Monday, January 25, 2010

Society Hill - Revolution, Commercialism, Blight, and Rebirth

Many planners and architects consider Society Hill one of the most successful urban renewal projects in the country. Decades after its transformation, Philadelphians often don't realize that Society Hill was once the most blighted neighborhood in Center City, and many more are not aware of the severe architectural transformation that took place between the 1940s and 1970s. It's easy to stroll through the green-ways of Independence National Historic Park and assume that these are the meticulously preserved trails traveled by William Penn and Benjamin Franklin, and not the mid-century recreations of Ed Bacon and Mayor Richardson Dilworth.

Carpenter's Hall in 1958 during the reconstruction of adjacent buildings.

While many of the private residences of Society Hill are preserved examples of colonial architecture, only a handful of the iconic landmarks are actually original. Carpenter's Hall, the First and Second Banks of the United States, and of course Independence Hall are all original - although significant alterations were performed to return the structures to their 18th century appearance. It's difficult to imagine that the stone, Victorian era Drexel Building once occupied the SE corner of 5th and Chestnut or the equally imposing Irvin Building at the NW corner of 4th and Walnut. Here are just a few of the architectural losses that make up the ghost of Society Hill's once empowering skyline.

The Irvin Building on the NW corner of 4th and Walnut was designed in 1911 by Seeler, Edgar Viguers, and enlarged in 1928 by Ernest James Matthewson, and again in 1955 by Clarence Woolmington. It was demolished in 1974.

The Irvin Building

Diagonally across the street, The American Life Insurance Company Building at the SE Corner of 4th and Walnut was designed by Thomas Preston Lonsdale in 1888 with alterations designed by William Decker, an architect with a distinct style rarely preserved at the time it was demolished in 1961.

The American Life Insurance Company Building

The Brown Brothers Company Building at 330 Chestnut Street is now part of the site of Independence National Historic Park.

The Brown Brothers Company Building

The Drexel Building on the SE corner of 5th and Chestnut sat directly across the street from Independence Hall until it was demolished in 1955. It was designed by Wilson Brothers & Company in 1885 who made various alterations through the late 1800's and early 1900's. Later Harris & Richards would also make alterations in 1914. It is now part of the site of Independence National Historic Park.

The Drexel Building

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Gladstone Hotel

Kahn Park at 11th and Pine in the heart of Antique Row wasn't always filled with Hostas, chess players, and Jefferson Hospital employees lunching. Prior to Kahn Park - named for famed architect Louis I. Kahn - it was briefly known locally as "Concrete Park", and prior to 1971, was the Greystone Apartments, and prior to that, the Gladstone Hotel.

The Gladstone Hotel was designed in 1890 by T.P. Chandler, founder of the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Architecture, and prominent American architect.

Unfortunately, the Gladstone's dominatng 19th century presence conflicted with the vision of converting Society Hill and Washington Square into quaint, 18th century neighborhoods of colonial row houses, a vision that dominated the 50's, 60's, and early 70's.

By the 1960's, the Gladstone - or Greystone Apartments - had succumbed to the same fate of many other large urban hotels and apartment buildings and deteriorated to a perceived blight and was demolished in 1971.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Kestenbaum's Monster

Historic La Ronda before being demolished by Joseph D. Kestenbaum
Joseph D. Kestenbaum, the pariah who razed the Main Line's historic La Ronda despite offers from a Florida philanthropist to front the cost of moving the mansion to a new location, has begun construction on his 16,000+ square foot McMansion at 945 Roscommon Road. Named for La Ronda's original address, 1030 has been designed by Visich Architects, an architecture firm known locally for their suburban interpretations of classic, Main Line architecture common in wealthy, cul de sac communities in tri-state area suburbs.

A rendering of a Visich Architects McMansion
Kestenbaum and Visich prove once again that money demonstrates little about taste and sophistication. While the original, 21 room mansion was constructed of steel, brick, and concrete, 1030 will be hastily clad in a Tyvek stucco and artificial stone veneer, sacrificing quality and craftsmanship for an indoor hockey rink.

Joseph D. Kestenbaum's McMansion under construction

Monday, January 11, 2010

Surviving Sex and the City

It's a relatively new philosophy, the idea that a successful urban core must be a meticulously maintained playground for the rich and trendy. I blame Sex and the City. I don't think most people who live in big cities necessarily share this attitude, but many of the vocal ones blogging from their Macs at Starbucks sure do. The condo craze transplanted so many urban newbies from homogenized suburbs, as well as the most recent generation just now entering the work force who are cultural products of the Roaring 90's, it makes complete sense that these two archetypes cringe at the thought of returning to the days of Woolworth and a society at harmony with economic diversity.

The Sex and the City phenomena isn't necessarily good or bad. It renewed an interest in our cities and brought life to the streets, restaurants, and boutiques. It saved priceless architecture, expanded neighborhoods, and renewed downtown living as a valid option. This was particularly beneficial to the larger cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, who although they lost considerable population during this nation's urban dark ages they were able to maintain a viable population at the urban heart unlike places like Baltimore or Pittsburgh.

What hurt Baltimore and Pittsburgh's downtowns is the disconnect between residential areas and their downtowns. Ed Bacon, at the opposite end of the Sex and the City philosophy, is often credited with saving Philadelphia's urban population. While he may have dictated all of Philadelphia's mid-century development, he viewed the city as a massive office park. Bacon was a product of his time. Like the vision employed in every other mid-century city, Bacon wanted to chop up Center City into urban islands, focusing on office development and freeways to get commuters in and out. Philadelphia maintained a residential core for the same reason New York and Chicago did. Bacon's vision didn't save Philadelphia's downtown population, but like New York and Chicago we had enough people to survive his vision.

Unfortunately his philosophy left us with suburban amenities far outweighing those of the city. Urban retail in Philadelphia is impractical. It is all or nothing. You can have your dog dyed pink or find a dollar store, but you can't walk to a decent grocery store. While many urban newbies want to make Center City the Delaware Valley's go-to shopping destination, maintaining it as Philadelphia's primary shopping destination is far more important. The suburbs are more than welcome to service the suburbs, but they should not be serving as Philadelphia's primary shopping resource.

While Philadelphia may be responsible as our region's cultural center, accepting this responsibility comes with more than 50 years of economic decline, corruption, and poverty. A city can't just accommodate the wealthy or you wind up with the fallout San Francisco, DC, and Boston are currently experiencing from attempting to maintain the illusion of extremely high standards. We do have a responsibility as the region's cultural representative to set extremely high cultural standards but that is not synonymous with high end shopping. To truly embrace these high cultural standards, a culture must acknowledge and accommodate all of its demographics. Sadly cultures that preach tolerance from a soap box are often the same cultures that sweep their economic diversity under the rug...or ship it to Oakland.

Realistically, retail on Chestnut Street and Market East mirror a large part of Philadelphia's population and thus generate a large chunk of tax revenue. Walnut Street represents the idealistic philosophy that has left other major cities in the red as it is afforded by a much smaller part of Philadelphia's population. Both have their place and balance is vital.

The idea that a city should be on the high end of everything is completely at odds with what the American city is and has always been. The worn storefronts on Chestnut Street and Market East serve as Philadelphia's downtown staples because the Sex and the City set has convinced us that they should be Starr restaurants or nothing, leaving us in the middle to drive to the suburbs for paper towels because this small population of vocal snobs thinks Center City is too good for a Target. A city can't sustain itself on luxuries and the upper-middle class. To succeed we need to accommodate, and tolerate, everyone.

Friday, January 8, 2010

"This Town Needs an Enema!"

It has happened a dozen times before, an economic or social opportunity presents itself to allow Philadelphia to enjoy a successful renaissance, only to be killed by our own stubborn pride. It's why smaller cities like Portland, Atlanta, and Charlotte attract business and residents and we don't. Old cities have baggage. Descendants of the transplants that preached progress and innovation when these post-industrial cities were the Portland or Seattle of the 19th century keep their cranky, entitled voice looming over us, holding back progress and keeping competition out of the city. Combine this corrupt Boys Club with a neglected and largely impoverished voting base who continuously elect unqualified friends to influential positions and you've got the recipe for every Industrial Fallout Zone in the U.S. Cleveadelphannatitroitamore.

With all due respect to the natives of any one of these cities, I can't imagine why anyone would choose to live - or stay - in any major city if they were content with business as usual. The whole premise of the American City is in the excitement of progress, competition, commerce, change, and innovation. We should walk out our door everyday and say, "Wow, I wonder what that new building is" or "I wonder what they're opening up there." If that's not your thing, there are several hundred Pennsylvania towns frozen in time.

Certainly these new cities like Portland and Charlotte are far from utopias and they will someday too have their day in the dark, but as they essentially play the roles of the Philadelphias and the Clevelands of the 21st century, they don't harbor a large population of old timers who reject all change. A few residents may remember the "good ol' days" when places like Seattle were simple logging towns, but those voices are exponentially outweighed by the new blood that has turned those places into corporate work horses. Urban newbies - NIMBY or not - might be idealistic, but they're not clinging to anything that simply doesn't exist anymore. Whether the NIMBYs' opinions are right or wrong, they are not typically opposed to change.

Our problem is that Philadelphia and other massive post-industrial towns are too big for our own good. NIMBYs are in all cities, but they are a problem here because a broken system brought on by years of public neglect gives them an unbalanced voice. Of the country's large, old industry towns, only New York and (barely) Chicago have managed to attract a broad enough demographic to have either diluted or reversed this damage, and even in their cases much of that reversal is an illusion. It might be simplistic to say, but we need new blood throughout the city or we're going to continue to progress like a derailed train.

It is hard to bureaucratically compare old industrial towns like Philadelphia and Detroit to hip new techno-towns like Portland and Seattle. These perceived urban revolutionaries are chock full of idealistic douche bags that hail from wealthy suburban families, enabling them the luxury of affording the excessive cost of such idealism. Even if you swing left, it's hard to take West Coast liberals seriously if you ride SEPTA everyday. However, not all of their successes should be wasted on other cities, including ours. It's true, most cities are too dynamic to simply say, "implement the Portland model", but some of their practices are worth looking into. Portland has a successful public transportation system in a city designed for the car and they moved an entire, major interstate across a river. These are huge accomplishments.

Yet with over 300 years of experience behind Philadelphia, setting up a cafe or public restroom on the Parkway is seen as a major feat, and modernizing public spaces smaller than most Oregonians' back yards is a completely unheard of endeavor requiring millions of dollars, costly and time consuming union bids, City Council kick-backs, neighborhood arguments, community meetings let by unqualified residents with no understanding of urban planning, ultimately resulting in a multi-million dollar hole in the ground.

Certainly all cities can be picked apart, their accomplishments and faults analyzed, and they are what they are for whatever reason. No two will ever be alike, and attempting to do so inevitably leads to the Disneyfication of neighborhoods. But Philadelphia's reluctance to join the 21st century, hell, the TWENTIETH century, has left us with the an unnerving choice, to either follow the success of older cities such as Boston or San Francisco and compete nationally, or to continue to decline until we're an asphalt prairie of surface parking lots like Detroit.

To quote the Joker (again), "This town needs an enema!"