Friday, June 17, 2011

Robinson's Department Store

While I'm completely in favor of illuminating Market East as a catalyst to return the corridor to its rightful place as Philadelphia's historic center of all things capitalism, I won't deny that this once fine stretch of Center City is still home to a few significant landmarks.

Unfortunately, I think activists and historians miss the mark touting it as a place of quaint Colonial charm. It never was and never will be. Additionally, the introduction of the "distraction debate" is a political tactic worthy of little discussion.

After all, one of an architect's primary goals is to make us look, and in a city like Philadelphia, to look up. Buildings are advertisements. Comcast could have easily built an office park in King of Prussia but they wanted to be seen.

A lot can and has been said about Market East's white elephant, The Gallery. It's easy to criticise and hard to avoid. It's so hard to avoid that most people don't bother to look across the street. And that isn't necessarily because The Gallery is inviting, but because the dilapidated mix of retail across the street is even less hospitable.

But look up. At first glance the south side of the 1000 block of Market Street is a mess. But a tile-clad diamond of architectural significance stands above the the weeds. Built in 1946, the former Robinson's Department Store, which I like to call The Barbarella Building, was decades ahead of its time. Like the International Style icon, the PSFS Building at 12th and Market, many don't realize just how old this bizarre building really is.

Both helped establish a trend of boring, easily built, cost effective modern architecture, but as early examples, did so with well crafted quality design.

While it's not indicative of traditional Philadelphia architecture, our building stock is far more diverse than many national historians are willing to give us credit for. I think the Colonial ideal is more accurately applied to New England cities than Philadelphia.

Internationally renowned architects repeatedly used Philadelphia as a playground for their early experiments. Considering our eclectic portfolio - Willis Hale, Frank Furness, Wilson Eyre, I.M. Pei - I find Robinson's very Philadelphian.

Whether or not it finds itself on the Historic Register, were it cleaned up I think it could establish the same cultural following as some of our other quirky landmarks like the Divine Lorraine and the Hale Building.

More information on the history of Robinson's Department Store can be found here: Unlisted: Robinson's

1 comment:

  1. There are a few more interior photos in this collection-