Sunday, March 30, 2014

Development Along the Schuylkill River

In recent years the success of the Schuylkill Banks and plans for additional improvements have inadvertently called residential developers into action. The Banks is an urban Cinderella Story. Historically industrial railroad space, few ever thought the flood plain two stories below Center City would ever find itself as a role model for urban parks.

But architecturally, the Banks poses a challenge. Through most of Center City, the Schuylkill River isn't graded with the city's built environment, it's recessed well below. Particularly between JFK and Walnut, it's recessed more like the Chicago River than a place ever meant for cyclists and joggers. In fact many early master plans for JFK, West Market Street, and 30th Street Station envisioned the river's east bank looking a lot more like its west. Rightly, developers are eager to offer residents a piece of the river, but it's not as simple as building condos on Miami Beach.

How do developers best ferry their elevated tenants to the park below without alienating recreationalists and hurting the peaceful setting the Banks provides?

Recently, three towering proposals have called this into question. In the heart of the city surrounded by skyscrapers, towering apartment buildings along the river won't diminish the park's experience in their own right. However being on a flood plain, these projects must be elevated to the streets above. Each of these proposals has remedied that obstacle by putting their tenants atop a parking podium. Unfortunately, that puts the least desirable element, a parking stump, face to face with the Schuylkill Banks.

Many have come out against these projects, namely due to the vast concrete walls that will face the river. Are foes of these projects simply echoing the the media, or should these developers be sent back to their drawing boards?

Is it possible to address the architectural need to elevate these towers without distracting from the pleasures of the park? Is there an alternative? If there is no alternative, is sending developers elsewhere for the sake of a park worth abandoning the benefits these projects offer the city above?

But really, are these parking garages that different than the built space that already faces the Banks? The park still sits on an industrial artery, beside and below railroad tracks. Anyone who's spent time on the river knows that the Central Banks often peer into the dark recesses of the city's underground.

2400 Chestnut and the PECO Tower already sidle up to the Banks, offering as much or less to the river than the recent proposals. Neither diminish the park's experience, but simply remind recreationalists that the Banks is a very urban park. Where were those agitated by the inevitable residential interest in the river when critics were gushing over the proposed Mandeville Place? The vistas offered along the Schuylkill River are directed at University City's growing crystalline skyline, but Center City's presence is incidental and always will be.
The Schuylkill Banks will not be abandoned because of a series of parking podiums, only find an increased demand by the tenants in the towers above. Perhaps more importantly, these projects will help bridge the cognitive divide between Center City and University City, creating a much greater urban core.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

"The North's Nut House"

Throughout America's Gilded Age, from the late 19th Century through the 1920s, America's Captains of Industry were erecting larger and larger palaces in their name. Despite their reputation as American Royalty, the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Wideners, and Drexels were not immune to the realities of American capitalism. Still, while the Great Depression rightly earned its place as America's greatest economic collapse, many of these titans of wealth emerged on the other side unscathed. As we learned from the recent economic recession, economic turmoil is measured in collateral damage, not justice.

But there are some human realities to which even the world's wealthiest are not immune. I'm speaking, of course, about family.

Two generations into the Industrial Revolution, America's prominent mad men were breeding even madder offspring. The Kardashians and Hiltons of the Gilded Age didn't turn to a public that praised their cash fueled insanity, these people were an embarrassment. The media, on the other hand, hasn't changed as much. Always loving a story, the brats of the 19th and early 20th centuries were a juicy scoop for the New York Times or the Philadelphia Public Ledger, but these kids couldn't turn to TLC or MTV to earn their keep selling their shame. They were unemployable financial burdens.

Plenty of the descendants of the Industrial Revolution inherited family corporations, started their own, or proudly joined the service. Some of these prominent families have so successfully traversed the complex economics of the 20th Century that they have maintained their namesake's wealth and influence for a hundred years.

But what of the others? In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the American South was a war torn wasteland of massive unfarmed plantations sitting on millions of acres of affordable land. Still recovering from the fallout of the Civil War, the governmental infrastructure was fractured and poorly taxed. While many of the North’s successful legacies of the Industrial Revolution built camps and retreats in the Adirondacks or New Jersey, the more eccentric were pissing away their inheritances on mansions they couldn't afford, toiling away as men of leisure or artists who refused to abandon the life of luxury to which they were accustom.

The South provided a solution, and quickly became the flip side to the Main Line's coin. It became the West Egg for the kids you couldn't take anywhere. Unfortunately, or perhaps interestingly, shipping off a bunch of spoiled brats to the war torn cotton fields of the South less than a lifetime removed from the Civil War created one of the most bizarre cultures in American history that few have bothered to document.

Belfair Plantation
In the early 1900s, four of the North's more prominent socialites, each as unproductive as the next, moved to Beaufort County in South Carolina just north of Savannah. From Philadelphia, Anthony Drexel, Jr. purchased Callawassie Island. William Moseley Swain, grandson of the Public Ledger's founder, purchased Belfair Plantation, demolished and replaced it with his own. Two New Yorkers, Harry Cram and Roy Rainey, joined them, each purchasing their own plantation in the region's Low Country.

What started as a retreat to hunt and waste away the days quickly turned to a bizarre mix of rum running, voodoo, and maybe even murder. Anthony Drexel married a local Savannah model, Helen Howard, a notable character in John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil renamed Serena Dawes, the protagonist's eccentric and perhaps only true friend. Listen closely next time you see the movie, she introduces her companion, "Harry Cram."

Through Helen and others, these Northern playboys found themselves immersed in the Savannah region's own social culture. But you have to remember, prior to the Civil War, not long before this foursome found itself in the Low Country, the United States was only vaguely united. The Civil War was prominently about slavery, but it also consolidated a federal republic. At the time, the South's High Society was as different from what these boys were accustomed to as that of any foreign country.

Needless to say, it got wild. To this day, local folklore in the Low Country tells tales of the parties on Callawassie Island and at Belfair Plantation. One in particular tells of a lavish outdoor soiree at Belfair Plantation where a guest wearing an expensive diamond - locals swear it was the Hope - was attacked by a goat who proceeded to eat the necklace. Guests slaughtered the goat to retrieve the diamond, promptly roasted the animal, and the answer to "What's for dinner?" presented itself. 

While the elite partied with unfettered regard, they didn't go unseen. Rum running in the region was huge and throughout Prohibition these parties were anything but dry. Ships would anchor off the coast of the Low Country, just inside international waters in such numbers that it looked as though another city sat atop the ocean. Barrels of rum would be dropped in the sea and retrieved on the shore.

Belfair Plantation
The South struggled for decades with reconstruction, primarily focused on returning order to its urban centers. Its rural regions, still largely abandoned, were also largely ignored. What author Baynard Woods, in his book Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff, referred to as "the North's Nut House" was allowed to play unchecked.

But Sheriff Ed McTeer, Beaufort County's youngest sheriff, found an unusual way to tackle what had become an equally unusual situation: voodoo. The region's wealthy plantation owners continued to hide their debauchery behind a thick veil of money that flowed in from their parents and grandparents in New York and Philadelphia. Meanwhile, there were forgotten parties that lived amongst their opulence unseen.

The South's freed slaves resided in the marshland around these plantations and lavish estates, a tight and expectedly suspicious community segregated from Savannah and ignored by the law. McTeer recognized their presence and knew this community had answers, but he had no way to get them. Many of the freed slaves practiced a mix of Native American, Caribbean, and African religions known as hoodoo or voodoo, and McTeer found his answers by becoming one of them.

Sheriff McTeer, whether he believed what he practiced or not, found himself a prominent Witchdoctor rivaling the Low Country's foremost practitioner of mysticism, Dr. Buzzard, whose wife also makes an appearance in Midnight as Minerva.

It took time, but McTeer found a front row seat to the insidious activities on Callawassie Island and Belfair Plantation. Although many in the South remain tight lipped about its history, a cohesive series events can be tethered together in stories that have emerged in whispers. Considering the bizarre history of the region the more spiritually curious may wonder, when William Swain's son, Bill was found dead at the bottom of his staircase at Belfair in 1948, was it the tragic result of a parlor trick for which he was known, was it the caretaker who was acquitted, or was something more mystical at play?

To date, very little of "the North's Nut House” remains. Belfair Plantation was demolished for a resort community and the region is prominently known for Hilton Head Island, luxury homes, and golf. What little that does remain, remains in Savannah. A portrait of the Public Ledger's founder, William Moseley Swain, hangs in the main hall of Mercer House, home of Midnight's main character, Jim Williams.

Perhaps William's quote from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil best summarizes the North's legacy in the Low Country: "There's only two things that interest me: work, and those trappings of aristocracy that I find worthwhile. The very things they're forced to sell when the money runs out. And it always runs out. And then all they're left with is their lovely manners."

Additional historical research provided by Michael Gaines.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Philly Brick's 30 Favorite Philadelphia Institutions, Organizations, People, Places, or Things

Movoto Realty, known more for their BuzzFeed style lists than how the organization is tied to actual real estate, just posted "30 Things You Need To Know About Philadelphia Before You Move There."

The list waxes and wanes between truly outstanding sites like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Franklin Institute, and less than fantastic stereotripe like cheesesteaks and the Betsy Ross House.

Still, considering Movoto once ranked Oakland more exciting than Miami, it's surprising that Movoto's curators of online lists know anything about Philadelphia.

Well, rather than go the BuzzFeed route and offer up the umpteenth "definitive" list, I'm going to provide you with Philly Brick's 30 Favorite Philadelphia Institutions, Organizations, People, Places, or Things. Why? Because this is my blog and I can say what I want. Why will I tell you? Because I'm a Philadelphian, so I will say what I want. Which brings us to #30:

30: Philadelphians Utter Disregard
Philadelphians' utter disregard for themselves, our city, and what others think of much so that a definitive list informing those outside the Jerseyvania Triangle just why we're so great is the most un-Philadelphian thing one can do. Why is it great? Well, it's not so much great as it is one of my favorite quirks about the ironically dubbed City of Brotherly Love. But is it that ironic? Philadelphians truly do love a brother. Like that family member you don't like or understand, but are forced to unconditionally love.

29: Independent Journalism
You know who reads or watches ABC News? People looking for the score to last night's game and gay guys crushing on Adam Joseph. You know what everyone else reads? Some of the broadest range of informative, opinionated, and dedicated independent journalism in the country. Hidden City, Philebrity, Plan PhillyUwishunu, and the City Paper's Naked City and Philaphilia provide Philadelphians with a humorous and opinioned take on more information than you'll ever find in the mainstream media.

28: Shut Up and Dance
For more than two decades the Pennsylvania Ballet dancers have choreographed their own routines and put on a show at the Forrest Theater to benefit MANNA, an organization that prepares and delivers meals to the city's residents suffering from AIDS and other diseases. Shut Up and Dance isn't what you think of when you think of ballet. It's interpretive, wild, techno, and beautiful, so don't expect Swan Lake or the Nutcracker. Expect a great time for a great cause.

27: The Schuylkill Banks
For more than ten years the Schuylkill River Development Corporation has defied local logic and Philadelphia's tradition of overpriced civic projects that never seem to end. The Schuylkill Banks has become a model for urban river parks, improving not only the former industrial space between the river and the railroad tracks, but also the bridges connecting Center City to University City. Soon, a boardwalk will carry joggers and cyclists to the South Street Bridge with plans for an extension all the way to Bartram's Garden.

26: Philadelphia Museum of Art
Speaking of the Schuylkill Banks and the Schuylkill River Trail which extends all the way to Valley Forge, someday all the way to Reading, the Philadelphia Museum of Art sits on the banks of the river and is more than just a repository for one of the most extensive art collections in the world. The Horace Trumbauer masterpiece is a work of art itself rivaling most of America's most lavish art institutes, including the National Gallery. The building that bookends the landscaped Benjamin Franklin Parkway with the equally grandiose Philadelphia City Hall challenges the pomp of some of Europe's oldest museums and avenues.

25: Philadelphia City Hall
Philadelphia's City Hall is so massive it took over thirty years to build, so long that by the time it was complete, its second empire facades were no longer en vogue and many residents considered it a mammoth eyesore. Philadelphia's own Alexander Calder's statue of William Penn atop City Hall's clock tower makes the building just a few meters shorter than the Washington Monument. Today it's the world's tallest masonry building, but who cares, just look at it.

23: Inga Saffron
The fact that Philadelphia's foremost newspaper has its own architecture critic says as much about our citizens' appreciation for our built environment, historic or new, as the city's architecture czar has. But Saffron has been a fixture amongst the city's architecturally informed much longer than her tenure with the paper. Whether or not you always agree with Saffron's critques and reviews, the three time Pulitzer Prize finalist has an opinion and never bends to the journalistic trend of divisive contrarianism that trades controversy for comments and clicks. She's honest and consistent, and like many Philadelphians who appreciate architecture, she isn't an architect. She offers her readers, fans and foes, an approach to architecture bred by a willingness to look up rather than school born jargon only the architecturally educated understand.

22: Trinity Houses
Not only is Philadelphia home to streets most of America would consider alleys or sidewalks, we still drive on them. Lined with small trinity homes smaller than some studio apartments, Philadelphians rarely look at treacherous pie staircases with dismay, but sometimes as a characteristic or historic selling point. And while your living room may be smaller than a Main Line walk-in closet, space is irrelevant when it can be packed with charm, and Rittenhouse or Washington Square serve as your own backyard. And look closely at Camac Street. Those aren't cobblestones, it's paved with wood.

21: The Main Line
I'm not going to criticize the Main Line's decadence without offering it praise. Lancaster Avenue's bedroom communities of Ardmore, Bryn Mawr, and Bala Cynwyd are home to some of America's most prized Guilded Age mansions. Easily rivaling Long Island or Newport, RI, these gems are unassumingly tucked away leading those passing by to gasp and wonder unexpectedly, "What on earth is that place?" Oh, it's just the home of Mother Divine.

20: Mother and Father Divine
The Divine Lorraine is impressive enough on its own, even in its derelict condition. Willis G. Hale's North Broad hotel is a bizarre mess of historic styles. Like many of his buildings including Chestnut Street's Hale Building, his gaudy approach to Victorianism was abhorred for decades. But the Divine Lorraine became something else. Purchased by Father Divine in 1948, the Divine Lorraine became the first fully integrated hotel in America. Father Divine was the leader of the International Peace Movement Mission and his followers regarded him as God. Today the movement is led by his widow, Mother Divine, with a dwindling number of followers. Dwindling because of the Mission's rule, "no undo mixing of the sexes." Mother Divine operates the church out of Woodmont in Gladwyne, PA, built for steel magnate Alan Wood, Jr. in 1894. Woodmont is the final resting place of Father Divine.

19: Grace Kelly
Yeah, she's from here. The Princess of Monaco - and the Silver Screen - was raised in East Falls by John Kelly, Sr., triple Olympic Gold Metal winner. Despite what you may have been told, Kelly Drive is named for John Kelly, not his daughter.

18: Ed Bacon
Philadelphia's late Ed Bacon served as the Execitive Director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission until 1970. The man who once proposed tearing down City Hall for a massive traffic circle is responsible for some of Philadelphia's greatest obstacles: The Vine Street Expressway, I-95, and The Gallery at Market East. He even suggested demolishing most of South Street for an additional highway trench, creating an inner loop. While his choices have become a source for contention, he practiced at a time when American cities were losing residents to the suburbs, seeking ample parking and strip mall shopping. His plans attempted to compete. Perhaps it worked. Dense, post-industrial cities like New York and Boston employed similar methods, and both cities weathered midcentury flight like Philadelphia. Other cities without a Bacon, Cleveland and Detroit, weren't so lucky. While it's not completely evident in the projects built in his name, Bacon believed in urbanism, density, and sustained walkability. He was a long term visionary responsible for Society Hill's transformation from blighted slum to quaint Colonial charm.

17: Mayor Richardson Dilworth
Philadelphia's 91st mayor wasn't afraid to ruffle feathers or live in Center City's worst neighnborhood. During World War II and before suburbanization, America's cities were a deplorable mix of post Depression poverty, abandonment, and corruption. Dilworth reformed City Hall and consolidated city agencies. By the 1930s and 40s, Washington Square and Society Hill, once the city's answer to West Market Street, had lost their corporate presence to the Great Depression and its residents to greener and cleaner neighborhoods in North and West Philadelphia. By the time Dilworth took office in 1956, those neighborhoods were facing the same loss to the suburbs and Society Hill was home to squatters, fires, and condemned history. Richardson Dilworth, a wealthy lawyer and all around fancy boy who could have easily made a home on Delancy Street or a Rittenhouse penthouse, decided the best way to lead his city was to live amongst and understand its most neglected. It's nearly impossible to imagine today, but when Mayor Dilworth built the Dilworth House on Washington Square, Society Hill looked a lot more like today's worst neighborhoods than the charming historic district we know.

16: The Drake
From 15th and Spruce, the Drake Apartments, formerly the Drake Hotel, is a narrow apartment tower, only about as wide as a brownstone or two, flatly facing the Kimmel Center with yellow brick in a vaguely Art Deco style. Step back a block or two and it becomes something magical. Topped with a wedding cake of brick gazebos and terra cotta tile, the Drake's magnificent apartments wind up to a massive dome atop the building's major attraction, its two story penthouse. If Ghostbusters had been set in Philadelphia, and given our long and often dark history, it should have been, the Drake's penthouse terraces would certainly be capable of summoning Zuul.

15: Our neighborhoods
Somehow one of America's most densely populated cities has been able to provide a house for the vast majority of its residents. Perhaps this dates back to a mentality imbedded in the city's founding, when William Penn designed his "Green Country Towne." Penn may have been the first suburban developer, planning a single family home for all of his town's residents and abandoning the mixed-use approach of apartment dwellings and density that led to the Black Plague. Of course his plan was almost immediately abandoned as land owners began subdividing their property, breaking up their large blocks with small side streets lined with servant homes and even smaller Trinity Houses. But to date, Philadelphia's grid exists largely comprised of row homes. Most of the city's apartment buildings are relegated to Center City, University City, and the suburbs, but even in those areas, row homes abound. Other cities have either replaced their row homes with large apartment complexes, or never had row homes to begin with. Yet somehow many of those places don't enjoy the dense walkability found in Philadelphia even with vastly denser housing options.

14: The Mutter Museum
Have you ever wanted to go to a Victorian Circus and pay a nickel to see the bearded lady or a pair of conjoined twins? Don't be embarrassed. If you've ever deliberately turned to TLC or the History Channel, you've clearly wanted to see a "Freak Show." The Mutter Museum provides the same experience, but as part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, it provides you with a peek at the macabre and disfigured under the veil of academics. But let's face it, we go to the Mutter Museum to celebrate Halloween all year long.

13: The Gayborhood
Many major American cities don't have a Gayborhood. Gay bars are scattered about Atlanta and Charlotte leaving gay residents no option for a night out that doesn't involve an expensive taxi cab or a designated driver. Other cities that do have gay neighborhoods find themselves in areas like Seattle's Capitol Hill, detached from the skyline. Still others that have dense gay neighborhoods like Washington, DC have found them shifted around due to real estate demands and hostile community organizations. Philadelphia's Gayborhood isn't just designated by the rainbows adorning its street signs, it's designated by history dating back to a time when the neighborhood was a prominent theater district. The city's fops and dandies would discreetly meet each other by donning a red tie, then duck into one of the area's many art clubs for a drink. The small Washington Square West neighborhood's gay businesses have been able to keep up with changes in the emerging Midtown Village area, keeping up appearances by renovating venues like Woody's and U-bar. Philadelphia's unmatched tolerance has kept neighborhood organizations on the side of diversity, helping gay bars avoid the nuisance claim tactic that trades nightlife for baby carriages. What's perhaps best about Philadelphia's Gayborhood is it doesn't hide in the far reaches of the city, it sits proudly at the foot of the skyline a few blocks from City Hall. It's as downtown as it gets.

12: Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and Society Hill
Although city planners did attempt to showcase some of Philadelphia's history with Independence Mall, emulating Washington's National Mall, most of Philadelphia's history remains largely incidental. It's just there, and it's everywhere. You can be hunting for Old City's next great restaurant and find yourself touring Carpenters' Hall or staring down Benjamin Franklin's toilet while passing through Franklin Court. Philadelphia is saturated with so much history, you can't turn a corner in Center City without coming face to face with something significant.

11: Frank Furness
For much of the 20th Century, legendary Victorian architect Frank Furness was as reviled as Willis G. Hale, largely for the same reason. His angular and eclectic take on Victorian design took garishness to an extreme, so much so he was never fully appreciated in his lifetime. It's hard to stand inside a building designed by Frank Furness and not feel overwhelmed. While much of the Modern Movement attempted to swap the craft of the Victorian era with clean lines and concrete, Frank Furness is finally receiving the praise he always deserved.

10: Erdy McHenry Architecture
Erdy McHenry Architecture of Philadelphia is largely known for its residential designs. Employed mostly in emerging neighborhoods and on college campuses, Erdy McHenry practices where experimentation is welcome. The firm combines elements of Modernism, Bauhaus, even Brutalism in its long residential blocks. These imposing, even foreboding structures may invoke a feeling of being in front of a monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Erdy McHenry has managed to bring Bladerunner to life, providing Drexel, Penn, and Temple with 1970s dystopian thrillers on the streets of Philadelphia. Much like Furness and Hale, Erdy McHenry will likely never be fully appreciated by its contemporaries. The architectural audience may be intimidated by these epic fortresses until they're relegated to the pages of history.

9: Hollywood
Yes, Hollywood. New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago tend to be the go-to locales for movies and television shows. It makes sense. As America's three largest cities, they embrace the three largest markets. New York and Los Angeles are also convenient filming locations. Their abundance of film studios make location shots a breeze. Philadelphia has been no stranger to film history, but our role in cinema and television is unique. When a movie or television show is set in Philadelphia, it's set here for a specific reason. It's set here because of what Philadelphia represents. Philadelphia is old, gritty, and full of secrets. Stories aren't set here to relate to the audience, they're set here to alienate the audience and make them feel uncomfortable. M. Night Shyamalan may use Philadelphia because he's from the region, but also because the region's unsettling presence is a fitting location for his tales of terror. But he was far from the first to use Philadelphia to scare his audiences. Terry Gilliam could have easily set his 1995 thriller, 12 Monkeys, in New York, but our mid-90s Philadelphia with its towering, charred One Meridian Plaza fit the post apocalyptic imagery he was searching for. Cold Case could have been just another "ripped from the headlines" cop drama set in any arbitrary city, but the premise was bleak, forgotten, and often steeped in racial history. Philadelphia fit the bill. And of course the gang on Always Sunny in Philadelphia, created by Philadelphia's own Rob McElhenney, is too relatable to any tenured Philadelphian, however exaggerated, to be set anywhere else.

8: Ben Franklin
I can't mention Philadelphia without mentioning Benjamin Franklin. America's original hipster would have been as at home at Johnny Brenda's as he was at City Tavern. Toiling away about revolution, taxation, and politics amid beer houses on Philadelphia's oldest streets, his own rants are echoed in conversations you'll find yourself caught up in at places like Dirty Frank's and Locust Bar.

7: The Phillie Phanatic
The Phanatic is inarguably the world's best mascot. Not only does the inspiration for the Simpsons Springfield Screwball shoot hot dogs into the audience from a four wheeler, he sets the bar for every mascot in the world. Who's the mascot for the Mets? The Yankees? The Cubs? I assume it's a...cub? I don't know. But everyone in the country knows the Phillie Phanatic.

6: The Barnes Foundation
You may not agree with the decision to move the Barnes collection to Center City from Lower Merion, but that doesn't diminish its collection. It houses more Cezanne's than Paris, a worthy proclamation, but it owns so much more. The Barnes's collection rivals the existing collections of other major American cities on its own, and were it not for the Philadelphia Museum of Art's expansive collection, it would be our city's foremost art museum.

5: Centennial Park
Have you ever been to Centennial Park? You may have been raised in the Philadelphia area and the answer could easily be, "no." Centennial Park isn't a showcase...yet. Ten years ago, the park's Parkside mansions were crumbling and abandoned. Today, they're restored and a sight to behold. While the park itself is primarily known for the Please Touch Museum at Memorial Hall and the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, its historical significance is astounding. The site of the world's first World's Fair, the Centennial Exposition, the land once showcased feats of Victorian engineering and scientific renaissance. Nestled between the Philadelphia Zoo, Microsoft's School of the Future, and the vista from Belmont Plateau, Centennial Park is on Fairmount Park's short list for revitalization.

4: Reading Terminal Market
Who needs a grocery store? Reading Terminal Market provides more organic options than your average Whole Foods, and it sits two blocks from City Hall. Get there after five, or four on Sunday, and you'll find yourself free from the confines of tourists ogling fruits and veggies. And get this, it's cheaper than your local Super Fresh. Two large chicken breasts from Guinuta's will set you back about $7 and two large bags of produce at Iovine's, no more than $15. From Tuesday to Saturday Pennsylvania's Amish hire the "English" to drive them to the city to prepare scrapple and pretzels and sell some of the most delicious donuts you'll ever have.

3: Italian Market
Live in South Philly or too far from Reading Terminal? The Italian Market offers the same local and organic options as Reading Terminal, including exotic game you won't find anywhere else. Have you ever wanted to make a kangaroo burger? You can find the ingredients at the Italian Market. While most still refer to it as the Italian Market, it is technically the 9th Street Market, which may be more accurate. The city's Hispanic community have leased much of the market and it's one of the few places you'll find authentic Mexican food in Philadelphia.

2: Chinatown
While most American cities have lost their Chinatowns to gentrification, Philadelphia's Chinatown continues to grow. Once a blighted neighborhood bound by Vine Street, the Gallery at Market East, and Franklin Square, Philadelphia's Chinatown plans to expand across the Vine Street Expressway with its Eastern Tower, a skyscraping apartment building and community center that will solidify Chinatown's presence in the city's emerging Loft District or Callowhill neighborhood.

1: Philadelphians
You, a Philadelphian, are Philly Bricks' favorite. Philadelphia consistently tops or bottoms out in these irrelevant lists, still ignored by those passing from Washington, DC to New York. And who cares? Philadelphia may be America's best kept secret. We're black, white, gay, straight, rich, and poor. We may occasionally get hung up on our own differences, but when we are challenged by the national media and those who haven't bothered to visit, those who can't recognize Philadelphia for anything but Rocky or the fact that we threw snowballs at Santa Claus (almost forty years ago), we ignore our differences and stand side by side as Philadelphians. We are a socioeconomic melting pot, and instead of revitalizing every corner of our city with luxury condos and pushing our diversity to Chester and Camden, we challenge our city leaders to find ways to keep us living side by side. Philadelphia is doing what no other city has, and that is succeeding on its own. Sure, many of our neighborhoods are being transformed by transplants from other cities, but those transplants leave their baggage at the door. Philadelphians from every corner are fighting for their own unique vision for the city. For every dollar we invest in our houses, we invest ten fold in our communities. It's impossible to move to Philadelphia and not find yourself integrated into our streets. We don't just reside in our homes, go to work, returning to ignore our neighbors, we don't just live here, we are Philadelphia. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

MIC Tower

Philadelphia Real Estate Blog
After Stantec Architecture was asked to improve its MIC Tower behind Lit Brothers, the firm came back to the Historical Commission with a slightly better design. The tower still adheres to its premise of blending into the historic Lit Brothers building rather than attempting to add anything significant.

Along with NREA's East Market proposal for the Girard Trust Block, the MIC tower will bring the residents and shoppers that Market East has been begging for. While the MIC Tower will remain largely unnoticed from Market Street, the Filbert Street apartment building will add 29 floors to the city's relatively shallow eastside skyline.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why We're Losing the Boyd

As demolition appears to have begun at the Boyd Theater, activists are dealing with the twelve stages of grief, primarily fixating on anger and denial.

The hard truth is the Boyd was lost a long, long time ago when the Sam Eric closed. For all of the Historical Commission's ills, the organization seemed to be the only that recognized the Boyd's inevitable fate.

Meanwhile the public waited, biting their nails fed by the delusion that the Friends of the Boyd was on the case.

The age of the internet allows armchair activists to reach millions, but without a plan this approach gives the public false hope and can even hinder the strategic tactics by professional activist like those at the Preservation Alliance of Philadelphia.

Welcome to Amateur Hour.

Unfortunately in Philadelphia, the media often operates during amateur hour as well. writers seem to take every Facebook page and petition seriously. Both and posted stories about Caryn Kunkle's petition to seize the Divine Lorraine by imminent domain. Despite the unrealistic, and even illegal proposal, the government funded art studios that could never happen were taken seriously by thousands of readers because journalists were actually writing about a proposal they knew was impossible.

Of course the media can't be entirely to blame. Journalists, both mainstream and independent, understood exactly how unrealistic it was to save the Boyd as-is. They wrote about Friends of the Boyd and their efforts because there was no realistic involvement in the challenge to save the Boyd. If there was corporate backing or a public benefactor in the mix, Friends of the Boyd would be nothing but a Facebook page that occasionally appeared in the comments section. You can write about saving history until your fingers bleed, but if you can't bring a serious proposal to the table, there's no reason to be taken seriously.

In an absence of any real effort, journalists had nothing else to write about and Friends became the brand behind the cause. Anyone who didn't know the Boyd was coming down was blinded by hope or the misconception that Friends had a plan. 

Despite the ultimate outcome I'm still an idealist. I would have loved to see the Boyd restored. I would love for there to be a market in Center City to financially support a boutique theater. A new iPic Theater could have easily occupied one of the many surface lots anywhere on Market East or West Market Street. But it hasn't been a realistic outcome for the Boyd in the last decade and is unlikely a realistic outcome in the next, particularly without massive subsidies to maintain a very niche offering.

But that brings us to what the Boyd Theater actually is. Somewhere along Friends' campaign, the Boyd went from being the last historic movie theater in Center City to implying that it is the best that ever existed.

If the Fox or the Stanton was still standing, there'd be thousands of activists in front of the wrecking ball, backed by money and a plan. The Boyd just isn't that interesting. If it were, we'd see the corporate sponsorship and public support for its restoration. If the Boyd were worthy we'd see the kind of philanthropy that has stood up for the S.S. United States.

Unfortunately being the best of what's left doesn't make the Boyd significant, relegating it to truth that not every interesting building can be saved.

Mural Arts: Too Much of a Good Thing?

This year, the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts will be helping the city celebrate the 30th anniversary of its Mural Arts Program. The success of the MAP isn't just noted for its lavish, colorful murals adorning Philadelphia's less desirable neighborhoods or vacant walls, but it's been echoed in cities around the world, a solution to profane graffiti and blight.

But in recent years the MAP's relevance has been called into question. As Philadelphia gets cleaner, as vacant lots are filled in with new construction, the MAP has found itself a divisive organization, even contentious. Once was a time when residents of our struggling neighborhoods longed for the MAP to come to their vacant corner, the MAP could propose anything, professional or amateur, and the city would oblige.

Now that the city's poorer neighborhoods are covered in murals, the MAP's mission has changed, with grand murals gracing the sides of buildings in our city's most successful neighborhoods. But while the MAP's mission has evolved, its self assigned image as necessary and welcome hasn't. There are places that don't need murals, even places where the murals themselves serve as the visual blight the program once attempted to eradicate.

The MAP has become too much of a good thing.

That fact has made itself evident in the program's most recent proposal, a pair of 100 foot wide paintings along the Schuylkill River at the base of the Girard Avenue Bridge.

The base of the bridge is nothing significant and the paintings, a tribute to the Schuylkill's rowing history, would be tasteful. But the Department of Parks and Recreation didn't simply offer MAP blind approval. Although the Art Commission was consulted in the murals' approval, Parks and Rec's deputy Mark Focht took the murals under thoughtful consideration, recognizing that Fairmount Park, even along the heavily trafficked Kelly Drive, may not need the MAP.

Although Focht noted that Fairmount Park is not devoid of art, sculptures cast in bronze or carved from native stone surrounded by boxwoods and ivy don't interfere with the natural experience our parks offer. Brightly colored paintings on the other hand, can be more distraction than complement.

The MAP had no intention to segue into Fairmount Park until veteran rower Tony Schneider offered the program $85,000 towards the paintings, so it's not clear if the precedent will encourage the MAP to creep further into the woods or if this is a one time deal.

Time will tell.

For this location, a mural may be an improvement. While the success of the Schuylkill River Trail speaks for itself, murals on the underside of this unimpressive bridge will probably do nothing to improve or hinder the trail's experience. They will simply exist.

As for the program itself, finding itself in front of the desk of resistance should signal to those in charge that their goal was never to cover Philadelphia in a coat of Duron. Philadelphia is exciting and dynamic on its own, especially in the vast panoramic views from Fairmount Park and Kelly Drive. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Cascia Center

After demolishing several apartment buildings along South Broad Street, St. Rita of Cascia has planned on replacing the buildings with a surface parking lot in front of its school. It wasn't ideal. The apartment buildings South Broad lost weren't significant, but they were urban and had potential.

St. Rita's original center incorporated its existing school.

Unfortunately St. Rita's sits just below the car line where older Philadelphians confuse South Philly with NJ. In any new development, parking is a priority, even surface parking lining the city's most notable urban artery.

St. Rita's proposed Cascia Center

Well, a parking lot will no longer stare at pedestrians along South Broad, but since St. Rita's decided to demolish its school, it will be erecting a new center with parking in the rear. It sounds like a better, if not ideal solution. But the building itself looks more like a Pottsville paint store than a community center befitting the grand St. Rita of Cascia. 

Of course after years of sitting idly vacant, it's hard not to wonder how St. Rita's community center couldn't have been handsomely incorporated into the apartments it demolished.

East Market

With skyscrapers sprouting up around University City, luxury apartments planned along the Vine Street corridor, and warehouses being converted throughout the Center City's adjacent neighborhoods, the same ambitious investment has avoided the city's core Market East neighborhood. High land costs coupled with low rent potential have made Market East a risky endeavor for decades, particularly on a major thoroughfare that demands big construction.

The National Real Estate Advisors of Washington has taken note, planning what it calls East Market at the Girard Trust Block between 11th and 12th, the former Snellenberg's Department Store. If all goes well NREA will be demolishing the Snellenberg stump as early as July. In its place would be a skyscraping mixed use complex incorporating luxury apartments, retail, office space, and underground parking. The Snellenburg warehouse on 11th Street would be stripped and refaced and the grand Girard Building on 12th Street would be restored, converted into apartments of office space with ground floor retail.

It's all too easy to look at the Gallery at Market East and ask, does the struggling Market East need more retail when what it has is an epic failure? But the Gallery's woes are not solely its own responsibility, and even if they are, the solution to the Gallery's lackluster existence won't be solved by the Gallery's owners.

What NREA's East Market brings is what the Gallery always lacked, and why Liberty Place succeeds as an urban indoor mall and the Gallery struggles. East Market won't just be a suburban mall in the middle of the city, it will be street friendly and include the office and residential components that make Liberty Place a sane place to shop and grab lunch. The Gallery was built to support two large office towers that never materialized, leaving it a massive train station that hosted the kind of craptastic shopping you expect to find in an urban regional rail station.

East Market will finally offer the competitive challenge its neighbors have always needed. If East Market succeeds (given Center City's growth and Midtown Village's expansion, it will) its residents will beg more of Market East, NREA's retail will ultimately reach capacity, and new vendors seek out nearby property to set up shop: The Gallery.

Of course Philadelphians are nothing if not skeptical, but the $500M project is backed by Washington and New York developers who seem eager to start. In a few short years Market East may be less synonymous with downtown Detroit and more like Center City's answer to King of Prussia, only better.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Revolution Museum: Good, Not Great

Despite the fact that Philadelphia Art Commission sent Robert Stern back to the drawing board with his lackluster Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia's most prominent architecture critics have been relentless in their criticism of a building that will not exist. I agree Stern's design is bland, but blending in is what Stern does best. He's certainly capable of bold designs, but his initial rendering shouldn't have been unexpected. Considering the hostility from the city's architecture czars, I'm starting to feel a little bad for Stern.

Bradley Maule took to Facebook to call it "bland faux-historic dreck" while Nathaniel Popkin used Hidden City to lightheartedly declare architectural independence, but also called the proposal "utter, enfeebling blandness."

Not Awful

Sure, they're kind of right. It's not an exciting proposal, it's bland, although I'd stop short of calling it "dreck." It's traditional, collegiate architecture that echoes the history of the neighborhood, but it's not bad. It's bland, but it's inviting. I'm not one to say better is always better, but it's worth noting that it is better than the intimidating fortress that stands at 3rd and Chestnut today.

Stern is an academic architect who only occasionally executes something visionary. He academically assessed the context of the location, the content of the collection, and designed a museum that reflects the history of both. What he failed to do was recognize Philadelphians' personal investment in our sacred history and our demand for exciting architecture.

In that regard, most of the museum's criticism is valid...most of it. But Stern will likely consider the critiques and the Commission's request and deliver something new. Meanwhile the same critics have said less about the United States' tallest skyscraper outside New York and Chicago, one that will forever alter Philadelphia's skyline, obsessed with a drawing of a building that will never be.

King of Prussia Mall Expansion

King of Prussia Mall is usually accepted as the largest mall in the United States. Obviously Minnesota's Mall of America takes up more space, but King of Prussia's nearly 2.8M square feet of leasable space puts it at the top of the list by about 15,000 square feet.

Soon there may be no debate as Simon Property Group plans to begin construction on a 250,000 square foot addition. Currently detached, King of Prussia Mall is not one contiguous space. IMC Construction will be connecting the Plaza and the Court.

A Big Idea

"A big idea and the intersection of great ideas," Market8 Casino has posted a, well, passionate video on their Facebook page.

I'm not sure I'd consider the Disney Hole and the Gallery the "intersection of great ideas," but I appreciate the effort.

Take a look.

Phantom Philadelphia

Andrew Evans
Andrew Evans' Phantom Philadelphia shows composite images of Philadelphia's architectural loss. 

Check out the very cool images here.

Barely Human: Fred Phelps

If you don't know who Fred Phelps is, I won't enlighten you. The dying minister behind the hate spewing Westboro Baptist Church doesn't deserve a biography. What is worth remembering is what this hate monger did to unite a nation against a common evil.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and Phelps proved that. However conservative or devout, no conscionable person could ever agree with the statements Phelps brought to funerals and memorial services.

He was a failure as a minister, never attracting a significant following. He was failure as a father, losing children and grandchildren, some who went on to fight for the causes he viscerally protested.

He held the same hostility towards AIDS victims and war heroes. His hatred didn't discriminate, he simply hated everyone. Because of Phelps, we looked beyond divisive politics and saw nothing but grieving families and struggling minorities being persecuted - as equals - by one truly evil man.

Whatever your faith Phelps showed us the devil. His hate proved that everyone else, regardless of our differences, could harness a modicum of compassion for those we dislike or don't understand.

Some have proposed protesting his funeral, but that would only solidify his legacy and historical relevance. He doesn't deserve the acknowledgement. He deserves a sparsely attended memorial service, the legacy of a hateful man despised by the world and loved by no one.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Salvaging the Boyd

After a valiant effort on behalf of preservation activists, Live Nation didn't waste time beginning demolition at the historic Boyd Theater after last week's decision by the Historical Commission.

As often is with historically designated buildings in Philadelphia, there was a public misconception about what was designated historic. The most astounding aspect of the theater is its massive Art Deco auditorium, but the only piece protected by the Historical Commission was the façade which will be restored by iPic Theaters.

Philadelphia's independent blogosphere will likely follow the Boyd's demolition while the mainstream press will follow iPic's redevelopment. Meanwhile it's important to use the momentum generated by the Friends of the Boyd and the Preservation Alliance to move on to the next threatened historic site.

For the moment, I'm curious what will be salvaged from the Boyd's auditorium and where it will end up. A few months ago I was at Ted's Bulletin, a new restaurant on 14th Street in Washington, DC, and was surprised to see the entire interior adorned in the salvaged remnants of West Philadelphia's Convention Hall.

Convention Hall met a familiar fate, its demolition the result of University Hospital's ambitious development and last minute efforts on the part of preservationists. Before that happens again, let's get out in front of the next great loss. We need a Friends of Robinson's, Friends of the Roundhouse, and Friends of the Divine Lorraine to make sure we don't lose another architectural legacy.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Boyd Theater: What's Next?

Despite an anonymous offer to purchase the Boyd Theater from its current owners, the Historical Commission has agreed to let Live Nation demolish the historic theater. Why is entirely up for speculation. The purchase price of $4.5M didn't come with any guarantees. In fact, one very possible outcome from saving the Boyd's auditorium at the behest of advocates could have resulted in it sitting vacant for another decade, ultimately leading to the loss of the entire building. iPic Theaters has agree to restore the façade.

However given the Historical Commission's job performance, that doesn't mean the city had the theater's best interests in mind. The commission has allowed a number of properties that they deemed historic to crumble in the hands of slum lords and property hoarders, ultimately approving them for demolition.

The Historical Commission's namesake is a bit of a misnomer, and it's questionable whether anyone in the agency understands what constitutes history or why. It's a poorly funded city agency that reviews nominations for historic properties, then I assume they choose the prettiest and slap an arbitrary historic sticker on it. After that, private developers are saddled with the financial burden of restoring a crumbling relic. The commission does nothing to ensure the safety of its historic properties. Many, such as the Church of the Assumption, slowly become undesirable or even unusable pieces of property.

But the loss of the Boyd doesn't have to be a complete wash. This forgotten theater generated more awareness surrounding preservation in one of America's most historic cities than some of Philadelphia's most notable abandonment. There are lessons that have been learned and the commission's flaws exposed.

Sites like the Divine Lorraine and the SS United States are well known because their presence is so prominent. Their fate is unsure because they've sat vacant and stripped. But there are dozens of other sites in the city which, much like the Boyd, are completely usable yet unknown or unappreciated to those passing by.

Instead of dwelling over the demise of the Boyd, the momentum and public awareness it generated needs to be used to move on to the next threatened property: The Roundhouse, Robinson's Department Store, The Department of Public Health, The National Building. These are strange buildings, notable architectural examples that represent unique historic eras. They also sit on prime property ripe for redevelopment.

Maybe it's difficult for those vested in the past to look at the future. But all too often preservationists come to the aid of our historic properties the very moment it's too late. Let's not wait for the wrecking ball to come to The National Office of Big Brothers Big Sisters before we decide it's worth saving. And while we have the attention of the media and the public, let's take the Historical Commission to task for neglecting its sole responsibility: protecting our city's history.