Sunday, August 17, 2014

Losing a Philadelphia Icon

Long before the additions to West Market and JFK transformed the skyline into one you'd expect to find looming over millions of residents and workers, Philadelphia's skyline was unique. I remember looking up at its monolithic office buildings, stone church steeples, and masonic adornment as a child and wondering which comic book villain had a lair inside City Hall's clock tower. 

But its uniqueness doesn't solely lie in our skyscrapers that line narrow streets, abutting 19th Century brownstones, or the three dimensionality created by the divide between the towers built before and after 1988, when our infamous Gentleman't Agreement was abandoned.

Our skyline has retained a uniqueness embedded in quizzical nostalgia without succumbing to the collective "ugh" typically prompted by worn nostalgia like 50s Rock Cafes.

From the Divine Lorraine to the PSFS Building, to Victorian signage offering hat and shoe repair or Automats; to outsiders, Philadelphia is a fictional city full of businesses and companies that don't exist.

Philadelphia is Gotham. It's Metropolis. Star City.

Fur coats are still advertised at Meglio's on South Broad Street. A city that refers to our flagship department store as Wanamaker's will likely dub the upcoming Century 21 retailer at the Gallery, Strawbridge's. 

I've watched tourists gaze up at the PSFS Building and declare it a 1960s eyesore unaware that it was completed just before the Great Depression and its original fixtures, designed by Cartier, remain intact and in place.

The glowing neon sign atop the tower is particularly troublesome to many who don't "get" Philadelphia. And maybe, in some ways, they're right. In isolation, perhaps it would be an eyesore. In a downtown like Los Angeles or Seattle, it would have been removed decades ago, long since replaced with modern corporate signage scraped from a website, recognizable to the world. 

Most cities are determined to exclusively modernize or restore, ignoring decades of evolution that transform our built environment into one full of inadvertent icons. Were the PSFS sign not surrounded by similarly defunct signage, were it situated on Pioneer Square in Portland, OR, it would look bizarrely out of place. 

But our eclectic mix of fictional businesses advertised in neon or hundreds of incandescent light bulbs create a cohesiveness that identifies this city. As these signs begin to vanish, how will the PSFS or Divine Lorraine signs be received when they're outnumbered by digital signage flaking Market East or Temple University's logos lining North Broad?

Suburban Station may soon be renamed Verizon Station and U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah found approval to rename 30th Street Station, William H. Gray III 30th Street Station. What will become of Suburban Station's iconic sign or its Art Deco signage along JFK? Verizon wants to show its corporate presence in a neighborhood synonymous with Comcast, so it's doubtful that they will be subdued in branding Suburban Station with modern, corporate logos.

Today, South Broad Street began losing its own icon. The large PNB letters at One South Broad which, like the Pennsylvania Saving Fund Society, represent a defunct Philadelphia National Bank, are currently being removed by helicopter.

Unlike the PSFS Building, the PNB letters were added to One South Broad in the 1950s and are not original. The building itself is stunning and perhaps to some, even more handsome than the PSFS Building. But despite being one of Philadelphia's many beautiful old office buildings, today it ceases to be any more than that. 

We've lost the Daily Planet. The PNB Building is no longer a character in Philadelphia's fictional narrative. 

Of course these iconic signs do more than tell the tale of a fictional city that doesn't exist, they're time travelers that tell the story of a Philadelphia that did exist. Say what you will about the Shirt Corner's garishly patriotic facade, but it too was part of the city's visual dialogue that reminded us of an era many would like to forget.

Aion Partners of New York purchased One South Broad Street in May. Unlike Loew's, Aion Partners has decided to remove any ambiguity.


  1. I believe the Pennsylvania Rail Road Suburban Station sign is only about 10 years old. I was sure it wasn't there in the 90s. A friend confirmed that. He was lightly involved in the recreation of the retro sign. Since the PRR was long defunct when that sign went up, I don't think you have to worry about that one vanishing if the station becomes Verizon.

    I never liked the PNB letters. They always looked like a half assed me-too response to the wonderful PSFS sign. I won't miss them.

    1. You're right, the Suburban Station sign is fairly new. They did a good job with it.

      I honestly won't miss the PNB signs either. Okay, maybe I will miss it a little bit. I just found them an interesting part of a skyline that probably has more defunct signage than contemporary signage. It made the skyline unique.

  2. You hit the nail on the head with this one. The PNB letters and PSFS and all of those other ones are our way of respecting our past and the heights that Philadelphia was once at.

    Architecture critics just flat out don't "get" what those letters mean to us. Most transplants don't either, because they were not here for the bad. You'll notice, we don't pay homage to companies that left us, like Bell Atlantic/Verizon, or Liberty Mutual, or any of those other ones. We pay homage to what was and to what stayed in the city even if they ended up being bought up or going out of business altogether. Those PNB letters are a symbol of greatness and say to the rest of the world that yes a Philadelphia company was that big at one time, and that is especially what the PSFS letters say. Now if One South Broad was still a retail building, that would show something that is even more impressive... that a Philadelphia company built what was at the time the largest store in the world.

    As just a plain building though, it doesn't say anything. The PNB letters forced people to learn our history. The fact that a 400+ foot building (two actually) was built before the Depression in a time when no building was allowed to be taller than City Hall (meaning both probably could've been a lot bigger given how powerful those two banks were) says something about the city that is ignored nationally and even locally. When you see the letters PNB and PSFS on what were for decades the tallest buildings in the city and even to this day stand out the way 700+ buildings do in New York, that forces you to recognize and acknowledge Philadelphia's former financial might.