Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Gamble and Huff

Bradley Maule
The announcement of Carl Dranoff's forty story hotel at the site of Philadelphia International Records has caused a stir amongst both American music lovers and national historians. The small but pronounced building at Broad and Spruce, partially destroyed by a fire in 2010, is the location that Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff helped launch the careers of Motown and Disco legends.

With Philadelphia International Records and its neighbor, Utrecht Art Supplies closed, the building is currently vacant. Still, the building stands in the Broad Street Historic District so it's the prime location for Philadelphia's first museum dedicated to the Philadelphia Sound, right?

Well there's just one catch. Kenny Gamble, largely responsible for the building's iconic history, is still very much alive. In fact it is his holding division, the Great Philadelphia Trading Company that is orchestrating the building's sale to Carl Dranoff.

It's a unique situation. The building is clearly historic, but historically significant thanks to Kenny Gamble. Can the city really say, "You did a great job making history, but we're going to tell you what to do with the building that made it. But hey, thanks for the music"?

Given the impending outcome at the Boyd Theater, the city's Historical Commission has rendered itself useless, just an item on any developer's shopping list. But our private historic organizations, those truly dedicated to the salvation of our region's landmarks don't operate without their own missteps.

The simple fact is this is Kenny Gamble's building. If the city forces it from the source of the building's history, in the name of history, the city comes across as a great big ass. That doesn't mean there should be no effort to save it. But that's where Philadelphia's historic organizations need to be a little less...Philadelphian.

Gamble needs a reason to save the building, or at least its legacy. Is the building itself significant or just the music it helped create? At the very least the discussion has proposed the need for a museum dedicated to the sound brought to us by Gamble and Huff. Would a museum anchoring Dranoff's new hotel significantly honor that, or is there true history in the current building's architecture.

Do those rallying to save the building really understand why it's significant? Do they listen to records bought at Philadelphia International Records and connect it to the architecture.

Historic preservation is rarely about buildings, but historians can be somewhat ragmatic when it comes to restoration. Even at the Boyd Theater, what are historians trying to preserve? A building or an experience? An experience that few still appreciate?

At Broad and Spruce, that experience is the music, and most of that history was lost to the fire in 2010. What's left may truly be an insignificant building.

These are all things that preservationists need to consider as they campaign to save a defunct record store. Is the architecture of a building, one built decades before Philadelphia International Records, relevant to its history? Would it be relevant to anyone seeking a museum dedicated to its namesake?

South Broad has its share of underutilized property more appropriate for a new skyscraper, but as we've seen countless times, the market and zoning dictates those decisions. If Dranoff can pull off a skyscraper even more exciting than Gamble's building on Broad and Spruce, one housing a museum dedicated to the legacy of Gamble and Huff, has anything really been lost?

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