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."

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