Sunday, October 31, 2010

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloween Concert

While Macy's is preparing the Wanamaker Building's Christmas light show to be ready for the beginning of the ever-earlier Christmas Season, this year the Friends of the Wanamaker Organ have organized a special Halloween concert performed by Gordon Turk from the Ocean Grove Auditorium. The concert begins on Sunday, October 31st at 2:30 PM and admission is free. Jim Riggs will be performing to Lon Chaney's performance in the 1925 silent film Phantom of the Oprah at 4:30 PM. Admission to the screening is $10.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The New Delaware Avenue

Had it been built, today's economy would have probably left it a ghost town, but what a beautiful ghost town it would have been. It's a shame that of all the grand proposals for Northern Liberties' waterfront area, neighbors managed to NIMBY away all but the most poorly designed of the various proposals. And even in the case of these two, opposition fought so hard against an inevitable casino that they wound up with a suburban warehouse instead of a well designed tower with a landscaped marina.

In a time of optimistic real estate gambling, the post industrial wasteland that is Delaware Avenue was to be the site of a new, and concentrated business, residential, and entertainment district. With skyscrapers rivaling Center City's, the redevelopment of this concrete jungle of vacant lots, rotting warehouses, and abandoned cars promised that Northern Liberties could be more than a hipster's wet dream of ironic blight.

Bridgeman's View

A World Trade Center would redefine this corridor as an international business hub, while sleek, sky scraping condos would tag Northern Liberties as an elite address for Philadelphia's nouveau riche. Hotels and casinos would attract young and old, and Delaware Avenue would become our region's premier address for glitz, glamor, and excess.

Oh, how times change. While just a few years ago, one could envision such a scenario being today's reality, sadly, Delaware Avenue remains a blighted artery, and home to the homeless.

Sugarhouse Casino

Waterfront Square, a poorly designed condominium complex that suburbanizes Delaware Avenue as a gated community that disobeys the grid, is two towers short of its original plan. Developers are struggling to unload the remaining units in the recently completed, and stunted, tower.

Sugarhouse Casino draws a crowd but pays no respect to its surroundings. Like a pig in a prom dress, a large warehouse has been dressed up with a plastic facade. With development tied up in town meetings and neighborhood opposition for over a year, dwindling resources and a sagging economy eliminated a hotel component that redefined the area's skyline and balanced Waterfront Square's jarring presence.

Trump Tower

While many in the neighborhood continue to demonize the projects, the surrounding area and waterfront remain neglected and unused by those who fought so fiercely to preserve them. Certainly the addition of Trump Tower and Bridgeman's View, as well as others, would have led to a much worse real estate situation, one Philadelphia has weathered quite well compared to cities like Miami or Atlanta. But no NIMBY can claim their protest was due to some divine foresight.

While it may have turned into a ghost town, it would have created a badly needed, urban infrastructure in a suffering part of town, one that could save this area from the same mistakes made in South Philadelphia in which a similar landscape was redeveloped into an asphalt oasis of suburban shopping.

Given the current economy and the present state of the neighborhood, it's unlikely this stretch of Delaware Avenue will be thrown any developmental optimism again. If this NIMBY has the foresight it likes to claim, right now they are seeing strip malls and fast food drive-ins.

Philadelphia's Ronald McDonald House

Designed by William Decker in 1893 for William James Swain, founder of the Public Record and son of William Moseley Swain, founder of the Public Ledger, the Romanesque Victorian mansion at 3925 Chestnut Street now serves as Philadelphia's Ronald McDonald House. The charity house which originally operated out of 40th and Spruce, found its way to the Swain mansion in 1981.

From Moses King's Philadelphia and Notable Philadelphians, 1901
William Swain died in 1903 en route to his summer home in Spring Lake, NJ. In 1926 the stone house was sold. It was operated as the Andrew Bair Funeral Home until it was purchased by Philadelphia Eagles' Fred Hill, who donated the home to Ronald McDonald House charities.

Swain House - Spring Lake, NJ
Carved in stone and wood throughout the house, faces of Swain's family can be found, including himself atop the main gable, facing southwest.
The interior of the main house has been meticulously restored by the organization, preserving all original woodwork, built in furniture, and stained glass windows.

Ronald McDonald House charities accommodates the families of ill children receiving care at nearby hospitals. The Philadelphia location was the organization's first. Today there are 300 houses in 30 countries.

The Ronald McDonald House today

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fox Theatre

Designed by Thomas Lamb, the Fox Theatre on West Market Street opened in 1923, featuring Edmund Lowe in The Silent Command.

Fox Theatre tower in the 1920s shortly after its construction

The Fox Theatre was leased by the Milgrim chain in 1959 and purchased in 1961 and was the company's flagship theater. The company also owned the neighboring theater, the Stanton Theatre, and renamed it the Milgrim Theatre.

Outside Fox Theatre in 1956

The building was used to house the local offices of all major movie chains and included a screening room on the 17th floor, making the building the movie exhibition headquarters of Philadelphia.

Fox Theatre 1965

In March of 1980 the Fox Theatre closed after playing Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The Committee to Save Fox concluded that the repairs could be made for less than the owner's appraisal of over a million dollars.

Fox Theatre and the former Stanton Theatre, the Milgram Theatre, in the 1960s

Milgram once proposed including a triplex in the tower that now stands in its place, now home to PNC.

1979, not long before the Fox Theatre's closing

The marble balcony is now used as the communion railing at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Springfield, PA. Fox's ticket booth is in Los Angeles and its chandeliers were used in a Columbus, OH theater restoration project.

Much of the information compiled here can be found at

The Furnished Room District and Tenderloin

For decades Philadelphia hosted two of the nation’s most notorious red light districts. Bound by North Broad Street, Market East, Chinatown, and including a wide and industrial stretch of Vine Street prior to the construction of the chasm that now segregates Center City from Callowhill, the Furnished Room District surrounding Reading Terminal and the Tenderloin to the north made up a den of iniquity so lewd that sailors docked in Philadelphia were forbidden from walking its streets.

This post-industrial fallout of large warehouses and rundown hotels used as flophouses housed the city’s homeless, drug addicts, and prostitutes. Chinatown hosted the city’s opium dens and burlesque houses, including The Trocadero, and its eccentric inhabitants called the Furnished Room District and Tenderloin their home.

View of the Furnished Room District and Reading Terminal from atop City Hall

The Furnished Room District's sex themed history spanned a century, with two adult bookstores still occupying the corner of 13th and Arch until the last decade. While the last sordid businesses lingered into the 21st Century, city planners began chipping away at this neighborhood’s infrastructure in the 80’s and 90’s.

12th and Arch in 1917

Following The Gallery, the relocation of Reading Terminal’s trains to a new Market East Station required the demolition of several blocks of Chinatown to accommodate underground rail tunnels. While moving the trains underground eliminated the need for the noisy elevated Reading Viaduct, it left Chinatown scarred with a number of large surface parking lots.

1311 Filbert - 1911

During this transition phase, the Furnished Room District became a refuge for Bohemia. Artists and punks occupied the apartments above the remaining storefronts. Nightlife in the district was limited to several small bars including Pentony Tavern which was a gay bar on Filbert Street, several adult themed bookstores, and rampant prostitution. David Lynch lived in the Tenderloin at 13th and Wood in the early 1970's and wrote of it, "Philadelphia, more than any filmmaker, influenced me. It's the sickest, most corrupt, decaying, fear-ridden city imaginable. I was very poor and living in bad areas. I felt like I was constantly in danger. But it was so fantastic at the same time."

Breintnall Building's Adult Entertainment Center in the 1990s

The Vine Street Expressway drove a wedge between the district’s hotels and residences and The Tenderloin to the north. It called for the demolition of almost every building on the south side of Vine Street, leaving a street scape lined with narrow parking lots.

While transportation improvements left the Furnished Room District and Chinatown to suffer, the blocks behind Reading Terminal were chosen for the Pennsylvania Convention Center, requiring an expansive clearing of the district’s original architecture. At the same time, politicians were eying Chinatown’s northern annex as the location for a new baseball stadium and had planned to run an expressway exit right through its heart.

Chinatown's Trocadero in 1978

These two proposals were successfully blocked by neighborhood opposition but by then Chinatown had been boxed in by several large civic developments: the Convention Center, The Gallery and bus terminal, The Vine Street Expressway, and a sea of surface parking lots west of Franklin Square.

Near 12th and Race - Demolition for the first phase of the Pennsylvania Convention Center

The final phase of the Convention Center, currently under construction, cleared most of the remaining architecturally significant and historic representations of the Furnished Room District’s eclectic buildings including the Race Street Firehouse, The Lithograph Building, the Metzger Building, and a number of others.

Today, very little remains of this once infamous neighborhood. By targeting blight and ignoring architectural significance, developers have managed to completely erase an entire neighborhood and thus, its history. A small strip of industrial buildings have been restored along the 1200 block of Arch Street and a handful of industrial and small row houses are still maintained on and above Race between 11th and Broad.

12th and Arch in the 1970s

A portion of the original Tenderloin lives on as Callowhill and Chinatown’s northern annex, sometimes called the Loft District, or Eraserhead by cinema buffs who pay homage to the inspiration of David Lynch's movie of the same name, inspiration that is now a U-Haul parking lot. Meanwhile in the former Furnished Room District, very little movement has been made to develop what remains. Aside from the Convention Center, the district now mostly consists of poorly maintained surface parking lots.

Such projects often attract chain restaurants and retail establishments that cater to tourists and conventioneers and one can hope that it will attract these businesses to the area’s arterial streets such as North Broad and Market East. Unfortunately the Convention Center’s north side pays no respect to what remains of its original architecture. With a wide overhang supporting a garage used to park utility vehicles, its narrow sidewalk devoid of trees; it doesn’t encourage the kind of growth that surrounds most American convention spaces. It remains to be seen if the Convention Center will attract the kind of business the state once promised.

Music Fund Hall

The Music Fund Society of Philadelphia was established in 1820 and is the oldest, continuing musical organization in the United States.

Its Music Fund Hall at 808 Locust Street in the Washington Square neighborhood was converted into the largest musical auditorium in Philadelphia by William Strictland in 1824.

The building was renovated by Napoleon Le Brun in 1847 and expanded by Addison Hutton in 1891.

The building was the location of the first Republican National Convention in 1856.

The Music Fund Hall in 1976 during the revitalization of Society Hill and Washington Square

After moving the Society's concerts to the Academy of Music, the building entertained a number of uses including a boxing arena and a tobacco warehouse. The auditorium was demolished to convert the space into condominiums and the remaining facade was removed from the list of National Historic Landmarks. It still holds a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

Music Fund Hall today

Horticultural Hall

The original Horticultural Hall

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society was founded in 1827. Its most well known home was designed by Frank Miles Day in 1894 and demolished in 1917.

Frank Miles Day - Horticultural Hall

An earlier incarnation was designed by an unknown architect and served as the society's hall until it was destroyed by the fire of a nearby church on February 1st, 1881. It was later replaced by the Day design, both located next to the Academy of Music on South Broad Street.

Horticultural Hall c.1881

One of two permanent buildings constructed for America's first World's Fair, the Centennial Exposition in 1876, was Horticultural Hall, designed by Hermann J. Schwarzmann. It was influenced by London's Crystal Palace. Horticultural Hall was demolished in 1955.

Horticultural Hall - Centennial Exposition

Although none of the society's original buildings remain, their legacy lives on as the Horticultural Center in Fairmount Park, which was built on the site of the Centennial Exposition's Horticultural Hall for the Bicentennial celebration where it remains today.

North Horticultural Drive and Montgomery Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19131

Display House: Open Daily 9am - 3pm, except holidays

Horticulture Center Grounds : Open Daily, except holidays

November 1 - March 31 - Hours 8am - 5pm

April 1 - October 31 - Hours 8am - 6pm

Monday, October 25, 2010

Rothschild Building

The Rothschild Building at 12-14 South Broad Street once stood at the current site of Dilworth Plaza. It was demolished for the expansion of the Arcade Building, torn down in the 1960's to make room for the plaza. The Rothschild Building was designed by Yarnall and Goforth.

The Granary

Pearl Properties proposed converting The Granary at 20th and Callowhill into a mixed use high rise by adding twelve stories of modern apartments to the top of the silos. While the plan was ultimately denied, and subtly criticized by Inga Saffron, it could open a debate over how and why to preserve historically significant buildings that no longer serve a practical purpose because of elements that serve its historical significance.

The Granary was built by the Reading Company in 1925, and is historically significant because it represents an era that once dominated this neighborhood, an era represented solely by The Granary.

But is it architecturally significant? One can hardly argue the right angles to be design. In fact there really are no artistic elements to this building. It is purpose-built practicality throughout. However, the building's aesthetics are so staunchly preserved that in order to reuse this building, Granary Associates occupies a bevy of windowless floors in order to maintain the gray, concrete facade.

That's quite a sacrifice, to deny architects a view of their city to save a barren wall. Would it really be a preservative sin to allow the few large windows to be replicated on each floor? As something architecturally significant, I can understand this tedious preservation, but as an historical representation of a bygone era, the history lies in its presence and location, not in the detail, or lack thereof.

This building preserves an era that's ending made it impractical. As it stands the Granary stares over our Champs-Élysées, a white elephant amongst meticulously designed museums and parks, but an artistically designed addition could allow it to continue to serve as an historical reminder of a bygone era while adding architectural significance to the location.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Pennhurst Asylum

Eastern Pennsylvania State Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic, better known as Pennhurst Hospital, in Spring City, PA was opened in 1908 to serve as a state school and hospital for the region's mentally and physically disabled.

In 1987 the hospital was forced to close following allegations of abuse. During this time many of the nation's largest state mental hospitals began releasing their patients and closing their doors to the public.

In recent years there has been movement to redevelop the grounds of Pennhurst with sensitive memory to its history. Unfortunately this idealistic move to preserve its memory as a landmark of suffering has insured its ultimate demise.

Currently the property is being operated as a Halloween attraction called Pennhurst Asylum, stirring up mixed emotions and causing me to question throwing parties or even residing in a 209 year old indentured servant house. Ultimately I believe history is history. You can preserve a building with a history of suffering without making everyone who wants to see the building suffer in the process.

Pennhurst opens the discussion of how to reuse architecturally and historically significant properties when the most feasible way of sustaining a property might possibly insult its memory, particularly in a city as old as Philadelphia and a region as old as ours, where our most historic landmarks are from a different place and time.

When activists project a 21st Century opinion on landmarks dating back decades, and even centuries, people wind up protesting events we cannot possibly comprehend and demonizing 15th Century explorers from monarchies that don't exist anymore.

In a time of increasingly irrational political correctness, significant landmarks continue to decay and history is being lost at the hands of overactive sensitivity.

Ghosts of Fairmount

My first time at Eastern State Penitentiary was in 1994, not long after the decrepit prison was opened to the public for the first time since 1971. The decay was so fresh that guests were required to wear hardhats. I had never heard the term "Preserved State of Decay" until my first tour of Eastern State. It conjures up images of rusted industrial equipment frozen in time and abandoned churches that still stand as a testament to respectful communities. In all, it represents what I love about Philadelphia. While many cities would choose to restore even their most sinister landmarks, and employ marketing strategies to build their urban landscape around the appeal of the status quo, Philadelphia routinely chooses to embrace it's grit. We've never been clean, we've never been polished, and that is reflected in the choice to retain Eastern State as it is.

From its creation in 1829, it was a dark institution where every criminal was forced into solitary confinement. As the first of its kind, the famed prison attracted a visit by Charles Dickens, who wrote of it, "I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body." Outside their cells the inmates wore masks and were not allowed any contact with the world, not even with other inmates or guards. The Quaker philosophy of the prison prohibited physical abuse, so the prison became creative in its psychological punishment, often withholding necessities such as food or warmth, or employing even more bizarre tactics that would make Marie Antoinette blush.

Today Eastern State looms over the Fairmount neighborhood above Center City Philadelphia. The granite stained with almost 200 years of industry, blight, and rebirth. From outside the walls one may expect a museum that recites the history of the institution, offering tourists a five minute lock-in, and impeccably restored cell blocks. That wouldn't be very Philadelphian, and it certainly doesn't befit the history of Eastern State Penitentiary. Instead, what you will find is a handful of restored cells, several markers explaining what you are seeing, constantly changing art exhibits mostly inspired by the macabre surroundings, and lots of rotting wood, peeling paint, dust, rust, dirt, and nightmares. Even the cell that once held Al Capone, with the exception of the luxuries representing those brought to him by corrupt guards (including plush furniture and a radio), the room itself has not been touched or cleaned.

But it isn't all a dreary reminder of crime, abuse, and abandonment. One of my favorite art exhibits, and perhaps Eastern State's only permanent fixture is
Linda Brenner's Ghost Cats. For 28 years, Dan McCloud cared for Eastern State's only inhabitants during it's decades of abandonment. As the shrubs and trees began to eat away at the stone and concrete, and nature began to reclaim its own, three times a week McCloud would go to the prison and feed a colony of stray cats that had begun to call this land their own.
Brenner's Ghost Cats consists of 39 simple sculptures throughout the grounds all in uniquely feline poses, paying homage to McCloud and his cats.

The normal yearly tour will take visitors on an audio journey recorded by Steve Buscemi, in which you may explore the ruins at your own pace. Once complete, visitors are free to roam the grounds on their own, exploring nearly every nasty cranny of the hauntingly peaceful edifice. The winter tour is limited to small groups led by tour guides and because of the weather, all guests must remain with the tour guide. If you choose this, go when it snows and bundle up. And of course, every Halloween Eastern State Penitentiary hosts Terror Behind the Walls, consistently ranked as one of the country's best Halloween attractions. It's fun scary, not gross scary, and certainly worth your money. Although if one chooses to visit Eastern State on Halloween, I strongly suggest returning for the self guided tour. Even if you don't see any ghosts or goblins, you will be haunted.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Third National Bank

Once in the middle of Dilworth Plaza, on the corner of West Market Street and a now defunct portion of South Broad Street at 2 South Broad was the site of the Third National Bank. Built in 1892, it was designed by James Windrim & Son. Alterations were designed by Baker & Dallett in 1911 and John Torry Windrim in 1921. The last incarnation of the Third National Bank was demolished with the Arcade Building in the 1960s to make room for Dilworth Plaza, which shifted all southbound Penn Square traffic from South Broad to 15th Street.

Hope for the Graffiti Building

311 N. 12th Street might not be a flop house for the homeless much longer. If you're unsure which building this is, it's the giant warehouse near 12th and Vine rising above the corn mural. It's covered in graffiti and has almost no windows remaining.

The building was purchased by Post Brothers Apartments, a Philadelphia apartment company that owns and runs several properties in the city.
Currently the dilapidated building, known as a favorite of graffiti artists, is being cleaned and the exits are being secured. Yesterday crew could even be seen pulling weeds from the sidewalk. According to Brownstoner, squatters had tunneled into the building to avoid being seen.

The first two floors will receive plywood coverings decorated by local artists. Post Brothers is anticipating occupancy in 18 optimistic months.
The building is in the Callowhill Industrial Historic District which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Gallery Dreams

A rendering from 1979 shows the Rouse Company's planned 20+ story office towers atop the Gallery II at 10th and Market. The office complex would have added 440,000 square feet of office space at the former site of the Harrison Building. The Gallery II opened in 1983 and the plans for the office towers were moth-balled. The structure was built to support two towers and the plans were revisited in 1993 by SEPTA, and even more recently were suggested as a possible location for the Foxwoods Casino's hotel tower.

Brian Goes to Town

A New Waterfront Plan (Again)

Deja Vu.


The (almost) final draft for the waterfront plan is almost complete. I'm not sure what that means given I can recall dozens of these waterfront plans floating around over the past several years.

I still don't see how this plan is going to generate the money it needs to work. And I don't see where all these phantom mid-rise buildings are coming from. With all the vacant lots and surface parking in Center City, I can't imagine why developers would eye the waterfront or why residents would choose to live here, especially if they are removing the concert venue space which is perhaps the neighborhood's only financial draw.

I feel like we've heard all this before.

A trained monkey can draw up some renderings, but what I want to hear are the financial logistics for this fifity year plan.

"Gee, don't be so negative. Civic plans that span half a century always work out. Especially when the bulk of it relies on private real estate investment."

Why can't we just start small, piece by piece? Keep what is moderately successful: the venue space, the Seaport Museum, the historic ships, The Chart House, etc., and focus on the weed-filled litter boxes that haven't yet been developed.

I don't understand why this has to be one massive, cohesive plan. Why can't it evolve organically like the rest of the city? I don't see anyone developing a "Civic Plan for the Convention Center District" where we have a sea of parking lots, and that is only two blocks from City Hall and actually has an existing street life.

We should tackle what we can when we can. Planning a half century of speculative development for a huge tract of land won't go anywhere. We'll wind up with just another incarnation of the moderately successful waterfront that we have now, 20 years from now. We need to add to what we have, not start over. Then if the additions prove successful, we improve the previously existing infrastructure with the money generated by the additions.

Adrift the Schuylkill

Light Adrift

For one weekend Meejin Yoon's Light Adrift illuminated the Schuylkill River like an urban Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The interactive lighting installation was soothing, though admittedly was one of those things you look at and think, "huh, that's cool," and move on. As art, it's a stretch to search for meaning. Unfortunately it was only for three nights. It would serve brilliantly as a permanent compliment to the Cira Centre's ever-changing light display and PECO's new crown. Even the IRS renovations to the old postal headquarters dazzled the river's reflection. It was nice to see the Schuylkill Banks after dark weren't littered with vagrants. Hopefully more displays and activities will lead people to the waterfront after hours.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

401 Race Street Hotel

Looks like another NIMBY might save another beloved vacant lot. Since when do Civic Associations form subcommittees? What's worse, since when do developers and politicians listen to them? Come on people, get a job. Right now, any development is good development.

I would love to hear someone explain their opposition? Given the explanation on the OCCA website it sounds like their opposition is simply to be a thorn in the developer's ass. I see a lot of fancy words that don't really state any position.

A Quick Word on NIMBYs

Maybe the local NIMBYs should be having bake sales to raise the very few thousands of dollars it would cost to update their playground equipment. Dilworth is being updated with grant money and private funds. Local neighborhoods are more than welcome to contribute privately to their own community. Anytime some money gets dumped into, I don't know, an architectural landmark and governmental hub of one of the largest cities in America, every three block "neighborhood" in the surrounding 20 miles starts screaming "I deserve a piece of that." Start baking some brownies.

Dilworth Plaza a Go

I'm glad to see this is actually moving forward, and while I don't think it's the best design or the best use of $50M, I don't think it's all bad. I doubt anyone will be regretting this decision 5 or 10 years from now. However architecture and cleanliness won't be the biggest hurdle, tacking the homeless will. I think Love Park and Dilworth Plaza became the dilapidated Hooverville's that they are because they were surrounded by nothing for years, not because they are simply public spaces.

It may be silly to think that buzz words like "cafe" actually mean anything, but an element of street level commerce will excite people. It won't draw the residents from their fortresses at the Ritz or the Phoenix anymore than Barnes and Noble pulls them out of 10 Rittenhouse Square, but it will grab the commuters who'd rather grab a coffee and a muffin street-side instead of in the SEPTA catacombs.

It's true City Hall itself wasn't designed to be a public space but it doesn't mean the surrounding area can never succeed as one. If that were the case we might as well put the Arcade Building and Broad Street Station back on top of Dilworth Plaza because any other project would be doomed from the start.

Many Negadelphians would assume that any public project is inevitably doomed. But the truth of the matter is that this space is surrounded by new development and renovated public spaces. The Convention Center is going to be pulling people north of Market Street, new museums are pulling tourists across Broad Street, and all of them will be passing through the most important piece of Philadelphia's architectural portfolio.

It's stubborn to propose that this space isn't due some attention, and it's naive to assume that no one will enjoy it. We don't all get in our cars and hop on 676 at 5pm to run from urbanity as fast as we can. Some of the less cranky commuters might stick around if our most important public spaces didn't smell so bad.

Dilworth Plaza Makeover to Start -