Re-Prelocation

I'm indifferent when it comes to casino gaming in Philadelphia. Personally, I kind of see them in the same light as strip clubs, or even your neighborhood tavern. They are simply a den of vice, and therefore will always be an easy target for an angry mob of naysayers. Often surrounded by a lot of "Please think of the children!" type of hype (by some of the least informed activists), casinos rarely cause the problems these fear mongers would like you to believe. The blue-haired casino junkies that pack slot barns across the country bring money to undervalued locations. Thugs don't go to slot barns, they go to Vegas, and not one major city that has gone casino has managed to bring the skank factor with their casinos. Not Detroit, not New Orleans, not London, casino gambling doesn't destroy established cities, it destroys Indian Reservations and small towns with nothing better to offer, which is exactly what Las Vegas, Reno, and Atlantic City were when gaming came to town. So unless you're setting up a casino in Terre Haute, IN, chances are nothing is going to change. Sorry Chinatown. Sorry Northern Liberties. You're just plain wrong.

What I do take issue with is bad business, a lack of basic common sense, and the "progressives" who halt progress. Foxwoods has been yanked again, this time back to the original location. No wonder they weren't too pressed to issue a rendering for the potential Strawbridges or Gallery locations, the state and the NIMBYs have been jerki
ng them around for the past several years while everyone, not just the casinos, pisses away money. Renderings and planning cost money and the transparent plan on the part of the NIMBYs (as it always is) is to nag the target until they get frustrated and leave or simply run out of money. Unfortunately in this case, they got it seriously wrong. Market East needs something, anything, and Foxwoods wanted to be it, was willing to be it, and was an ideal client for the decaying corridor between the Convention Center and the historic district. What better way to tie two family oriented destinations together than by sticking a place to drop off granny right in the middle? In a mall of all things! What do tourists like better than cheesesteaks and the Betsy Ross House? They like seeing what the other Gaps are like. It was a dream location and a dream opportunity. And in a delicious slice of irony, this is a lose-lose for the NIMBYs. We're still getting a casino people. But now we're getting a big ugly sprawling stip mall completely inaccessible by public transportation, which means no Market East transit improvements and another huge surface parking lot lining the South Philly waterfront. YOU IDIOTS!

The Idiots

I think my favorite part of the recent events surrounding the re-re-prelocation of Foxwoods to South Philadelphia is the classic institutionalized frustration machine displayed by Chairman Gregory Fajt of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board who foamed at the mouth as if Foxwoods was dicking the city and the state around by vying for the Market East location, a location endorsed by a number of local and state officials and all but promised to Foxwoods. Really Fajt? Who's dicking who? Now I know, defending Foxwoods is like defending Wal-Mart, but come on, not even Wal-Mart wants to set up shop in the Gallery. Business is business. City and state politicians get a big fat F when it comes to wheeling and dealing in general, but this deal goes even lower. This is an insult to the most simplistic business concepts and basic common sense.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Lightning and Cash-Strapped Developers

The 19th Century Garrett-Dunn House designed by Thomas Ustick Walter in the West Mount Airy section of Philadelphia succumbed to a fire apparently caused by lightning.

Intended to be renovated as a condominium complex, prospects have soured, and when the owner of a property bleeding cash turns out to be John Capoferri who was arrested this year on a number of charges ranging from forgery to terroristic threats, one can't help but question the validity of the claim. Lightning? Really? Is it a stretch to add arson to the list of offenses?

Can We Get a Pulse?

A quick look at some great contributions to the Philadelphia skyline that may or may not make it.

Richard Meier's Mandeville Place at 2401 Walnut Street is dead in the water following the real estate crash. Out of all the residential developments proposed, this arguably would have been the most glowing addition to Philadelphia's architectural portfolio.

Agoos/Lovera Architects' Bridgeman's View would have added height adjacent to a neighborhood that a Northern Liberties NIMBY may not have wanted, but got stuck with it anyway in the form of five lesser towers with Waterfront Square. This could have been the catalyst to create a new city on the Delaware but died off with the real estate crash, leaving the north end of Penn's Landing with a cluster of five isolated high rises and the coming of Sugarhouse Casino.

H2L2's Stamper Square, a tasteful and scaled addition to Society Hill, replacing the hole in the ground formerly occupied by the NewCity shopping mall, was staved off by bitter residents long enough for it to be completely killed by the bubble burst, leaving residents with...a hole in the ground.

The Boyd Theater restoration and ARCWheeler's addition of a Kimpton Hotel isn't quite dead...yet...but hasn't seemed to evolve beyond this sketch.

The parking garage at Brandywine Realty Trust's Cira Center South is moving along. According to Penn, this project is going forward. Cira Centre South would significantly change our skyline shifting our eyes upward west of the Schuylkill and creating what I would like to name Crystal City had it not already been taken by an underwhelming suburb of Washington, DC.

A name like Intercontinental might be a slim possibility during this particular financial situation. One can still hope this Brennan Beer Gorman design someday rises above the Vine Street Expressway.

The same could be said for Cope Linder's Waldorf Astoria at 15th and Chestnut, rivaling the neighboring Residences at the Ritz in height, style, and opulance.

Winka Dubbeldam's obscurely fascinating Unknot Tower (GMH Hotels) at 12th and Chestnut would make a truley unique and risky addition to Philadelphia, unmatched since the days when our archiscape was Frank Furness's playground.

Of course, Philadelphia's attempt to play with the big boys, rising above anything currently standing in Manhattan and rivaling Chicago's biggest, Kohn Peterson Fox's American Commerce Center is still the dream of many. Battled by biddies in neighboring residences, the ACC has weathered much of its criticism by simply being tall. Like many of our tallest, it's not necessarily great architecture but from the ground, simetimes height is all a building needs to inspire awe.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Spiteful Little Unnamed Man

I have to give credit to the Philadelphia Inquirer for keeping with this story. All too often the media headlines bury the plight of historians, but the Inquirer - and a number of other local media sources - have set aside a significant amount of space for saving La Ronda (or at the very least, letting everyone know how this happened, and who is to blame). I'm not a proponent of playing the blame game but when someone offers you the opportunity to save a substantial amount of money, save you a substantial amount of work, and you turn them down in favor of spending more money to destroy exactly what the other party is fighting to save, well, your name deserves to be dragged through the mud. Unfortunately the name is being withheld by his attorney, Joe Kuhls, who is also selectively returning calls even though the owner claims to be entertaining offers. Unfortunately the salvage process has already begun on the interior and La Ronda's fate look grim.

Benjamin Wohl is the Palm Beach, FL resident offering the owner the cost of dismantling and relocating the mansion. The owner has declined in favor of a costlier demolition on his own part. Spiteful man.

Church of the Assumption

While the Venturi "masterpiece" Guild House several blocks to the east was recently awarded a place on the historic register, it took a little more elbow grease to get a building even more beloved by a neighborhood that has seen its share of architectural loss. Patrick Charles Keely's Church of the Assumption, built in 1848-49 and extensively renovated in 1899, almost met the wrecking ball in April when the non-profit social services organization, Siloam wanted to raze the building for...yes, you guessed it, a surface lot. Largely due to community support and the signatures of over 400 neighbors, The Church of the Assumption at 1123 Spring Garden Street was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in May.

Guild House

This building even managed to offend Edmund Bacon. That says something. Venturi is like a painter who spits on a piece of paper and claims it's art because he gave it a colorful back story. He paved the way for the Gehrys and the Graves and other modern architects who, like modern artists, figured out you don't need talent if you can sell your story to an elite minority who tell the rest of us what we are supposed to like. Was the Guild House influential? Absolutely. But not all influence is good. Venturi may have influenced a line of hacks, and if this building is that line's catalyst, it is evident in the fact that at the end of the day it is just plain ugly.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Speaking of Convention Centers

Can somebody tell me why University of Pennsylvania couldn't have used Convention Hall (Phillip H. Johnson, 1931) for something? Or better yet, why University City wasn't a better site to situate the sprawling Convention Center back in the 1990's rather than planning what is essentially a three block warehouse, just one block from City Hall? We tore down the Broad Street Station (Wilson Brothers & Company, 1881; Frank Furness 1892-93) because it took up too much valuable real estate to remain so close to the literal center of the city. How does the Pennsylvania Convention Center justify it's existence when we can rationalize demolishing two historic masterpieces?

More Lessons

Philadelphia lost three city blocks for the creation of the Independence Mall, and subsequently several adjacent neighborhoods filled with architectural gems and colonial history in the neighborhoods of Franklin Square, Society Hill, and Penn's Landing. Most of the initial construction was with good intention considering the leveled neighborhoods were blighted and crime ridden, unfortunately much of the neighborhoods today (with the exception of Society Hill) are filled with surface parking lots, unfriendly windowless government buildings, and unappealing indoor retail.

Just a little of what's been lost:

The three blocks of buildings behind Independence Hall (the horizon of the photo) now make up Independence Mall National Park.
Completely unrecognizable today, every building here on Dock Street is gone.

Here you can see four blocks neighboring Dock Street after they were leveled for the construction of I-95 which still serves as a barrier between Society Hill and the river. Note the hill at Front Street which used to lead down to the Penn's Landing neighborhood, now completely nonexistent. The hill is responsible for the difference in height between the west and east side of I-95, accommodated by the large staircases at South Street and Market Street.

Just north of Independence Mall the Vine Street Expressway wiped out a large portion of Franklin Square and Chinatown in the 1980s, and even more recently in the 1990s the Pennsylvania Convention Center consumed three city blocks of dense urban real estate, and in the past two years has expanded east to Broad Street taking with it two more blocks and an historic firehouse, a townhouse built in the early 1800s, the massive stone Odd Fellows Building, and illegally destroyed two designated historic landmarks on Broad Street it had agreed to preserve.

Obviously Philadelphia hasn't learned too many lessons it should have learned from the 50s. Particularly since we have a tendency to bulldoze in anticipation of projects that never come and wind up with surface lots that never seem to go away.

Location vs Location

Proof that a trendy website and a "finance-anyone" real estate craze can sell anything, the Arts Condo (formerly Arts Tower Apartments), which occupies the Sylvania Hotel designed by Leroy B. Rothschild and completed in 1922 at Locust and Juniper, has managed to schlep 300 square foot studios for $199,000 a pop. Now occupying the pages of Craigslist with ads spouting the cliche "location, location, location", these micro-apartments are appointed with luxury amenities such as "stainless steel appliances" and "granite counter tops". Seriously? Are you kidding me? The "appliances" - if you can honestly pluralize that word - include a mini-fridge/hotplate/sink combo, all in one room smaller than your first dorm room. Rented at roughly $950-$1000 a month, if location is your only concern (and if you are considering renting at the Arts Condo, it is), check out Philadelphia Management Company's Adelphia House at 13th and Chestnut. It might not have the same "stainless steel appliances" or a one foot wide slab of granite wedged between the kitchen sink and your bathroom, but at the former Adelphia Hotel designed by renouned architect Horace Trumbauer (Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Free Library), you will get a grand lobby, 24-hour security, and compared to the average studio in the Arts Condo, about twice the space for about $100 less. Opt for a smaller studio and spend as little as $600 a month for this "location, location, location".

Monday, August 24, 2009

Look Up!

Camille Paglia once offered some great advice regarding Philadelphia architecture. Simply put: "Look up!" With our narrow streets and towering office buildings set against three story row houses, sometimes it's hard not to have your eyes navigate toward the sky, even if you happen to walk the same streets everyday. I would love to see the tourism industry capitalize on this concept. Put up some banners spouting this message around significant pieces of architecture. Or to be even more uniquely Philadelphian - like those little mosaics set into wet cement by some hipster last millennium referencing the year 2000 that are all over Center City - embed the sidewalk with a real message telling pedestrians to take a look at what's above them.

Philly Earns Green Cred...Then Blows It

Philly got major props when Comcast completed the nation's tallest green building, Comcast Center. All that recognition will be marred once the city's gas guzzling Pennsylvania Convention Center expansion project is complete, designed by a quilt of architects including the Vitetta Group and Kelly/Maiello. Bringing the total footprint to a massive three blocks it appears to be competing for the national title of "Biggest Waste of Space" as the Pennsylvania Convention Center's reputation for its overpriced and notoriously lazy union staff deters many vendors from ever returning. As for it's friendliness towards Mother Earth, well with Mayor Nutter and the state's reputation as Official Bitch, I doubt we'll be seeing waterless urinals given the mafia - um, I mean, union - opposition to "less maintenance" when Comcast demanded them. Needless to say the prospect of a green roof is probably a concept the developers have never even heard of. We'll also receive an additional exhaust tunnel on 13th Street for idling busses chartered to take conventioneers as close as the Sheraton at 12th and Arch, and the Hampton Inn at 13th and Arch. Way to go Philly.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

More Condos?

Not really, but unlike the ghost neighborhoods in Miami and Phoenix, Philadelphia never got too carried away to finish what it started.
10 Rittenhouse Square - which could more accurately be called 1800 Sansom Street as it rises above the square from a half a block north - and 1706 Rittenhouse Square Street - which also takes some liberties with how it addresses itself - are nearing completion. 10 Rittenhouse awkwardly rises from behind a reclaimed historic facade on Rittenhouse Square, while 1706 Rittenhouse Square Street gracefully rises from it's tiny lot above a robotic parking garage as an urban oasis from the super rich.
777 South Broad Street, developed by South Broad's own snap-together plastiscraper (Symphony House for those who haven't noticed the Lego Blocks at Broad and Spruce) developer Carl Dranoff, is starting to look a less like the soap opera set his previous incarnation evolved into. It's hard to tell if the rear will play out as a humble, tree lined courtyard, or as a parking eyesore for the townhouses behind it. My guess is a little bit of both. While it might not possess the melodramatic luxuries of it's sister to the north, you won't have to worry about it being your problem when the plastic panels start falling off the facade, this newbie's going apartment. Finally, a few apartments for the growing mob of disgruntled renters being out priced by condo conversions going nowhere - cough, Arts Tower (but that's another story).

Divine Blight

Talk about irresponsible development. Willis G. Hale's Lorraine Apartments, completed in 1894, or the Divine Lorraine Hotel as it is currently known to locals, sits vacant and gutted at the corner of North Broad Street and Fairmount Avenue. Sold by the Universal Peace Movement Mission's Mother Divine in 2000, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002 as a Civil Rights and architecturally significant historic landmark, the Divine Lorraine had been preserved in original condition until it was sold to developer Michael Treacy, Jr. in 2006 who gutted all of the building's original details and fixtures in a misguided attempt to redevelop the site as condos. Prior to Treacy's involvement in the Divine Lorraine, it stood vacant but minimally deteriorated in large thanks to one Universal Peace Movement Mission's member to act as it's live-in caretaker, and presumably in thanks to a silent respect for a building a struggling community could take pride in. Now gutted of it's heart, the Divine Lorraine stands vulnerable to the elements and vandals, unprotected it stands covered in graffiti hoping to be saved before nature reclaims it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Glenmede For Sale

William Price's Glenmede, built for George C. Graham in the late 19th century, is on the market for just over a cool $15M. That's a lot of money, but on 15 acres of high profile Main Line real estate, this estate is a prime target for Toll Brothers and other McMansioneers.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dilworth's Legacy

It's still there, not yet encased in Robert Venturi's latest architectural abortion. The quasi historic Colonial reproduction built by Mayor Richardson Dilworth in the 1950's - and the catalyst for Society Hill's renaissance - The Dilworth House has been sitting in front of developer John Turchi's wrecking ball for nearly a decade and it's still there, empty. Is he waiting out the recession? Or better yet, waiting for the house to fall into a state of "disrepair" so he can pay off L&I to have it demolished for "safety" reasons. Or better yet, watching it burn down from Washington Square with a quizical look on his face and a smoldering match.

With all that said, and I'm not siding with Turchi (a hot headed little man who wants to bulldoze the house in spite), is a 50 year old reproduction a fitting legacy for Mayor Dilworth's contribution to Philadelphia, or is the opulance and beauty of Society Hill itself?

Philly Live! (Is it really exclamation worthy?)

Cool idea. Weak execution. It's great to see the vast sea of parking lots being redeveloped into something more...urban? This venue could introduce the commercial competition the stadium district needs, or it could just end up being a really fancy strip mall in the middle of a giant parking lot. An ideal location for Sugar House and Foxwoods - creating an Entertainment District - it's a shame that Pennsylvania restricts the distance between casinos. Encouraging destination specific business in a district already primed for it could potentially bring more hotels, restaurants, theaters, and shopping. And being in the middle of a parking lot, no NIMBYs!

Lessons Not Learned

Completed in 1921 by renowned architect Horace Trumbauer (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Free Library of Philadelphia), Whitemarsh Hall in Wyndmoor was razed in 1980 to make way for Stotesbury Estates, a suburban townhouse community.
More recently, T. P. Chandler's 1897 Dunminning Mansion in Newtown Square was sold to Bentley Homes and razed for development in 2007. Chandler founded the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Architecture.
Lynnewood Hall, another Trumbauer masterpiece designed for Peter A. B. Widener, sits vacant in Elkins Park. Owned by the First Korean Church of New York, the Cheltenham Township Planning Commission has twice denied the church use of the building as a residence, an example of elected officials legislating on behalf of predatory developers and encouraging suburban sprawl.