Monday, September 11, 2006

More Thoughts on the Dilworth House

The Dilworth House saga thudded to an end Friday, when developer John Turchi and architect Robert Venturi came up with a design that was acceptable to the Historical Commission (above). Even some of the preservationists and Society Hill neighbors who have been fighting the project for the past two years (and who vow to keep fighting it) felt that they had achieved a modest victory because the new scheme retains the entire front half of the Colonial Revival house, while only sacrificing the rear and side wings. (See my news story in Saturday's Inky.)
But as with many buildings designed by committee, I would argue that this one is the worst of all worlds. The design doesn't meaningfully preserve the house that Mayor Richardson Dilworth built 1957 to demonstrate his commitment to Society Hill's revival. It's not the best architecture that Venturi could offer. It adds another cartoonish facadectomy to a neighborhood that appears to be amassing a world-class collection of architectural Frankensteins. (See the Mitchell/Giurgola's Penn Mutual tower and Solomon Cordwell Buenz's St. James, both on Walnut Street.)

And, you know what the worst part is? You can't even blame this clunky compromise on cynicism, corruption or bureaucratic incompetence. The Historical Commission members worked diligently and openly over the last two years to find a balanced solution. On Friday, the commissioners spent nearly three and a half hours in an open meeting listening to arguments from both sides. And yet, for all their effort and good intentions, they still got it wrong. For me, the lesson of the Dilworth House is that city review boards can't try to turn every decision into a compromise. Sometimes you need to take the extremist position: Either you're going support good preservation or you're not. And if you're not going to be faithful to history, then let the architects do their best work. You can't expect to support a little bit of preservation and and a little bit of architecture and get good results. There's a good reason why Solomon didn't cut the baby in half. Both architecture and history suffer from this compromise.

The most unfortunate aspect of the approved design (which you can see if you look hard at the first image at top) is the overhang that crests just below the peak of the Dilworth House roof. Because the tower is cantilevered off a narrow base, it appears to be gobbling up Dilworth's little house in the great big maw of its mouth. Compare this approach with the design proposal in the second image, submitted back in early 2005. Here the tower's Washington Square facade rises straight from the street wall plane, and only the facade of the Dilworth house is preserved. You might not see this right away, but look closely on the left side of the tower and you may be able to glimpse the facade's remains in the space behind the ground-floor arcade. Since Dilworth's house, designed by Edwin Brumbaugh, was already set back several feet from the street line, Venturi's and his associate Carey Yonce were able to enclose it within their tower's footprint. This scheme would have destroyed much more of the historic house, but, ironically, it would have produced a more pleasing and sophisticated building.

I can guess why Turchi wanted the overhang, but I don't quite understand why the architects agreed to it. As a developer, Turchi knows that the thing that will make the 12 units in this 16-story building fly off the shelf (for $4 million a pop) are their views of Washington Square. The three lower levels, which will merely look toward Randolph Street, amount to a throwaway. Turchi figured he was better off turning those lower floors into storage space for tenants and the neighboring Athenaeum, and using the bottom level for parking. Once the building rises above the rooftop, it west facade pitches forward, so residents in the 4,800-square-foot unites get a closer view of the square. Great for them. Bad for the city. The condo tower is going to look awfully silly standing there, like a dog caught with a somebody's pet rabbit in its mouth. And those vague, shadowy corners below the overhang are likely to bring up unfortunate comparisons with the federal courthouse a block north on Sixth Street. Why not just solve the problem by making the units a little smaller and having the west facade come straight to the ground?

I was one of those people who argued for saving the entire house. I believe that cities have to preserve history in the flesh if they expect succeeding generations to be able to make sense of their past. Not every old building, of course, but select examples. Some advocates of the Turchi project countered that the Dilworth house, which is listed as "significant," the highest preservation class, wasn't among the worthy because it is a 47-year-old copy of a colonial building. But it's not its architecture that makes it important; it's the role it played in history. And the fakery is part of that. The house is a relic to Dilworth's heartfelt belief that cities could again become viable centers of American middle class life.

I know this won't stop another argument over history vs. development, but let me just say I like high-rises and think the recent condo boom has done wonders for Philadelphia. But I agree with attorney Carl Primavera, a lawyer known for his vigorous representation of big-time developers, when he said that, "Not every site in the city can be a high-rise building site." Actually, I think this one can work as a high-rise site, since the lot is extremely deep - but only if Turchi pushed the tower way to the Randolph Street side. In other words, it would have worked if he didn't insist on having 4,800-square-foot units. He could have also built a second house at the rear of the lot and sold the pair for a pretty hefty price. He bought the Dilworth House for $1.75 million, knowing full well it was on the city's historic register. But the city's commission's have come to believe that they must find a way to help every developer build his or her intended project.

The real danger of Friday's decision is that it opens to way for a lot more big towers to be squeezed behind other small buildings. We've already seen this sort of thing with the St. James and 10 Rittenhouse. But while both those projects cost the city some of its historic fabric, they also helped the cause of preservation by giving new life to endangered historic buildings - the old PSFS building and a fragment of York Row in the case of the St. James, the Rittenhouse Club in the case of 10 Rittenhouse. The difference with the Dilworth House is that there was no impending crisis. No historic building was about crumble and die if it wasn't saved with an emergency facadectomy.

So now that Philadelphia has sanctioned elective facadectomies - what next? At this point, the only can't-miss sites for condo towers in Philadelphia are on Rittenhouse and Washington Squares. Does this mean we're going to see a proposal soon from a developer who wants to stick a tower behind one of the surviving low-rise Victorian houses on the west side of Washington Square? Or behind the sole remaining Furness house on Rittenhouse Square? Will collage-style architectural graftings define these neighborhoods? It's worth remembering that it's an either/or decision.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You say that "The fakery is what makes the Dilworth house so interesting. It's a relic to Dilworth's heartfelt belief that cities could again become viable centers of American middle class life."

I'm neither an architect nor a developer, but lived in that neighborhood at one time (after Bacon "saved" it but before the current residential boom in Center City). I can't think of a use (densely residential high-rise) that would more honor Mayor Dilworth's attempt to make cities more viable as residential enclaves.

(Oh wait, I can think of one thing: perhaps forcing these developers who seek variances to set aside a percentage of units for "affordable" users. It's a real tool used elsewhere around the country (NYC, No. VA).)

1:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The members of the Historical Commission should be ashamed of themselves. They are supposed to preserve our history -- not hack it up.

1:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For me, the lesson of the Dilworth House is that cities must sometimes take the extremist position: Either you're going have good preservation or you're going to have good architecture."

I think you're right on with this one.

2:48 PM  
Anonymous HospitalityGirl said...

Maybe it is time for a moratorium on facadectomies? Most are horrid.

4:49 PM  
Blogger rasphila said...

Maybe it is time for a moratorium on facadectomies? Most are horrid.

Second that motion, as well as the idea of set-asides for affordable units. Great cities have diversity in class, race, and background. That's what makes them great. Center City may be getting richer, but if we don't watch out, it will become an enclave for the rich—which would not be a good outcome. Set-asides might help avoid this.

5:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe it's time to put a moritorium on Robert Venturi designing buildings. He might be important, but his buildings are UGLY.

10:54 PM  
Anonymous Posey said...

Look at Ben Franklins insurance company on Walnut Street behind Independence Hall, The facade looks terrible with that modern building behind it. It is preserving nothing as far as I am concerned. The Dilworth house should be protected. That building can be used for plenty of things as is. TP

4:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is pathetic to think that they are tearing down a part of the Dilworth House to profit one nasty developer and 14 super rich people to the detriment of the community who's desire it is to save a meaningful part of the history of the development of Society Hill.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Davis said...

Just a slight correction Inga, the townhouses on the west end of Washington Square are Federal in period, not Victorian.

I am appalled at yet another facadectomy, yet the loss of every remaining historic structure would be far worse - in this case just to satisfy another lying greedy developer (no doubt with all the right connections). The McIlhenny house will be next.

Yes, requiring a percentage of affordable units would be a huge step, but the powers that be want to turn Cenrter City into an enclave for the rich.

BTW as far as I'm concerned, Venturi, apart from a couple of interesting buildings is way overrated. Just being "different" doesn't make him important.

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We live in an era of compromise. Many of us worked hard to try to save a portion of the building. Saving all of it just wasn't in the cards. Let's take our victory and move forward. Cities are always evolving. This was a hard fought process that wasn't going to end in one side getting everything they wanted. Would have preferred preserving the entire house. But hey, we should have worked to preserve it years ago when it was an office building that no one cared about.

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its really not THAT bad...there's worse elsewhere. Its a background building in a background site by an
average (these days..not historically speaking) architect.

It actually looks more appropriate for the site behind the little house instead of at the street. Its a bit more "in the mix" of things.

Washington Square (as a place) is getting better every day.....

10:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having moved from Philly almost a year and a half ago I had sort of forgotten about the controversy over the Dilworth house. I guess nobody ever seriously considered the thought that came to me a while back, which is to preserve the house and make it the official mayor's residence. It would be a great tribute to the legacy of the undeniably best mayor Philly ever had.

10:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aren't there enough of these multi-million dollar condos already being built and/or planned?

6:57 AM  

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