Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Tale of Two Bronze Entrances

When Nan Duskin ruled at 1723 Walnut Street, the department store building was equivalent of Grace Kelly reclining on the Monaco strand - long, languid, and impeccably coiffed. You couldn't take your eyes off its regal bronze entrance, a Leaning Tower of Pisa that had been filtered through a Miesian sensibility. But since H&M, the discount Swedish retailer, got its hands on the building, it looks as if it had been possessed by Brittany Spears.

The first thing H&M did was tear off the elegantly sculpted, tripartite entryway, which had been given more detailing than some entire buildings get from their architects. H&M's replacement entrance isn't finished, but you can already see the outline of a crude box taking shape. It figures that a store that trades in cheap, disposable fashion would treat a work of art like the Duskin entrance as if it were as replaceable as this season's clothes. The previous tenant, Borders Books, had the wit to understand that the bronze remnant infused the corporately owned book store with a ready-made elegance. A trip through the revolving door was a restorative transition from the chaos of the streets to the sanctuary of the retail floor.

The most shocking part of this story is that H&M didn't carry out this design crime in the black of night. It was legalized in broad daylight by the city Historical Commission last August. Because Duskin's marble-and-limestone facade was part of a 1956 renovation, the structure was considered an inferior piece of architecture and listed on the city's historic register as a "non-contributing building." That designation caused both the architects' sub-committee and the full Historical Commission to dismiss preservation pleas, enabling the new owners to make any changes they wanted. Essentially, the commission treated Duskin's in the same way it treated the nearby, Walnut Street store than now houses Zara.
There's a big difference. Zara's previous facade was a rote, beige brick number with clumsily proportioned windows. Nan Duskin's facade was a bittersweet expression of the period's fading white-gloved urbanity. The designers of the Duskin facade, who are never named in any of the old newspaper clippings, took a dumpy, low-slung department store and sculpted it into the retail equivalent of a Brancusi. They layered on curved scrims of marble, enlivened the long, flat facade with a deeply recessed entry, and then punctured the plane of the well-behaved facade with a modernist cylinder. Now the bronze entry is gone, and so is that small evidence of proper, post-war Philadelphia.

Smart developers understand that such surviving architectural relics have emotional power as well as financial potential. On the other side of Broad Street, a group of condo developers (The Goldenberg Group and Brown/Hill) are wisely preserving the art deco remains of the 1929 tower that Ralph Bencker designed for the N.W. Ayer advertising agency. In fact, they've made the deco treatment a major selling point. Bencker, who was taken by the opening of King Tutkankhamen's tomb in 1922, lavished the lobby with Egyptian-inspired reliefs and sculptures. The exuberant decorative scheme begins with the bronze entry doors. You are greeted by a blazing golden sun spreading rays of optimism. The doors are clearly a work of art that was intended to signal the start of a new day. It's nice to know they will still be there, conveying same message of hope to passersby when the next occupants move in and the building begins its own new day.


Blogger rasphila said...

No doubt about it—the destruction of the Nan Duskin entrance is a crime against good design. Borders didn't do it when they occupied the site, and they made the interior into a very interesting bookstore space, far more interesting than their current store at Broad and Chestnut. I wonder what the new owners will do with the interior. I am not anticipating the answer with great optimism.

5:47 PM  
Anonymous HospitalityGirl said...

Grrr, do you think an American company could go to Sweden and take apart a fair building in one of their cities and NOT hear the cries of "American capitalist pig company, desecrating our vista"?

5:57 PM  
Blogger Anthony said...

Its a shame. A real shame. One can almost understand that it isn't exactly the palce of retail to preserve these things... but the historical commission? for shame....

9:26 AM  
Blogger normajean said...

Although you wax poetic about the Nan Duskin facade, I think the admiration is over the top. Yes, it was a nice design, but I will not miss it. As to the Historical Commission's decision - the building sits in the Rittenhouse Fitler RESIDENTIAL Historic District. Though properties along Walnut Street are commercial today, many of the older buildings were residences at one time. The Nan Duskin building was designed and built as a commercial building, meriting a "non-contributing" to the historic district.

9:35 AM  
Blogger mickeytwin said...

I am pleased that the Ayer Building's doors will remain. I worked in that building for 6 years. Walking to work in a blazing summer sun, the incredible heft of those sculpted doors signaled that once inside the lobby, relief was in store.

I can't imagine living in that building, but only because I worked there. I am sure the units will be way cool.


11:17 AM  
Blogger RaslDasl said...

Perhaps Borders had more respect because back then they were not the huge corporation they are now. I believe Philadelphia was just the 6th or 7th store in what was basically a large independent bookstore chain.

4:50 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

Perhaps Borders had more respect because back then they were not the huge corporation they are now.

I think this is probably true.

5:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was terribly disappointed by the destruction of the entryway, particularly since I thought I had been paying attention to the posted permits and they seemed to indicate interior work only. I would have attended Historical Commission proceedings if I had been aware (usually can't attend due to work schedule) if they had been posted. It's worth noting that even the Commission's website is perpetually broken - links that purport to link to agendas and minutes link to nothing at all.


9:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To hospitalitygirl: It wouldn't surprise me if I found out that it was American, and not Swedish, businesspeople who made the decision on the facade.

1:03 PM  

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