Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Scrubbing Market East

S.C.R.U.B. managed to weasel their way into a Daily News article on the recent conversation in City Council to finally do something with our city's ailing Main Street, Market East. And big surprise, they don't like it.

What could have come across as a healthy, compromising debate to sturdy the organization's relevance, only solidifies their reputation as a handful of contrarian hipsters with no understanding of economics, urban planning, and what most of our residents and businesses actually want or need.

Market East has always served as Center City's bustling commercial corridor, it's history illuminated in consumerism. With the exception of Reading Terminal, the PSFS Building, and the United States Post Office, Market East's historic infrastructure was entirely eradicated by mid-century development between 8th and 13th Streets.

If the "Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight" were truly dedicated to reducing urban blight, one of the first projects they should be cheerleading would be improvements to the street scape in Center City's commercial core.

Instead, Mary Tracy, President of S.C.R.U.B., called improvements to Market East "honky-tonk junk" and pegged Philadelphia a one trick pony by calling history our brand. I'm sorry, but like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, I would hope that one of our nation's biggest cities is more dynamic than that.

Rendering showing improvements to the Girard Trust Block between 11th and 12th. Originally the site of Snellenburg's Department store, the current building was created by chopping off all but two floors of the defunct department store and was intended to serve as a placeholder for future development.

While Tracy is correct in asserting that "People are coming to our city to visit the historic areas," she is ignoring the fact that they are also coming to shop, work, go to conventions, and to enjoy our restaurants and nightlife.

Besides, if history really were our "brand," what history is being preserved by stagnating Market East development between 8th and 13th?

Our Seasonal Four-Letter Word

In its third year, Dilworth Plaza's German style Christmas Village is gracing the west side of City Hall. After receiving several complaints from workers and residents about the word "Christmas," Managing Director Richard Negrin asked that the word "Christmas" be replaced with "Holiday."

It's not surprising. In fact, had the sign originally said "Holiday Village" I doubt many would have noticed. While seasonally adorned retail ads aim at shoppers intending to stuff their Christmas stockings, those same retail stores treat the word "Christmas" like a four letter word. Often the most you can expect is the all encompassing "Happy Holidays" or "Seasons Greetings."

In a culture of increasing politically correct absurdities, I choose to indulge in "a
Festivus for the Rest of Us."

Today's Philly.com poll shows that while 7% were offended by the word, 93% of readers don't give a Christmas about it.

Outsourcing to the Amish

After getting over the initial, disturbing image brought up in the first line of Harold Brubaker's Inquirer article, "Main Line roofers say they are taking it on the chin from Amish competitors" (he really wrote those words), the questions that began to present themselves were, are Amish construction crews inconsiderate of their workers' well being, or are conventional contractors simply lazy and entitled. The answers probably lie somewhere in the middle and the clash in cultures amplify its newsworthiness.

While some call hiring Amish roofers "outsourcing," this isn't completely accurate. There is nothing wrong with shopping around and no one is sending their roof to India for repairs. One conventional contractor found a 38% difference in price between his bid and an Amish competitor. While he may not have the wiggle room to compete with the Amish, in the current economic climate many customers are not finding the wiggle room to keep a roof over their head.

Competition seems to be the name of the game anywhere in the United States except in the Jerseyvania Triangle where gangster style business practices have inadvertently led to the industry's own demise. Philadelphian's have forgotten that the free market also applies to construction and a surprisingly business savvy Amish community has reminded them.

I do however think that if Amish contractors continue to compete on the grid that certain necessary evils need to be addressed. For example, the Amish don't pay Social Security compensation for their employees because their Amish employees don't receive social security benefits. It's understandable that they would take advantage of the loop hole, but regardless of what benefits they choose to avoid, if they are to compete outside of a sheltered community, the playing field needs to be level.

But conventional contractors need to abide by the same rules. Instead of muscling Amish contractors into extorting their customers into spending more on less, customers should be muscling conventional contractors into learning a thing or two from their Amish competitors. Obviously consumers are tired of being ripped off.

The Amish show up on time, care about their work, and do more jobs in less time. True, they're not paying for a pool and don't have to pay a mortgage on a Main Line McMansion. But this is America, and that's the name of the game. The Amish aren't breaking any rules, and when the rules change they'll still be there to compete. Instead of complaining, conventional contractors need to get in and play the game.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Foxwoods Proposal

Developers released plans designed by the Friedmutter Group (of Harrah's and Showboat in Atlantic City) for the proposed Foxwoods Casino. Aside from your standard suburban appointments, it doesn't philosophically differ from Sugarhouse or any other Pennsylvania slot barn.

The proposal calls for the standard phased roll out including an initial gambling parlor surrounded by surface parking to be replaced with garaged parking at an unannounced time.

Phase one consists of 57, 436 square feet with 1376 parking spaces. The first floor will have three bars and an "Asian gaming area," although it is unclear what that means. A steakhouse and lounge will be on a second floor.

Phase two consists of a parking garage adding a little over 1000 parking spaces.

20th Century Fox and Philadelphia

A movie chain's early ties to the City of Cinematic Love

Contributed by Mike Gaines

When people think of 20th Century Fox Studios, or simply Fox, the first things that usually come to mind are Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. The company and its founder, however, have a much more colorful history than people actually realize and has very strong ties to Philadelphia’s illustrious theatrical past.

In 1917, William Fox, a Hungarian immigrant, founded the Fox Film Corporation when he merged two separate companies he had established four years prior – the Greater New York Film Rental and Fox (or Box) Office Attractions Company, the former a distribution company and the latter a production company. By consolidating these two entities, Fox was able to control his growing theater chain with greater efficiency.

Pictures were secondary to a man who has always been considered more of an entrepreneur than entertainer and his focus was on acquiring and building theaters as opposed to producing the attractions. His theaters were known for their opulence, grandeur, and seating capacities at well over 1,000 per theater.

In 1927 Fox saw a prime opportunity to expand his cinematic empire through the acquisition of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, one of his biggest rivals. That year the head of MGM, Marcus Loew passed away and within two years Fox had acquired the Loew family’s shares of MGM. Unfortunately for Fox, this outraged the studio bosses of MGM, Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, since they were not shareholders and left out of any profits from the merger.

Using his political connections, Mayer urged the Department of Justice to investigate Fox for violating antitrust laws, which tied up the merger for the next several years. A combination of the stock market crash of 1929 and recovering from serious injuries in a car accident wiped out Fox’s financial holdings so severely that even if the Department of Justice had given its eventual blessing to the merger it could not go forth.

The following year Fox lost control of his company and theaters during a hostile takeover, which combined with his other ails, forced him into a six year long battle to stave off bankruptcy. In 1935, the Fox Film Corporation merged with 20th Century Productions, only two years old at the time, to form the Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation. A year later, Fox was sentenced to six months in prison for attempting to bribe a judge at his bankruptcy hearing. Upon his release, Fox retired from the film business and into seclusion. He died at the age of 73 in 1952, so forgotten that not one single Hollywood producer attended his funeral.

Two examples of Fox’s theatrical opulence existed in Philadelphia, the first thirty years gone and the second still somewhat extant.

The Original Fox Theatre

In January 1922, a permit was issued to the Fox Film Corporation allowing them to build a brand new theater on the southwest corner of Sixteenth and Market Streets at a reported cost of $1.1 million.

The 17-story, steel frame, fireproof building was designed by Thomas W. Lamb, who had already designed six similar theaters in other cities including Atlanta, Brooklyn, and Detroit. The theater's seating capacity topped out at 2,423 seats and featured 15 varieties of imported Italian marble throughout. The box office was hexagonal in shape with a marble base that supported handmade bronze pillars and topped by a brass dome.

Fox Theatre Building seen from City Hall on West Market Street in 1926. The Arcade Building with its bridge to Broad Street Station, and the Harrison Building can be seen in the foreground outside City Hall.

In addition to motion pictures, the Fox had a Grand Orchestra which featured staff-produced shows that were aired twice weekly from its in-house radio broadcasting facilities.

In 1931 a proposal to sell the Fox theaters to Paramount fell through since not one of its theaters were profitable, save for the original at Sixteenth and Market. The following year, Alexander Boyd took over control of the theater, as well as the theater on Locust Street, after having sold his namesake theater on Chestnut Street, and continued to operate them until 1936 when Stanley Warner took control.

As cinematic technologies advanced, so did alterations to the theaters. In 1939 all stage shows ceased production, and when Cinemascope films were introduced in 1950, the staff is said to have taken the original organ console out to the back alley and burned it.

What had been the stage space was carved into a second, smaller theater called the Stage Door Theatre, fronting on Sixteenth Street. With the Fox chain now focused solely on motion pictures, it became home to several world premiers including Knute Rockne All American (1940), Centennial Summer (1946), and The Street with No Name (1948).

In 1959 the Milgrim Theatre chain leased the Fox Theatre and purchased it two years later, making the movie house at Sixteenth and Market their flagship theater. To maintain a reputation of excellence, as well as patronage from the Main Line ladies who frequented the theater, meticulous care was taken with the space.

In addition to boasting the best projection and sound capabilities available, supervisors checked every movie lens with white gloves daily to make sure they were clean and changing rooms were even installed in the basement for ushers. Before long, the Fox Building became Philadelphia’s movie exhibition headquarters where it housed local offices for every movie chain in the country, complete with a screening room on the 17th floor.

In March of 1980, the Fox Theatre finally closed after its final movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture finished its run. Milgrim claimed that it would cost over $1 million to restore and repair the plaster in the auditorium, most of which had long since been draped over, though a preservation committee, the Committee to Save the Fox, objected to these findings and began protesting its demolition.

One proposal for the site included building a new office building around and above the Fox, but in the end its owner won and the building, along with the rest of the block, was ultimately demolished to make room for a new office building which stands on this site today as home to PNC Bank.

After its demolition, some of the 87,000 tons of Italian marble were sold off, including the marble balcony railing which is now used as the communion railing at Holy Cross Catholic Church in Springfield, Pennsylvania. The Shubert Foundation bought many of the seats, chandeliers were sent to Columbus, Ohio for a theater restoration project, and the ticket book was sent to Los Angeles, California.

The Fox-Locust Theatre

The second Fox theater in Philadelphia opened in 1927 as a part of the Equitable Trust Building at 1401 Locust Street, on the northwest corner of South Broad and Locust Streets, with a seating capacity of 1,580 (Orchestra 1053, Loge 375, Balcony 152).

Designed by renowned architect Horace Trumbauer, the building was built as the Philadelphia headquarters for the Equitable Trust Company of New York. The building’s design was influenced by one of Trumbauer’s most recent projects, the Chateau Crillon Apartment House on nearby Rittenhouse Square.

Equitable Trust Company and Chateau Crillon designed by Horace Trumbauer

An organ chamber was designed for the theater, though no organ was ever installed, as well as an orchestra pit capable of holding up to 65 musicians. Unfortunately this location was outside of what was then known as the Theatre District along Market and Chestnut Streets and closed sometime after 1929 due to dwindling business.

It reopened in October of 1931 as the Locust Street Theatre, operated by Alexander Boyd. In 1958 new management took over and renamed it the New Locust Theatre, and installed new chandeliers from the recently demolished Mastbaum Theatre in the lobby, foyer, and under the mezzanine.

The theater's final show was Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1980. Despite objections from the preservation community, a majority of the auditorium was demolished to make room for a parking garage while the remaining space was converted into a restaurant.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!
Be back in a week.

Eagles Owner Crunchin' on Some Granola?

On the Eagles opening day in September of 2011, Lincoln Financial Field could be the greenest stadium in the world. The addition of 100 wind turbines, 2500 solar panels, and a power plant capable of running on bio-diesel will easily power any game. Additionally, any extra power will be fed back into the city's electrical grid.

The Eagles will save $60M in energy costs in the next two decades. Owner Jeffrey Lurie is committed to proving environmental friendliness can can also be a wise financial decision.

Dragon Stadium in Taiwan and Stade de Suisse arena in Bern, Switzerland get 100% of their power from the sun, so The Linc will have some competition if it wants to truly call itself the greenest in the world. NASCAR's Pocono Raceway is currently the world's largest solar powered sporting facility.

100 wind turbines and 2500 solar panels will be added to South Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field fully powering the facility with additional power fed back into the city's electrical grid.

As a city nationally synonymous with its litter and oil refineries, Mayor Nutter is committed to making Philadelphia America's greenest city. Most outside the region probably wouldn't equate Philadelphia with environmental friendliness but it isn't unheard of. Compared to a lot of America's largest cities, we're not doing so bad.

West Coast states tend to set the rules for Going Green, but their headlines are made by retrofitting mass transit systems in cities built for the car. Pennsylvania and the region have an historic reputation as the region's Rust Belt, but the densely populated Northeast has never had enough room to submit to freeways and commuters the way California, Oregon, and Washington have. Inadvertently, we've always been green.

We don't take subways, buses, and trains because we want to, we take them because we have to. Adding a few elements of the green kitsch that West Coasters get off on would easily put an insular city like Philadelphia over the top even as Sunoco's fires continue to burn.

It looks like the Eagles are making Philadelphia green in more ways than one.

Gimbels Thanksgiving Day Parade

Gimbels Department Store - 9th and Market

Philadelphia's Thanksgiving Day Parade began in 1920, when Gimbels Department Store at 9th and Market held the country's first parade to launch the Christmas Season. Macy's famous Thanksgiving Day Parade did not begin until four years later.

Gimbels Thanksgiving Parade at Market and Juniper

Gimbels, which moved across the street to The Gallery at Market East upon its completion, closed in 1986. The Thanksgiving Day Parade still continues as the 6ABC Ikea Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Gimbels Thanksgiving Parade in 1934 at Broad near Arch

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Windmill Island

As a city's structural evolution spans centuries, it's easy to forget how much the natural landscape changes as well. City building involves much more than moving trees. Rivers are displaced, streams are eliminated, and mountains are torn down. If Mother Nature had her way, London would be under water. With engineers constantly working in the background, we see her coming up through the cracks in the sidewalk every day.

Philadelphia and the Delaware River showing Windmill and Smith's Island and its' canal for the Walnut Street ferry

At the site of a shipwreck sometime prior to the late 1600's, in the Delaware River between Philadelphia and Camden, nature began reclaiming its own. As dirt collected around the decaying barge, two islands began to take shape.

Smith Island in 1880

Windmill Island was once located in the Delaware River, somewhere in the vicinity of Market Street. In 1838 a canal was made to accommodate the Walnut Street ferry carrying passengers to Camden and the north side was named Smith's Island, after its owner, John Smith

Penns Landing in 1868

Passengers would depart Philadelphia's bustling waterfront to enjoy a day at Smith's Island.

Windmill Island was named for a windmill built in 1746 by John Harding and his son. Legendary pirate stories evolved from the execution of three men who were hanged on the island for looting a ship.

Not long after the Revolution an agreement was reached between New Jersey and Pennsylvania to award Delaware River islands to each state alternately. As Petty Island above belonged to New Jersey, Windmill Island would belong to Pennsylvania.

Windmill and Smith's Islands can be seen in this drawing of Philadelphia in 1840.

Smith's Island's willow trees attracted visitors seeking refuge from the city on hot summer days as early as 1826. Ferries would carry bathers to the island from Walnut Street. The city's lower class used the resort as a place to bathe and escape the cramped quarters of Philadelphia's notoriously blighted ghettos.

Windmill and Smith's Islands from Penn's Landing in 1890 shortly before its' removal.

By the late 19th Century, Smith's Island housed a bathhouse and restaurant, and entertainment included a beer garden, circus performances, live musicians, and even hot air balloon rides. An amusement park was built on Smith's Island by Jacob Ridgway in 1880. The south end of Windmill Island was used as a coal depot for the Lehigh Navigation Company.

As Philadelphia's presence in the shipping industry grew, the federal government began a six year project in 1891 to remove the islands all together. By 1897 no trace of the islands remained.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Tip from...Detroit?

When L&I doesn't scramble to raze every shell for a few parking spaces, some amazing things can be done with our aging architecture. Detroit's Lucien Moore House was restored as part of an HGTV project.

Brush Park's Lucien Moore House prior to restoration.

The Lucien Moore House after restoration.

Many other Brush Park and midtown mansions have been restored by private developers and converted into condos and apartment buildings.

Philadelphia City Council Members who look after Overbrook, Mantua, and North Philadelphia's vast wasteland of decaying grandeur could learn a thing or two from a city that typically makes us look pretty good by comparison.

The Disney Hole

Once Upon a Time in the far away Lando of Or, a group of struggling amusement park executives sought out a way to bring the wonderment of their magical world to the urban streets of cities across the world.

This rendering of Disney Quest Chicago shows the same modular structure that would have been placed at 8th and Market.

Disney Quest opened in Downtown Disney in 1998. A year later, the first truly urban Disney Quest was opened in Chicago to minimal excitement. Anticipating the success of the Chicago venue, Philadelphia began working on the foundation at 8th and Market. When the Chicago chain closed, construction in Philadelphia was frozen. A decade later we have what is commonly referred to as The Disney Hole, the hot spot for every pie in the sky architect and developer in Center City.

Each Disney Quest location would have been modular. In windowless buildings five stories high, rides and attractions would have been able to be updated simultaneously at each location. Unfortunately Disney Quest began laying the groundwork just as the demand for themed restaurant and entertainment venues was beginning to die out.

Gimbels at 9th and Market in the 1980's. Since its demolition, three quarters of this prime block have been occupied by a surface parking lot.

On one hand, this isn't so good. In ten years Disney Quest has been the most serious proposal for a part of town which continuously proves itself less and less desirable.

On the other hand, there's nothing creepier than an abandoned amusement park. If it's hard for you to imagine Market East looking more like Thunderdome, picture what I just suggested.

SEPTA loses bid for $30M

Just as SEPTA begins operating the new Silverliner V cars for Regional Rail service, a bid for $30M in federal funding was lost. The 120 new cars cost $274M. However, part of the larger plan to streamline the system included a new electronic fare system which would have cost $100M.

Newer and sleeker, looks are deceiving. SEPTA's new Silverliner V cars won't get you home any faster.

The system would be similar to the debit system used in other cities for buses, subways, and trolleys. Passengers would be able to swipe a card at turnstiles and ticket machines to pay for fares. However, the new "high-tech" system would not be fully automated. Unlike similar commuter rail strategies such as Washington's Metro, SEPTA's new trains would still require conductors to verify passengers' tickets.

It's unclear why the federal funds were denied, but it may have something to do with SEPTA's chronic ability to waste money. SEPTA's buses and trolleys currently use technology capable of reading debit cards, but instead of fully accessing the capability of a system they already paid for and expanding it, they've mapped out an entirely new system from scratch.

Cold Case - Detroit

Jonathan Storm had a nice commentary in the Inquirer about ABC's new cop drama, Detroit 1-8-7. I'm not crazy about cop shows. Many tend to be formulaic and predictable. I got caught up in a Law & Order SVU marathon one night and by the fifth episode I started noticing a pattern.

It wasn't until Cold Case that I realized that the environment can make or break these shows for a lot of viewers who would otherwise reach the remote.
Cold Case, set in a gloomy Philadelphia, focused on forgotten and unsolved cases spanning the century. Often tapping into our city's racially divided mid-century caste system, fugitives were brought to justice amidst the backdrop of nostalgic Motown music.

Cold Case not only struck a chord by clashing cultures, it clashed decades and eras.

As the show's popularity declined and the city was unable to offer the producers the tax breaks they had previously enjoyed, filming was moved to Vancouver, BC. Occasional stock footage of Philadelphia would be shown, but the environment that made Cold Case so moving for so many was gone.

A backdrop of steam towers and oil refineries was replaced with the vast rainy sky of the Pacific Northwest. No matter how they tried to sell the location, the last ghost to say goodbye to Lilly was Philadelphia.

Detroit's abandoned Michigan Central Station

Detroit 1-8-7 wins over its viewers the same way. Although it deals in the present and draws attention to the criminal realities of a forgotten city, like Cold Case, it romanticizes the blight of its host. More than just a cop drama selling the precinct and the court room, it tugs at your heartstrings through the lives of the victims and the ruins of Detroit's former glory.

100 Abandoned Houses - a great photographic journey through Detroit's abandoned residential streets.


Brush Park, Detroit in the early 1900's

Brush Park more recently.*

*It should be noted that many of Brush Park's stately mansions, even those that had fallen into complete disrepair, have been restored and/or converted into apartments.

University City Skyline

Drexel to receive $45 million gift for new center for business school

Drexel alumni Bennett LeBow, after whom Drexel's Business School was named, has donated $45M for the school's new Academic Center. The twelve story limestone building will be completed in 2014 at a cost of $92M. The building will be named after late Drexel President Constantine Papadakis and located at 32nd and Market. The selected location is intended to serve as an entrance to Drexel University and the materials used are meant to compliment 30th Street Station and the former postal headquarters nearby.

On the site, Matheson Hall, built in 1965, will be demolished next summer.

Lebow graduated in 1960. The school was named after him when he donated $10M in 1999.
As the current economy has frozen most Center City development, University City continues to redefine its skyline.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Everybody cut Footloose!

Brownstoner - Philadelphia has speculated that the former Transit Nightclub on Spring Garden is in the process of being re-branded as a new club: 90 Degrees.

It's been years since I've been "clubbing." Nonetheless, I like knowing that my city offers a variety of spicy nightlife. But in eight years in Philadelphia, I am still surprised by our lack of gracious dance spaces. Sure, a lot of places have dance floors, but nothing like the large nightclubs I remember from college. We have a handful of large clubs on the waterfront, but once you make your way down there you might as well be in New Jersey.

Back in the 90's - America's urban dark ages - cities were littered with old banks and storefronts converted into large nightclubs. I remember warehouses located in the badlands of New York and DC with absolutely massive dance floors that would keep the music going until dawn.

City's have changed. In some ways for the good, and in some ways, not so good. These nightclubs were filthy, and some of them were in very dangerous parts of town (at a time when cities were exponentially more dangerous than they are today). Corrupt politicians and voter malaise allowed for lax drug enforcement and liquor regulation. Basically, if you had the balls to go downtown, you earned your right to party.

But trends naturally progress and digress. Clubs have gotten cleaner and more organized. Instead of illegally operating raves out of abandoned warehouses, meat lockers are rented out for ironic, invite-only fashion shows. As the economy waxes and wanes, so will residents' ideals.

Still, the modern quest to improve the quality of urban life hasn't just streamlined our nightlife in the name of safety and cleanliness, it has also eliminated a culture. Quality, as it is perceived by a few, dictates restrictions that go far beyond liquor laws and drug enforcement, operating under the delusion that nightclubs are unanimously equated with crime.

This vocal opposition has a knee-jerk reaction to the words "dance floor" evident in community meetings throughout the city. Only in Philadelphia have I found myself bebopping alone at the bar with barely a foot off the ground and been told by staff, "please stop dancing, we don't have a license for that."

Is it because the iGeneration doesn't remember Footloose or did all the dorks who pulled for Elmore City grow up and move to Philly?

Dance floors don't attract bar fights.
Dancing is a good thing in so many ways. Those versed in professional nagging should be using their expertise to make sure businesses are run responsibly and sensibly, not just denying everyone else a good time from the start. There is nothing wrong with lobbying for a better city, but that better city is for everyone.


As sacred places outlive their usefulness as religious halls, a community friendly to nightlife allows these hallowed places a new life as nightclubs and concert venues.

Like the Limelight in New York, a less provincial approach to development could one day save Spring Garden's Church of the Assumption.

A Could-Be Cindarella Story

The Gallery at Market East
Photo from Brownstoner Philadelphia

The Philadelphia City Planning Commission meets tomorrow to discuss turning The Gallery at Market East into our town's Times Square.

The first mistake anyone in favor of this exciting proposal made was comparing it to Times Square. While Market East belongs to commuters and tourists, every NIMBY in a five block radius will be claiming it their Main Street and undoubtedly packing the meeting space to stomp their feet in protest.

It's true that neon signs and plasma screens won't make up for The Gallery's dwindling business, but a dull and uninviting facade doesn't attract retailers in the first place.

People forget that this stretch of Market Street is the Gateway to Philadelphia for many tourists. Conventioneers and families from all walks of life stay near 12th Street and walk down Market East to The Liberty Bell. Philadelphian's are stern footed when it comes to suburbanizing our retail scene, but when it comes to out of towners, they are typically looking for familiarity. Most don't know who Jose Garces is and they don't care. They're looking for California Pizza Kitchen and Fuddruckers.

Sure, lighting up The Gallery might be the equivalent of putting a turd in a sundress, but considering that turd makes up three blocks of a neighborhood most retailers avoid, dressing it up has to be the first step in turning it around.

The Gallery at Market East facade as seen in part of a comprehensive plan for the Philadelphia City Planning Commission by Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects

What other options do we have? Tear it down? It's not like Market East is lacking in available real estate. As sad as it is, The Gallery is the lifeblood of Market East. The "scrap it and start over method" gave us the Disney Hole and the Girard Trust Block. Let's not make that mistake again.


Other proposals and concerns being addressed in the meeting include a parking garage near 13th and Arch to service a new hotel at Broad and Arch. Councilman Clarke has proposed limiting student housing in Temple's Yorktown neighborhood to keep university presence out of his blighted district.

Happy Monday

Hipster Bike Brigade at Broad and Chestnut on Saturday, November 13th.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Deconstructing Carl Greene

Someone that needs to go away.

By now everyone knows that Carl Greene, the recently fired Executive Director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, is suing the PHA Board for $4M. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, when self-appointed PHA Chairman and ex-mayor John Street was asked about the lawsuit, he replied in an email with "Ha Ha!" sixty-four times. Street said there would be no settlement with Greene, and even went as far to say a counter-suit should be considered.

Don't get me wrong, my disgust for Street's chronic corruption runs almost as deep my opinions on Greene. I don't think anyone is naive enough to believe that Street's seemingly off-the-cuff attacks on Greene aren't strategic, diversionary tactics aimed at taking the pressure off the Board for their oversights. Nonetheless, wouldn't it be delightful to see Greene finally held accountable for his actions?

In all reality I don't see this happening, not in our City Hall. Street is playing his little game: the game that got him elected, the game that beat Katz, and the game that keeps him and his family of miscreants relevant to this day. The city will cave, and We The Taxpayers will pay Greene off.

As the recent economic strife sends civic treasurers through a mouse maze looking for cash, it is becoming painfully apparent that a lot of our lost funds have been going to criminals that we continue to employ. The potential silver lining in this whole debacle lies in the involvement of the Federal Government. Our cronies hide behind Philadelphia's thin veil of institutionalized corruption but - as Street knows very well - once Washington steps in our vultures start naming names and pointing fingers.

Street's Blackberry Jam almost destroyed him once, and his near escape has made a brazenly corrupt man behave as if he were invincible. While Greene's pathetic cash grab is going to land him in the frying pan, Street is flying dangerously close to the sun. Greene might get his $4M and Street might be able to steer the local media in the wrong direction with his absurdities, but once the dust settles and the long and boring criminal investigation begins to heat up, both of these caricatures of civic misconduct will be wishing they walked away from this situation quickly and quietly when they had the chance.

The Greene $$$ Breakdown:

$300,000+ annual salary
$50,000+ annual bonuses
$900,000+ in insurance settlements paid on Greene's behalf
$600,000+ in insurance premiums paid on Greene's behalf

Now, after using our tax dollars to fund his sexcapades, he's asking us for $4M more. At least Tiger Woods blamed it on some phantom psychological disorder and Mel Gibson blamed it on booze.

Greene, in his mind, has done nothing wrong. He truly believes that his behavior was professional, his actions just, and that he has been wrongfully terminated. The sick fact is, this delusion will earn him $4M.

I just hope his holiday is short lived and the media hasn't lost interest when the Feds finally knock at his door.

Someone that needed to go away 10 years ago.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Building a Better City for Everyone

Many people may not always agree with her opinions, but what I think most people can appreciate about Inga Saffron isn't just her obvious compassion for this city, her yearning to see a better Philadelphia, but the way she addresses her subject from the honest perspective of the audience.

Architecture critics, especially when paired with art critics, have an annoying habit of intellectualizing their subject matter and preaching to their audience. Architecture is public art. It's not tucked away in a museum and there isn't an admission fee. Whether you're in New York, Paris, Tokyo, or Philadelphia, the honest to god truth is that 99% of a building's audience won't care about the technique that makes it good or bad, only that they have to look at it and want it to be pleasant.

Many critics preach to their readers, assuming that they are versed in artistic jargon. They pretentiously ignore the rest, letting them either blindly agree or assume that they are simply too stupid to get it. Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times comes to mind.

Inga Saffron isn't an architect and doesn't pretend to be. Perhaps that helps. She's viewing these buildings from the sidewalk like the rest of us. She isn't analyzing blueprints or searching the archives for obscure references and trends. When she cites history as part of her perspective, she cites local icons with which most of her readers are at least vaguely familiar. Her style is conversational and engaging. She loves Philadelphia for the same reasons we do.

While other critics send us to a thesaurus, she sends us to the streets. She isn't writing a column to advance her career, she's writing about this city because she wants to see a better Philadelphia. And whether her audience always agrees with what she says, she succeeds either way by inspiring a better vision and higher standards in her readers.


My mother compared her to Ayn Rand, obviously with specific regard to the Fountainhead. While Inga Saffon rarely expresses politic opinions in her column, I have a feeling her's may differ significantly. Nonetheless, there is an overall theme of objective idealism in her critiques that helps her readers envision how a city should work. If she's Ayn Rand, she's the best of her.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Centennial Tower

Perhaps unknowingly attempting to beat Paris to the punch, Philadelphia had planned a tower of our own as part of the Centennial Exposition a decade before the Eiffel Tower would be completed. Our Centennial Tower appeared on the cover of Scientific American two years prior to the fair that would celebrate America's Centennial and introduce the United States, and more specifically Philadelphia as the workhorse of the world.

This rendering featured in Scientific American shows the Centennial Tower compared to the tallest structures of the day, including the Great Pyramids of Giza.

The tower was designed by Clarke, Reeves & Co., owners of the Phoenixville Bridge Works who built the original Girard Avenue Bridge in 1875 and patented the "Phoenix Column" which would ultimately help create the first skyscrapers.

A spiral staircase with four landings would have taken visitors to an observation deck 1000 feet up. In the evening a brilliant light show would have illuminated the grounds of the Centennial Exposition held near Philadelphia's Parkside neighborhood.

At the time this would have been the tallest structure ever built. The Eiffel Tower's spire is just 63 feet taller.

Not So Divine News

Local newspapers continue to blame the Divine Lorraine's shambled status on a decade without tenants. It's important to point out this falsehood because the Divine Lorraine's current status is the result of a corrupt City Council member catering to an overzealous neighborhood organization, and an irresponsible owner.

This Diamond in the Rough on North Broad Street was well maintained during the decade it sat vacant and without tenants. Historic fixtures remained in place, the grand marble lobby was preserved under a thin layer of dust, and a penthouse auditorium kept its stage and original upholstered theater seats.

It wasn't until Michael Treacy, Jr. stepped in following a storm of development success and prematurely gutted the gem in an attempt to beat the recession.

It's not all his fault. Neighborhood organizations have been fighting the gentrification of North Broad Street and anything with the word "luxury", and Councilman Clarke has been more than willing to give them his support. His anti-development movement is evident across the Fifth District.

During the building's hiatus, it could have hardly been held to the standards of your typical 21st Century condo buyers who fixated on stainless steel and granite, but it was completely habitable. More damage was inflicted on the Divine Lorraine from six months of neglect than during a decade of vacancy. Now with Lorraine completely devoid of soul, Treacy is asking the state for $3.4M to convert what's left of her into subsidized senior housing.

Ten years ago a few simple updates like central air and a fresh coat of paint would have been all that was needed to convert this into subsidized housing, and most importantly the Divine Lorraine wouldn't have been turned into a hallow shell.

I wonder how much Treacy made scrapping the building's historic detail. Now, knowing that residents treasure this building, he's pleading with the state for more cash to "save" it. I'm all for securing the Divine Lorraine from deteriorating any further, and I'd rather it serve any purpose than none at all, but this situation reeks of Philadelphia's institutionalized corruption. He has the money to develop this project himself, and Philadelphia has the authority to tell him to do so. If he doesn't want to move forward without pocketing a little state money, then step aside and let someone else have at it.

We've got a Gehry!

Frank Gehry will be remodeling a basement hallway at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that has been sealed shut since 1975. It's not clear what the space will look like or if it will even be a public space. The overall goal of the museum is to expand gallery space, although the space being designed by Gehry will be used for storage and preparation. This space is scheduled to be completed in 2012.

Frank Gehry received notoriety for turning balls of foil into buildings in 1998. Since then the "one trick pony," as he was pegged by The Economist, has been marketing variations of that same design to cities around the globe. Like a modern artist who blows his nose on a piece of paper and calls it art, Gehry has applied this technique to the architecture community. Like other celebrity architects, his vision is more about marketing an image or a brand than it is about design, innovation, or even quality. While local designers at Erdy-McHenry and QB3 are busy creating a new artistic movement, Gehry is creatively convincing each City's Hall why their town needs to Get a Gehry.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Can the Pennsylvania Convention Center get it right this time?

As ugly as the north facade of the Pennsylvania Convention Center may be, I don't think that the block of Race Street between 11th and Broad is doomed from ever finding business, especially the type of business brought by Convention Centers.

It's true that the thankless wall looms over the narrow street and casts the Scientology Center and a small group of 19th century trinities into darkness. But like the PCC itself, hotels and chain restaurants don't typically respect their local surroundings, so it's probably safe to assume that Ruby Tuesday and Applebees won't care that they might face the brick rump of this behemoth, only that their market research says there's a successful Chili's a block away.

I doubt its neighbors can expect to see luxury lofts or Garces restaurants between Race and Vine, but even more than fancy restaurants and overpriced condos, I'd like to see the surrounding area begin to pick itself back up. And the way to do that may be in catering to the conventioneers. Philadelphia loves to sell itself as one of the few nostalgic cities that hasn't sold out. We love it, but sadly, conventioneers and tourists don't. Would it really hurt to cram these suburban delights into this little island that faces an unforgiving brick wall?

This neighborhood has always struggled. Its proximity to freeways and railroad tracks have consistently isolated it from much of the city's friendly fabric and made it the go-to locale for large civic projects that required both proximity and careless demolition.

The PCC poses both threat and hope to this forgotten corner of Center City. While the parking in this area should be consolidated into several large garages, the city allows predatory landowners to bulldoze indiscriminately. The city requires all new offices and residences to provide parking, yet the state required nothing of the PCC. Sadly the unofficial assumption on the part of the city and the state was that the surrounding neighborhood could be sacrificed by private developers to supplement the parking required of the PCC's guests and employees.

The Vine Street Expressway brings people into the city, these surface lots park them, they walk to their convention, and then the VSE conveniently sends them home.
And because the PCC caters to conventioneers from other cities, most people don't care. The neighbors' voices are few and mostly from renters.

The problem with this part of town is that its development is dictated by Philadelphia's late 20th Century in-and-out mentality. Back when City Hall was more concerned with retaining the little business it had than managing an urban experience for residents and tourists, the primary goal in city planning was to suburbanize the landscape for commuters and keep them happy. Because of that, 12th Street might as well be an exit ramp for the VSE, sending un-clocked traffic through the PCC tunnel at 50 MPH.

Hopefully now that the PCC is nearing the completion of its final phase and we see a grand entrance
taking shape at Broad and Race, developers can begin scouting the surrounding properties, landowners can begin converting some of their surface lots into garages, and a bit of the mess left by irresponsible and careless civic planning can get cleaned up.

I'd like to see a push from City Hall to avoid the type
of mass demolition that followed the construction of the initial phase of the PCC and the completion of the VSE. I'd like to see planners focus on encouraging conventioneers to stick around rather than simply getting them in and out as fast as possible. Otherwise we could end up with nothing between Race and Vine but asphalt and we're already halfway there.

Broad and Neon

Contributed by Mike Gaines

How to bring vibrancy to South Broad Street below Washington Avenue

In my six years of being a resident of Philadelphia I have noticed a lot of peculiarities that have come to define, for me at least, the unique life that is Philadelphia. If you think about this country’s big cities, each one has its own style – New York is the rich, pompous brother; Portland is the hippie/grungy/hipster sister; Chicago is…Chicago; Miami is the gay, Hispanic half-brother; and Philadelphia, well Philadelphia is just the weird, black sheep of the family no one really likes to talk about.


One of my favorite habits is to walk around the city taking note of the architecture and historical elements of the city, but not the History Channel elements, the ones forgotten about and tucked away behind awnings, placards, and faux-facades. Some of these elements, however, are staring down at us every day, but since people are so immersed in their phones and latest iProduct, no one actually looks up to take notice.

This is seemingly evident on South Broad Street, below Washington Avenue, with its long-dormant neon signs.
When one thinks of neon, the first thing that comes to mind is Las Vegas. And while any remaining neon signs in Philly are not relegated simply to South Broad Street, this area presents itself as a grand boulevard of opportunity. The current "Avenue of the Arts" stream of culture and entertainment ends at Washington Avenue, anchored by the four "interesting" columns on the corners, the Marine Club, the car dealership-turned-Rock Ballet School, a vacant lot with half a train shed, and another vacant lot that once hosted Cirque du Soleil when it was in town.

Let’s continue the party down Broad Street!
Our first stop is the old Boot & Saddle Bar, located at 1131 S. Broad Street, which according to its sign offered country and western music. It has been closed since about 1995 but many remember it being the only country bar in South Philly. One person even remembered that, “it was really weird. Occasionally, they would just play the National Anthem, seemingly for no reason. If you didn’t stand, you would be asked to leave.” How patriotic! There was a reason for it, though, as a majority of the clientele were sailors from the nearby Navy Yard. At any rate, while the sign itself makes rehabilitation efforts limited, there is still plenty that could be done with the building – it just takes some imagination (and the right amount of money).

Just down from the Boot & Saddle is Philips Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge (with air conditioning!), 1145 S. Broad Street, next to the now-shuttered Broad Street Diner. Philips is situated in a gorgeous brownstone but ceased being a restaurant some time ago. I am not quite sure what is in the rest of the building, but it appears that a cluttered antique shop occupies the first floor of the space. With its long and narrow sign and a canopy that comes down the front steps and extends to the street like a welcoming glove, can you not see limousines pulling up and letting its occupants out for a night cap? They could even demolish the old diner and put in an outdoor garden for its customers on the spot.

Next on our tour is Meglio Furs, 1300 S. Broad Street. Again, another shuttered building with very distinctive features. No one is quite certain when Meglio’s ceased operations, but mannequins and advertisements still grace its graffiti-covered display windows. A furrier itself speaks glamor, so converting this space should be a no-brainer!

While I am sure there were several other neon signs along Broad Street that no longer exist, the last stop on our tour is much further south, ending at the Dolphin Tavern, 1539 S. Broad Street. Unlike the previous examples, this place is still in operation. It is nothing more than a dive bar and a place to shoot pool, but it has been a South Philadelphia institution for quite some time. Like the Boot & Saddle, it catered to the Navy Yard set.

With these four examples, there certainly has to be someone out there clever enough to come up with an entertainment district along South Broad Street, something that evokes the glitz, glamor, and gaudiness of Las Vegas. Now that casinos are allowed in Pennsylvania, isn’t it time for Philly to have its own Little Las Vegas?

Cirque Du Soleil Dralion

Cirque Du Soleil Dralion will be at the Liacouras Center at Temple University from Tuesday December 21st to Sunday January 2nd. Tickets start at $45 and anything done by Cirque Du Soleil is well worth twice that.

Go see it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mellor, Meigs & Howe Architectural Offices

Contributed by Mike Gaines

In June of 1906, two former employees from the architectural firm of T.P. Chandler joined together to establish their own practice, creating one of the Philadelphia area’s most successful residential design firms in the early 20th century.

The firm of Walter Mellor (1880-1940) and Arthur Meigs (1882-1956) was first based out of the Lafayette Building at the northeast corner of 5th and Chestnut Streets. Successful from the outset, the pair quickly made a name for themselves designing club houses and private homes in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Within six years the firm was ready to expand. Selecting a site on the southeast corner of Chancellor and Juniper Streets, Mellor and Meigs hired the construction firm of Arthur H. Williams & Sons to execute their designs and convert an existing carriage house into their offices.

Visitors would have been initially mislead by the long and narrow entry hall and cozy reception room before they saw the rest of the building, which included spacious drafting rooms flooded with natural light from large banks of windows and skylights and a cavernous meeting room.

Mellor and Meigs drafting room, designed by Mellor and Meigs

On the outside, the facade was built in brick, slate on the roof, and copper for gutters and downspouts – all distinctive elements in Mellor & Meigs designs.

In 1916 the partnership was expanded to include George Howe, formerly of the firm Furness, Evans & Co., thus changing the name to Mellor, Meigs & Howe. Being that both Mellor and Meigs were locally trained architects, they hoped that the Ecole des Beaux-Arts-trained Howe would bring a European influence to the practice. Instead, Howe followed the tradition already established by Mellor and Meigs.

Juniper Street Entrance

Before Howe could leave a lasting impact, however, he was called off to serve in World War I, after which he would return to Philadelphia and the firm. In time, because of Howe, the firm’s clients would expand to include the design of banks, including the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, an account Howe took with him when he left the firm in 1928. (Howe would later be one of the co-designers of the iconic PSFS building at 12th and Market Streets).

That same year, the firm, having gone back to the name of Mellor & Meigs, decided to expand their offices by constructing a garage with an office above to the south side of the building. The existing building and addition were connected through an existing door on the ground floor, and by a new door on the second floor office. Attic space was accessed through a trap door in the ceiling of the office.

Mitchell’s Restaurant on Juniper Street in 1973

The firm continued in the space until Mellor’s death in 1940, at which time Meigs went into semi-retirement, chiefly finishing projects begun before Mellor’s death.

In 1946 the building went through its second conversion, this time into Mitchell’s Restaurant.

In 1982, a new gay and lesbian bar named Key West opened in the location and remained in business until its closing in 2008.

The building has remained vacant since.

Mellor, Meigs & Howe Architectural Offices
Common Name: Mitchell’s Restaurant; Mellor & Meigs Atelier; Key West Bar
Architect: Mellor & Meigs (alterations)
Address: 207-07 S Juniper Street, 1322 Chancellor Street
Neighborhood: Washington Square West/Midtown Village/"Gayborhood"
Date Built: Originally built as a carriage house between 1862-1875, based on city atlases.
1912: Converted to offices for Mellor & Meigs.
1928: Garage with office and attic above added to the south side of the building.
1946: Converted into restaurant

Status: For Sale

Happy Monday

Center City from the Philadelphia Museum of Art - Saturday Evening, November, 6th.