Saturday, March 7, 2015

Save Robinson's

When it comes to Philadelphia's architectural heritage, and legacy, our most iconic landmarks tend to elicit both affection and hatred. Many confuse the PSFS Building with midcentury modernism, despite the fact that it was designed at the height of the Roaring 20s. As soon as City Hall opened its doors, residents deplored its chaotic, classical elements. Arguably Frank Furness's greatest work, the Provident Life & Title Company was slated for demolition because city planners felt it didn't blend well with the Colonial recreation they were attempting to establish near Independence Hall. 

The starchitects of the 19th Century - Frank Furness, Willis G. Hale, William Decker, Wilson Eyre - were the Norman + Foster and Zaha Hadid's of their day. Time will likely treat their works with the same lack of regard, only to come to appreciate those that survive once again a century from now.

With Market East's impending rebirth, it's easy to look at the grit and ask that it all be wiped clean. Save the PSFS Building, Reading Terminal's head house, Lit Brothers, and the 9th Street Post Office, it's hard to see anything notable hiding in the urban brambles. What commercial history remains has been significantly altered, haphazardly combined, and skinned for illuminated plastic panels that resulted from marketing teams behind CVS and H&R Block, not architects. 

Meanwhile, the Gallery at Market East's cold, concrete walls serve as the district's white elephant, blinding us from truly looking at much else. But there's at least one worn beauty hiding behind the dust of recent development.

I've mentioned Robinson's Department Store before, but short of a few other small blogs like mine, few have really bothered to look up. Those who do see what it offers. They see blight. They see a Jetsonian nightmare or something from Bladerunner. It is dystopic. 

Like the PSFS Building, it was built earlier than most assume. In 1946, Robinson's was built during a uniquely transitioning era of American architecture. Cities were demolishing Victorian and Gothic buildings synonymous with the corporations that led to the Great Depression. Art Deco schools and post office were being built with federal funds being pumped back into the economy, but the style was synonymous with government bureaucracy. As America was struggling to rebuild its economy from new humble beginnings, companies didn't have the funds to hire the starchitects of the era, but the starchitects also no longer existed. 

Robinson's Market Street location was designed by Viennese architect Victor Gruen. Known prominently for designing some of the nation's first shopping malls, our Robinson's Department Store may have been one of the first buildings designed specifically to be identified with a brand. 

Prior to the 1940s, architecture was primarily dictated by what was aesthetically en vogue for the time. Art and architecture existed superfluously side by side. With the emergence of the suburban ideal, architecture evolved as a way to set its tenants apart from their competition. If you wanted to find a Howard Johnson's or a Stuckey's, all you needed to look for was the roof. Likewise, Robinson's curved wall clad in thousands of purple tiles and looming over Market Street was unmistakable. The building was synonymous with the brand it housed.

But will it survive the hype surrounding Market East's renaissance? Only if enough people are willing to look up and see more than what's there. Astounding architecture can be lost in the shuffle. Some people don't care, others want something new, still others are more conservative. And although Robinson's is nearly 70 years old, it's anything but traditional. 

Despite the overwhelming amount of undeveloped real estate on Market East, with surface lots at 12th and Market and at the Disney Hole, Robinson's demise might not seem imminent. But NREA chose to demolish the remnants of Snellenberg's department store in lieu of developing on cleared land for a reason. The 1000 block of Market Street could be next on the chopping block. 

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