Friday, August 30, 2013

The Shirt Corner

You don't like The Shirt Corner. Yes, you. I know that.

Well, you're reading Philly Bricks, so you might actually like The Shirt Corner. In fact if you've stuck with my rants since 2009 you might even own a couple of their two-for-$99 canary yellow suits. My dad does.

Whatever the case, you have an opinion on The Shirt Corner.

No one looks at it and says, "Meh."

Well, for fans of The Shirt Corner, get down there and take some pictures. And for the foes, you can look forward to Olde City inching towards earing that unnecessary "e."

Closed since 2009, everyone knew The Shirt Corner was closed, and whatever its fate, we all knew its tacky red, white, and blue signage was going to go away, either by wrecking ball or turpentine.

Turns out, it's a combination of the two.

Alterra Property Group and the historic restoration firm, Powers and Company have pitched an idea to the Historical Commission, and the commission likes what it sees.

It looks like Coscia Moos Architects will be restoring four of the buildings and reconstructing a fifth, while demolishing three that don't contribute to the Old City Historic District. Of course by "contribute," they mean red brick and beige trim.

The Shirt Corner isn't architecture, it's branding. The only thing academically historic about the building is buried under layers of paint. But at Philly Bricks, I talk a lot about significant design and how it almost always offends as many as it inspires. I also talk a lot about the historic significance in things not academically perceived to be significant.

There is a psychological and sociological significance to The Shirt Corner that is often ignored by preservationists until they realize what's lost. While you can't compare demolishing a part of The Shirt Corner to the demolition of Frank Furness's Penn National Bank for the Declaration House at 7th and Market, the same meme is at play.

Old City has become a hot bed of two things: history and high end apartments. But the history being recreated here is as false as it is at the Declaration House, and completely ignores an era in Philadelphia's history that - while most would like to forget - is more significant than the buildings Alterra, Powers, and Coscia Moos intend to resurrect.

I'm not saying that The Shirt Corner is as significant as Franklin Court, but it is more significant than what's being rebuilt. And if you're going to demolish something that is indicative of an era, a gritty era that Old City truly was a part of much longer than Franklin's time, replace it with something that represents who we are today.

From Williamsburg to Boston, the nation is full of Colonial restorations, recreations, and revivals. Philadelphia's Old City's loss of post-Colonial architecture and design is unmatched. Just as midcentury developers demolished the works of Furness, Decker, and Eyre for Colonial recreations and park space, our contemporaries are demolishing and replacing the nostalgia of our recent history.

Again, you can't compare The Shirt Corner to the Divine Lorraine, but as architecture becomes less of an art and more of a marketing scheme, these iconic locales become more important.

Philadelphia is a unique, dynamic city, full of history. But when did we decide that history is our brand?

We've proudly spent decades defying the Colonial cliché that so many have pegged us. The Shirt Corner doesn't need to be saved, but Old City is a colorful and diverse neighborhood that doesn't need to creep further into what the rest of the country thinks of Philadelphia.

We're more than that.

Don't erase history to recreate a false one. If The Shirt Corner has to make way for progress, make sure it progresses. Build something exciting, indicative of the people who live there and make Old City what it is.

Otherwise, twenty years from now, we'll be looking back and wondering why we rebuilt several old buildings with no historic significance and thinking, "Damn, those must have been fun times."

Why we should have expected Hilton Home2

Either my Google skills are lagging behind or I didn't bother to do an image search for Hilton Home2 when I (and everyone else) was criticizing the turd at 12th and Arch before, during, and after construction.

It's hideous, and could have been better. Even despite construction costs, a nicer color palette isn't more expensive. Philadelphia has been unanimous - a rare feat Hilton accomplished - that this building didn't have to look like this.

Except that it did.

We spent hours on blogs and articles steaming over an inevitability, critiquing architecture that really can't even be called that, while the whole time the proof was out there, on the internet and around the country, of exactly what this building had to look like.

Take a look:


North Carolina

See something familiar? Turd is Hilton Home2's signature color.

We've been running ourselves ragged over the architecture of a company that employed an architect with no creative control.

We all know what a McDonald's or a Walmart is going to look like. In my short time in DC I saw no less than five CVS's level historic property for their trademarked faux Victorian (if it can even be called that) corner stores. When that happens, we don't critique the architecture, we critique the business.

This didn't deserve the energy any of us put into assessing the design. We should have been doing what we'd do if Walmart wanted to drop a store on Market Street and told Hilton, we don't want your business.

It's Friday...
...and this should put a smile on your face.

Parker Posey in SoHo

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Residential Development and the Status Quo

Carl Dranoff is no stranger to scrutiny. It's not surprising. While his designs are often unassuming and sometimes ridiculed, his firm is also synonymous with Philadelphia residential development.

While many have criticized the bland tower that rose from the site of the Sidney Hillman Medical Center, few have dropped the name of its developer, the John Buck Company, because it isn't a household name.

But both developers share the same struggle: appeasing lots and lots of tenants.

Dranoff's proposed One Riverside Park won't win any awards. Even in the design phase, we know it never will. Dranoff's bland designs are deliberate. Symphony House and 777 South Broad are his most unique, but they still echo tested design.

He's not a visionary, he's a businessman. Instead of hiring award winning firms that design iconic buildings, he hires ones that design buildings that rent quickly.

Heaving the weight of this reality on Dranoff's firm isn't entirely fair. There are plenty of developers in Philadelphia scarring our city with lesser architecture, or worse, bulldozing our history for parking lots from their mansions in New Jersey.

Dranoff is just the most visible because, perhaps, he's the most ambitious.

He's leaving a legacy on the city he loves. Respectably, he stands behind his properties in the face of criticism, deserved or not, and most of his buildings aren't significant enough to be ugly.

Dranoff is no Frank Furness, and perhaps that's where people get confused. He isn't an architect. He's a developer catering to families and suburban refugees looking for comfort and amenities, the kind of people we see jogging the Schuylkill Trail at 5am as we weirdos return from the all night clothing optional rave in Baltimore.

His demographic might cock their heads quizzically at the unique architecture popping up around University City, along New York's High Line, or even the Murano or the Residences at the Ritz. They're easy to appease, but easily turned off by the unfamiliar.

Basically, his market has a conservative eye. But that's where the money is. Dranoff knows this, and instead of trading potential tenants for unique design, he plays it safe and caters to the broadest market possible. Right now in Philadelphia that's the upper middle class ex-suburbanite who wants a home near the park, ample parking, and to live in something that blends into the background.

It's easy to call out other cities in comparison, but even New York is still churning out plenty of boring rectangular cubes to accommodate the status quo. New York and Chicago simply build so much that they have more gems to stand out.

Still, Dranoff's projects and weak design aren't entirely excused by this vast demand for the ordinary. Hilton Home2's developer citied construction costs to excuse his architectural disaster and he couldn't have been more knee-deep in bull ****.

It's true, it costs a lot to build in Philadelphia, but turning a building on an odd angle, adding unorthodox materials, or selecting a unique color palette doesn't up the construction costs.

Philadelphia is saddled with cost prohibitive situations, but that lies in construction, not design. There is no architecture union in Philadelphia that I'm aware of, and if there is, H2L2 and Erdy-McHenry aren't working against each other to produce the lowest common denominator.

Edgy and interesting design doesn't have to be cost prohibitive when it comes time to build, and Dranoff has the money to hire an architect with an eye for the unique. We know this because Post Brothers hired a firm to design a much more interested renovation at 12th and Wood and proved that Philadelphia's costly prohibitions aren't in themselves requirements, just a daily headache.

However Dranoff seems uninterested in ruffling the feathers of the city's unions. Post Brothers' renovations at the Goldtex, while visually unique, aren't structurally unique.

Dranoff could easily employ an edgy design firm to help him adorn the Schuylkill River, but that isn't what he does. Dranoff's reluctance to build an iconic high rise on the Schuylkill Banks is marketing, and a business move to sell his beds as fast as possible.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

From Chestnut Street to the Water: Poor Planning recently posted Stu Bykofsky's article gushing about a city planner who's assisted in some of Center City's most irreparable damage. And unlike Ed Bacon - who once proposed tearing down City Hall to make way for a giant traffic circle - Ross Brightwell's bright ideas came to fruition in an era when we all should have known better.

Ross Brightwell was a management consultant for the Chestnut Street Association in the late 1980's, planning the redevelopment of the Chestnut Street Business District. Assisting Ron Rubin (who's disregard for the "bricks" inadvertently created Philly Bricks, and gave us The Gallery at Market East and the Disney Hole), this "fountain of creativity" upped the district's taxes and created the thriving business, retail, and residential corridor that is our now successful Chestnut Street.

According to Stu Bykofsky's article, he helped save Center City.

Well let's back up. Where does Center City succeed? It succeeds on Walnut Street, Society Hill, Rittenhouse Square, University City.

Wherever Brightwell employed his "fountain of creativity" is an utter disaster. Where Chestnut Street succeeds is where, in very recent years, the success of Walnut Street has spilled over to Chestnut's deplorable infrastructure and bargain basement rent.

Brightwell is creative. Ed Bacon was a creative visionary as well. But the visions they shared gave us blocks of cold Soviet era concrete, inflated taxes to improve the sidewalks no one used, and at one point, blocked Chestnut to traffic and saw a street of Jetsonian pods carrying shoppers that didn't exist down a corridor with no business.

This didn't happen.

Basically, Brightwell is a utopian visionary. He comes from an era when Philadelphia, and most major cities, were struggling. Rather than wait out the slump, they poured huge sums of money into infrastructure improvements, and the assumption that the reason businesses were avoiding Center City had something to do with our sidewalks and traffic and nothing to do with the fact that the city had just lost the population of Atlanta.

Instead of adhering to the principle that has revived every successful post-industrial city in America, that new residents bring business, and new business affords us the luxury to plant trees, build plazas, and lay down brick sidewalks, the mid-century visionaries practiced the idea that "if you build it they will come."

We've learned from our mistakes, and by the time Brightwell was managing Chestnut Street in 1987, he could have looked at Market East and seen the scars of poor urban planning. Instead he charged full speed into the brick wall of reason insisting the mistakes of Ed Bacon could work.

The fallacy in this vision is evident in the success of Walnut Street. Our most diverse business corridor was a largely organic. The city fussed with Market and Chestnut because they were closest to our core. Walnut was ignored, and while it suffered the same lack of business throughout the 70's and 80's, it came around in the 90's because it hadn't been touched.

Now it's so successful that the boutiques that helped put it on the map are moving to Chestnut Street because they're being out priced by high volume retailers that have recognized how successful it is.

If Brightwell had done his job and his model worked, his domain wouldn't be the refuge for businesses struggling to make rent, it would be on national retailers' radars.

Lately he's been focusing his vision on the alleged I-95 debacle, a red herring for the Penn's Landing quagmire.

I-95 is an easy target. Sure, it was poor planning. The budget should have accounted for it to be capped. Hell, it should probably be in New Jersey.

But it is what it is, and the reason for that is that no one really cared about the waterfront or the industrial district it replaced at the time. It was the result of a lack of foresight from planners like Bacon, a lack of foresight Brightwell shares.

A good planner is more than an idealist and should have recognized a need for the built environment that I-95 replaced. Le Corbusier was a visionary and proposed leveling Paris for his Radiant City. They laughed, but Philadelphia did it.

City planners walk a fine line between architectural artistry and realistic business people with a respect for an organic infrastructure. Bacon and Brightwell lean towards the former.

As Brightwell envisions acres of real estate atop a buried interstate, capped with everything from an amphitheater to an aviary ferrying us to the water, he's ignoring what most of us ignore: Penn's Landing isn't a failure because we don't want to walk across eight lanes of elevated park space. It fails because it's a failure in and of itself.

On any given day hundreds of residents and tourists find their way to Penn's Landing. Locals ignore the poor museums and concrete, while tourists scratch their head and ask "why?"

Baltimore's waterfront doesn't succeed because it's not separated from the city by a highway. Inner Habor is disconnected from the city by a canyon, it's called Baltimore. It still succeeds because it's destination attractions are destinations.

If the National Aquarium was on Penn's Landing it would be surrounded by the same high rises, tourist malls, and street vendors that make Inner Harbor a lovely place to spend a day. Dumping millions of dollars into a concrete park over an interstate won't make Penn's Landing better, it will just get the same people to crap faster.

Brightwell envisions a cap over I-95 as a blank canvas for the city to work with while the city's had over 40 years to play with the canvas that is Penn's Landing, and it's still a disastrous money pit.

He sees I-95 as the space for the world's biggest merry-go-round and a roller coaster - which would be amazing - but why doesn't he see that on Penn's Landing?

I'd love to see high rise condos lining Delaware Avenue and sitting atop a capped I-95, but until developers are fighting over property that faces the river on solid ground, they aren't going to embark on the engineering feat of building anything on top of an interstate.

It's easy for us to see the river as an inaccessible pain and blame it on I-95. I do it all the time. But we aren't urban planners. An urban planner's job is to realistically assess the situation and recognize the fact that despite the interstate, we get to the river every day.

Give us something to do when we get there and maybe we'll have the means to cap the eyesore many of us have already come to terms with.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Disco, Detroit, and The Price is Right

*This isn't about architecture, just an incredible story...

In 1973, at the height of the gas crisis, the long lines at the pump had Americans cursing at Detroit and the land yachts they were producing. As Japan had already introduced quirky fuel efficient cars to America, the Subaru was admittedly "cheap and ugly." 

By that, I mean Subaru was pitching the GT-R as "cheap and ugly."

Meanwhile the Big Three were doing little to compete.

Enter Elizabeth "Liz" Geraldine Carmichael. This mother of five was raised on a farm in Indiana and had a knack for working on cars and tractors. The widow of NASA structural engineer, Jim Carmichael, her interest in automotive engineering grew after his death in 1966.

Carmichael developed the dent-proof, scratch-proof, burglar-proof, and bullet-proof Dale, a three wheeled fuel efficient car designed by Dale Clifft, so strong and fuel efficient in fact that it got 70MPG and could slam headfirst into a brick wall at 30MPH and suffer minimal damage, a feat Carmichael tested herself.

She was a stern and motivated woman determined to "knock the hell out of Detroit." With $30M in advanced sales of dealerships, cars, and shares, Carmichael had acquired the funds to build a prototype.

The Dale would have cost $2000 (only $9500 today) and was being lauded by the global press as "the car of the century" and "a space age automobile." Dealers and customers were showing up at Carmichael's corporate headquarters in Los Angeles to catch a glimpse of the Dale, eagerly throwing money at a piece of the action.

Sitting back in her leather chair and puffing on a cigarette, Carmichael said, "they thought Henry Ford was crazy. I'll show them. I'm going to rule the auto industry like a queen."

Raised a poor tomboy in Indiana, Carmichael's rags-to-riches story was as inspirational as the car itself.

As a young girl, Carmichael's mother insisted she "marry the farmer the next field over." Despite her mother's wishes, the ambitious young Carmichael earned a degree in structural engineering at Ohio State, where she met her husband, Jim, and went on to earn a master's degree in business administration from the University of Miami.

Jim and Liz formed the Carmichael Research and Development Corporation.

After Jim's death, Carmichael and her children moved to California. With the help of her twelve year old son, Carmichael built her first car. On the first test drive it rolled over, down a sand dune, and into the Pacific Ocean. "It cost me $30,000 to build," a total loss. 

Carmichael's second car however, was a success. One she tested by driving into a wall at 50MPH

After the successful crash test of her car, she purchased plans for a small three wheeler from Dale Clifft and named the car after its designer. 

She formally incorporated The Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation, a nod to Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, in Nevada in August of 1974.

With the funds from investors she returned to California, but within two weeks she began "having constant little disruptions." Acid was thrown in a vat of the Rigidex, the "rocket structural resin" she invented to mold the lightweight car body. Locks at the plant were broken. Plans were stolen.

The California Corporations Department ordered her to stop the sale of shares because she had no permit. 

Carmichael declared, "I am at war with the dirtiest industry in the world and I want everything out in the open. If I get hit I want people to hear me scream."

Her charisma and public image paid off. People wanted to see this woman destroy the Big Three. The Dale was a highlight of the Los Angeles International Auto Show in 1975.

But things were always a little fishy. When Carmichael released the schematics brochure, it claimed to use a BMW motorcycle engine, but it appeared to be installed the wrong way. She claimed that the car had no wires because of a printed circuit dashboard, but that didn't account for the rest of the car.

With worldwide interest in the car that was to turn Detroit upside down, the press wanted to take a look. When Car & Driver sent several photographers to Carmichael's factory, they opened the hood and found a lawnmower engine and parts of a vacuum cleaner. There was no accelerator, no steering wheel, and household door hinges were holding it together.

When California blocked her from accepting payments from dealers and customers, Liz moved her operation to Dallas where "the business climate was friendlier." There she planned to build a $1M research facility in a defunct Ford factory and was set to roll out 88,000 cars in 1975.

Things got wilder for Carmichael and the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation when, in January of 1975, a salesman and former public relations representative William D. Miller was found in Carmichael's Encino office dead from four gunshot wounds to the head. The prime suspect was a fellow employee who had served time with Miller in San Quentin, Jack Oliver.

With investors fleeing, employees abandoning her, and a public image plummeting in the face of murder, she renamed the car the Revette, claiming Dale Clifft was "no more important to the company than an 'office girl.'" 

Carmichael managed to get the Revette featured in the Showcase Showdown during the Price is Right. It's probably a good thing it didn't win, at least for Carmichael.

Carmichael had her prototype flown from Los Angeles to Dallas, but it broke down on the twenty mile drive from the airport to the city.

That same day the Dallas Times Herald revealed that Carmichael never attended Ohio State or the University of Miami. 

John Power, an engineer who had worked briefly for Carmichael in Dallas later revealed that the Dale was largely comprised from parts of other cars, including the carburetor from a lawnmower.

After this revelation, Liz and nine other members of the Twentieth Century Motor Car Corporation were indicted in Texas for conspiracy to commit grand theft. Additionally, the Los Angeles District Attorney was investigating Carmichael for grand theft as she had never actually produced a functioning car.

With the charges levied against Carmichael, she vanished with her five children in early March of 1975.

However, when she fled the $100,000 home she was leasing in North Dallas, authorities found more than dinner left on the table. They also found wigs, hair remover, well-padded bras, and what police referred to as "a device used by female impersonators to disguise their sex."

The media began wildly speculating, including one headline that read, "The Dale's Liz Could Be Tom, Dick or Harry...!"

One friend was quoted as saying, "she certainly looked like a man, but I guess we'll never know, unless someone catches her in the shower." 

After being on the lam for a month, Carmichael was caught by FBI agents climbing through the window of a rented Miami home wearing a pink checkered pants suit.

Finger prints revealed that Elizabeth Geraldine Carmichael was a forty seven year old fugitive felon wanted since 1961 for real estate scams, counterfeiting, and gun running, who'd been hiding in plain sight and the public eye...and also Jerome "Jerry" Dean Michaels.

Nothing was true. Her widow "Jim," Rigidex, The Carmichael Research and Development Corporation, the public shares, any of the wild claims about the Dale or the Revette. All as fake as her tits.

One of the few truths to Carmichael's story was that she did have five children. Michaels married Vivian Barrett in 1959 who worked as his secretary, watching Michaels hide as Carmichael (get it? Car-Michaels) in front of the entire globe.

Vivian Michaels stated, "we love her just as much as we loved him. The children call her Mother Liz and me just plain Mother." 

After Carmichael's capture, she still claimed faith in the Dale and the Revette, declaring, "I believe one hundred percent in this car," a quote in People from whom it called "the fifty percent man."

Of course whenever truth proves to be stranger than fiction the story couldn't just end with the revelation of a penis and four counts of felony.

Carmichael skipped out on $50,000 bail and wouldn't be caught again until 1989 when the story aired on Unsolved Mysteries. She was found to be living as Katherine Elizabeth Johnson in Dale (go figure), Texas selling flowers on the side of the road.

The biggest question that remains might be, why hasn't this been made into a movie starring Kathleen Turner?

Of course, if you follow automotive news, this all might sound a little familiar. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

A Love Letter to Philadelphia

I've always been kind of a nomad. I've lived in the country, small towns, big cities, DC, Portland, but I've lived in Philadelphia the longest. And I didn't just happen upon it. When I was a kid growing up on a farm in Virginia, my family would come to Philly for our urban excursions. Most kids would go to DC if they ever left Mount Crawford, and that's where the big field trips led us because it was the closest big city. But my dad grew up in Philadelphia, my grandfather was a catcher for the Phillies (although my allegiance lies with the team he won the World Series with, the Yankees, I know, yuck), and my mom's family history with Philadelphia is as hard as the crust on the crappy sandwiches they still serve at the Philadelphia Club.

But it's not even that. I ****ing love this town. The architecture that New York and Chicago can't touch, the quaint streets that Savannah would consider a driveway, the insane rants from anyone of our resident weirdos that any struggling actor in LA could only wish to emulate, even the constant string of entertainment our absurdly corrupt City Council provide.

Philadelphia is the microcosm of Americana. It's redneck, it's douchebag, it's exceedingly wealthy and exceedingly poor. It's (Montgomery County) where heterosexual county clerks issue marriage licenses to same sex couples because they want to be on the "right side of history," it's where the Black Panthers spout racist rhetoric in front of the city's homage to capitalism while we buy a $600 suit, and ignore it because Ben Franklin said any idiot can say what he wants on public property.

It's where it's 2013 and 1776 at any given day and any given time. Where a group from Nebraska wait for their table at Hard Rock while Granny Tranny panhandles, and then an Amish girls walks by with her lunch from Chinatown.

It's the good, the bad, and the downright crazy. It's not the best place in the world, but good is boring. Philadelphia is America. People love Philadelphia for the same reason others hate it, it's real, it's us.

Other cities have winky fun in their coffee shops and beer halls, spin political campaigns and define corporations, produce blockbusters and win Super Bowls. Meanwhile Philadelphia remains, unconcerned with others and itself, just being what it is. We're the true bad ass of American cities. Guys want to be us, chicks want to get with us. We're too cool to sit at the cool kids' table, we're in the parking lot smoking with the janitor.

That's us, and we're ****ing awesome.

*Thanks to Gladys on for asking me to post this.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Price of Freedom

After serving a portion of his 55 month sentence (do the math if you'd like, I started getting sick as I was counting), Vince Fumo somehow managed to skip the halfway house and go straight his Green Street mansion.

What the Federal Bureau of Prisons calls a "home confinement system" sounds more like the plot from the satirical Arrested Development.

While he was supposed to be completing his sentence at the Klintock Group halfway house in North Philadelphia making $10 an hour working for his lawyer, it seems that his lawyer was instead working for him, getting him released on house arrest with no comment from the bureau other than the statement that decisions are made on a "case-by-case basis."

Something tells me this case depended on the fact that Fumo had a $5.5M mansion to return to and the means to maintain his house...and other relationships.

What's that? A man convicted of 137 acts of corruption, a man who faced a minimum of ten years in prison despite being sentenced to 55 months, still owns a $5.5M mansion?

It would seem so. The house was on the market in 2009 for $5.5M.

I'd spend two years at Camp Cupcake if I could return to this house. Oh wait, I have a pesky little thing calls a conscience that says the government should own that house.

I guess the sale was a potential safety net he just realized he didn't need. The price of freedom must have tanked with the housing crash if Fumo is residing there.