Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Robert Venturi and the Dilworth House

No one can say that architect Robert Venturi isn't diabolically clever. He and associate Carey Jackson Yonce presented new schemes for a condo tower on the site of the Dilworth House during today's committee meeting of the Philadelphia Historical Commission. If you simply look at the plans as an architectural conversation - or, as a running joke - they're brilliantly witty ruminations on Venturi's favorite themes of flatness, representation, history, iconography, authenticity, context, and the mystery of what makes Philadelphia such a stodgy old place.

Looking at the renderings, you get the feeling that it's not even about the condo tower any more. The third scheme struck me as the most unbuildable - and the most rich with ideas. This proposal is for an 11-story, 50-unit rental building that would sit in the yard behind the Dilworth House. Residents would enter from Randolph Street, rather than from the Dilworth House's Sixth Street address on Washington Square. The bottom three floors would serve as a parking garage, but I can't imagine how Venturi expects to squeeze the turning ramps and parking spaces into such a small footprint. Nevermind the other structural problems.

But, forget practicalities. What's interesting is that Venturi's Scheme No. 3 reprises the glass facade from his unbuilt - and much maligned - Philadelphia Orchestra project. The tower's Washington Square facade has the same rhythmic march of vertical elements, the same schematic outline of a peaked, A-frame roof embedded in the glass facade. Venturi knows that Philadelphia will never let him build this glass tower, just as the city didn't let him build a home for the orchestra. Venturi has never gotten over the way the orchestra and city blue bloods dissed him with the orchestra project. So, by riffing on the rejected design in this Washington Square project, he is effectively giving his opponents the bird - rejecting them, before they reject him. That's my reading of it, anyway.

For those of you who have not been following every twist and turn of the long-running Dilworth House saga, here's the backstory, short version:

A couple of years ago, developer John Turchi bought the colonial revival house that former Mayor Richardson Dilworth had built for his family in 1957. Dilworth, who is among Philadelphia's greatest mayors, constructed the house on Washington Square to demonstrate his commitment to reviving Society Hill, which was then a decaying and depopulated slum. Unfortunately, Dilworth had to tear down two real colonial houses to build his fake. (But since his wife was on the historical commission - no problem.) Nevertheless, his commitment to Society Hill was genuine.

The neighborhood made a historic comeback. Dilworth and his family lived happily in their fake colonial house. When the Society Hill historic district was created, the house was listed as a "significant" building - the highest ranking for historic buildings. It means it can't be torn down except in extreme circumstances. Turchi also intended to live in the house, but then changed his mind. The developer, who is currently converting the AAA garage on 23rd Street to lofts, decided he would tear down the house and build a 13-story tower.

He was clever, too, and hired Philadelphia's most famous architect to design it, hoping to win the sympathies of the city's architectural community. That strategy worked with the architects - but not the Historical Commission. They refused the demolition permit for Scheme No. 1. While the commission acknowledges that the fake colonial is merely average as a work of architecture, they believe it is worth preserving as a living, breathing relic of Philadelphia's modern history.

Turchi and Venturi don't give up easily. Venturi has now come up with two more schemes. Scheme No. 2 preserves the facade of the Dilworth House inside an arcade of the new tower. But get this: Venturi would tear down the facade first, and rebuild it in a slightly different location. It might be the first time that a fake of a fake was subject to a facadectomy.

Just in case the facadectomy bombed, Venturi was ready with Scheme No. 3. In this version, the house gets saved, but the neighborhood gets shafted. Turchi has proposed an 11-story tower. The bottom three floors contain the parking, and the 50 one-bedroom units are stuffed onto the seven highest floors. Surely Turchi can't be serious? Actually, it's an old strategy: Present a really bad design so that the one that was only middling bad begins to look good.

Daniela Voith, a member of the commission's architecture subcommittee, had the courage to say so: "It feels like a threat," she told Turchi.

Absolutely not, Turchi replied.

I believe I saw a smile cross his face.

In the end, the subcommittee reaffirmed its earlier decision: No demolition of the Dilworth House. But it said it would consider Scheme No. 3 if it is developed further. I can't wait for Venturi's next punchline.

Tower to replace classic '60s motel?

It seems like every late-20th Century, low-rise building in the vicinity of Center City is fair game for replacement by a condo tower. Today, it's the Best Western Motel - originally, the Franklin Motor Court - at 22nd Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The site of the four-story, triune-shaped motel has received zoning approval for a 47-story condo tower. Our sources tell us the developers are the same ones who are building Waterfront Square on the Delaware River. Same architects, too - Wallace Roberts & Todd.

The first part of the 300-room Franklin Motor Court was designed in 1960 by Leonard Shaffer & Co. for developer Isaac D. Levy. The motel had all the hyphenated amenities so valued at that moment: Drive-in convenience, air-conditioned rooms, hi-fi radios and direct-dial phones. The original press release, still in the Inquirer's clip files, boasts that the decoration by Peggy O'Neill had "the sumptuous beauty generally associated with the finer hotels." Plus there was a swimming pool on the landscaped grounds. It was quite the thing for Main Line residents to spend a weekend "vacationing" at the motor inn. By the late '60s, however, the one-person reception desk became a regular stop for hold-up men, including one clever pair who tried to make their get-away on the Route 43 bus. I guess the buses stuck to the schedule in those days.

It's no surprise that a developer today would eye the generous site for a very tall condo tower. The motel is just a block from the Parkway, but far enough away so that it doesn't fall under the scrutiny of the Fairmount Park Commission. The big issues will be height and the tower's relationship to the street, especially Spring Garden. Although there are several tall buildings nearby, the tallest of them is only half as tall as the proposed tower. Unless there are some serious set-backs, a sensitivity to scale and a good, urban ground floor with retail space, the new condo tower will seriously mar the parkway environment.

We're told that the project got an over the counter building permit, thanks to the wiles of lawyer Michael Sklaroff, chairman of the Historical Commission AND a neighborhood resident. The site is zoned R15, which is usually a category for low-rise houses. But apparently there is a clause allowing a high-rise if you leave a large part of the site as open space. Even the Spring Garden civic association didn't know about Sklaroff's machinations until Monday.

As the TV guys say, more as the story develops.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Remaking the Dilworth House - Once More, with Feeling

The farce called "reimagining the Dilworth House" returns to the Philadelphia Historical Commission tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. Developer John Turchi, uber-lawyer Neil Sklaroff and architect Robert Venturi will explain to the architectural subcommittee why they should be allowed to turn a 1960's replica of a colonial house on Washington Square into an architectural cartoon - by incorporating the facade into a proposed high-rise condo tower. Despite being an unabashed fake, the house is important because former Mayor Richardson Dilworth had it built to demonstrate his committment to turning a decaying slum called Society Hill into a middle-class neighborhood.

Turchi, et al, have been trying to tear Dilworth's house down so they can build a 13-story luxury condo building. When that plan ran into trouble, they began proposing variations on the theme. If the facadectomy approach doesn't fly, they might settle for using the whole house as the lobby for a condo tower. If you don't like that idea... well, they probably have a few more up their sleeves.

The committee meets in a small, stuffy room on the fifth floor of City Hall, room 578.

Stop PGW's Meter Madness

Can anything be done to stop the Philadelphia Gas Works from its continued defacement of the city's rowhouses? The city-owned agency, which behaves as if it were a small, oil-rich fiefdom, has decreed that every new rowhouse must install a gas meter the size of a small refinery on its front facade. Why? So it can shut off service for deadbeats without bothering to knock. It makes no sense. PGW is capable of turning off your gas from a computer inside its offices. The exterior meter is just a back-up. But the warty contraptions are a blight that is ruining the architecture of that great traditional form, the 16-foot-wide Philly rowhouse.

PGW's nutty policy has been in effect for years. But it didn't really matter much until new rowhouses started sprouting up by the hundreds. Many of these new projects take up a full block or more, which means you get a gas meter every 15 feet. My April 16, 2004 column on the subject hardly fazed them. Perhaps the Design Advocacy Group will have better luck. They've launched a letter writing campaign to pressure them to relent. But PGW's insistence on maintaining this policy is beginning to remind me of CSX's stubborn stance on the Schuylkill Banks grade crossings. At one meeting with the group's committee, PGW President Thomas Knudson walked out in a huff. He'll have more trouble after he gets a sack-full of protest letters.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Mr. Architect Writes About 25th and South

The Philadelphia Planning Commission may have gone into a Rip Van Winkle snooze, but two powerful public agencies are busier than ever making land-use decisions that will affect the look and function of the city for years to come. Both the Redevelopment Authority and the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. have accummulated hefty porfolios of real estate - often with the help of taxpayer money. Now, with the market on fire, they have decided, like many land owners, that it is time to sell.

PIDC's latest offering is a small surface parking lot at 25th and South Streets, a quick block from the Philadelphia School. Given Center City's soaring population, it makes sense for the private, K-8 school to buy the land and expand its classroom space. Last year, the school had to turn away 75 applicants. If Philadelphia had a functioning planning department, it would surely point out that you can't sustain the kind of housing growth Center City is seeing without providing corresponding increases in schools, parks and other amenities. To keep things in balance, cities like Vancouver actually demand such amentities when they approve building permits for new housing.

But PIDC often behaves like a purely profit-driven real estate company. It decided to put its South Street lot on the block to see who would offer the best deal. The agency did, however, hold a joint public meeting with the Center City Residents Association last week so neighbors could hear the proposals. There were four in all, three for housing. These aren't huge housing developments, especially compared to Toll Bros.' grand plans for the neighborhood - 700 units, including 200 on South Street and Grays Ferry Ave., near the old Abbots parking garage. I didn't attend the CCRA meeting, but one of my trusty correspondents did. This is what Mr. Architect, as he calls himself, wrote:

The 25th & South Street meeting was the usual cast of characters:
1. Amburn & Jaworsinski's copy of their 15th & Bainbridge Street project for J.Paul, Inc. Handsome, yet uninspired. 16 units, depressed inner court parking.
2. Agoos Lovera's new building for the Philadelphia School. The best project- nice, safe, site-responsive. Still the neighboars complain about playground noise...(Editor's note: The proposal includes a playground area that would be open after school hours to all neighborhood children.)
3. The star of the show: the amazing developer MATZI ! (Editor's note: He developed Delancey Place at 25th and Delancey) with his near-sighted, lap-dog sidekick, JKrollover. Unbelievable chutzpa, in the face the crowd: "I am the greatest thin-to-appun-to-dis-neiborhod"- again, 16 units, court parking-more million dollar houses- of the post colonial-cardboard variety. UGH!
4.McCauffrey Architects w/ Granite Inc. A good solution- a mixed use building on South, with row houses on Naudain- more court parking- though (glaring error)- parking on grade, with louvered "windows" facing the sidewalk on South.
A good time was had by all-

Thursday, February 23, 2006

First New Market-Frankford El Station Set to Open on Monday at 56th Street

SEPTA's five-year-long reconstruction of the Market-Frankford El is beginning to show progress. On Monday, the transit agency is set to open the first of five new West Philadelphia headhouses, this one at 56th Street. The neo-Victorian building, by architect Ignatius Wang, is surprisingly airy and grand. It has a solid presence in a neighborhood where few buildings seem plumb. If you take a ride on the El to inspect, be sure to check out the new Fresh Grocer next door. The supermarket is also a surprise: sprawling, suburban and, get this,upmarket. There's even a cafe. I hate to see these vast seas of asphalt and inward-turned buildings invading Philly's tightly-packed rowhouse neighborhoods. On the other hand, you can't deny that it's a sure sign the neighborhood is coming up. How many places in Philadelphia can you order soul food take-out and an espresso? If only we could get city leaders to make these chains fit their wares in a more urban package, as the likes of Home Depot is doing in New York.

At the same time, the steel structure supporting the station and the tracks seems a little too solid - and a little too close to the Market Street buildings for comfort. How is it that the redesigned El, which started out with European-style grace and lightness, has ended as a clunky bigfoot? See the Inquirer tomorrow for my review of the project.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Jencks: The Iconic Building is Here to Stay

Okay, so Charles Jencks didn't have much to say Monday night about how iconic buildings can fit into the Philadelphia grid. Instead, he spent his time arguing that the obsession with eye-catching architecture - like the obsession with Hollywood celebrities - is here to stay.

Jencks is most famously the author of "The New Paradigm in Architecture: The Language of Post-Modernism," but his latest book is devoted to the growing hunger for iconic buildings. The most interesting idea he offered on Monday was that iconic buildings came to the fore when western religion lost control of the dominant cultural narative. Think of Quasimodo and Esmerelda, who could read Notre-Dame's facade as if it were a book. How many can understand a religious building that way today? Society is just too fractured and there are multiple, competing narratives. Today, Jencks argues, people are eagerly seduced by designers who offer the most persuasive and entertaining architectural narratives. Jencks might have take this even further. The irony is that these highly individualist expressions actually satisfy a deep public yearning. When they succeed, as Rem Koolhaas' Seattle library does, it's because they supply a common narrative that binds a community together.

Incidentally, as Jencks pointed out, iconic buildings aren't new. Before there was Bilbao, there was the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower. But seekers of icons, beware: You can't simply announce you are going to create an icon, as Philadelphia boosters discovered with the Kimmel Center. Icons don't generally start out as beloved buildings. "You have to ask yourself, is it hated enough," said Jencks The only good iconic building may be an accidental one. His idea of the best "icon" in Philadelphia? The Clothespin.

Jencks was one of series of speakers brought in by PennDesign. Next up is architect David Adjaye (3/16) and MOMA's outgoing design curator, Terence Riley (3/30)

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Iconic Building Debate

What would happen if a great grid city like Philadelphia opened its streets to the iconic architecture of a Frank Gehry or a Santiago Calatrava? Charles Jencks, architect and author of "The Iconic Building," has some strong opinions about that. Hear him speak tonight at the University of Pennsylvania's Meyerson Hall, 34th and Walnut Streets. The free talk begins at 6:30 pm in the basement auditorium.

15 years After the Fire: Construction Starts on One Meridian Replacement Tower

If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes this morning, I wouldn't have believed it. Construction work has started on the former site of One Meridian Plaza, the office tower that went up in flames exactly 15 years ago this Wednesday (Feb. 23), killing three firefighters. Not only was there a construction trailer and L.F. Driscoll sign on the lot across from City Hall, but workers were nudging jersey barriers into place, in preparation for starting work on a 280-unit condo building.

When the developer finishes this high-rise, which is being called the Residences at the Ritz-Carlton, they ought to erect a plaque marking the South Penn Square site as a burial ground for legal fees. No property in Philadelphia has ever been the subject of so much litigation. Meridian's owners and its insurance company spent nine long years haggling over compensation for the Vincent Kling-designed tower - letting the charred wreckage stand as a reproach while they argued. They finally reached a settlement in 1999 that allowed the remains to be hauled away. But almost immediately, the site's new owner, Craig Spencer of the Arden Group, got into a game of legal ping pong with his neighbor, Tim Mahoney, of Mariner Commercial Properties. Both wanted to build condo towers on huge garage bases, yet both were convinced the other guy's design would wreck their looks.

Progress was finally made last summer when Spencer and his architect, Handel Architects of New York, finally agreed to make their tower smaller and ditch the 200-foot-high garage. The new design they conceived is a fairly elegant, 485-foot-tall, blue-glass tower with a faceted turret that will capture views of the Delaware River. The residents will rely on the existing underground garage built for the Meridian. Miraculously, no more lawsuits have been filed.

Now if only the city could convince Mariner to bury its garage, this sad saga would finally be over.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Thomas U. Walter Was Here!

Thomas Ustick Walter designed the dome on the U.S. Capitol building. He designed the gleaming Greek Revival-style Founders Hall at Girard College and the Greek Revival Chester County courthouse in West Chester. And now, to the great astonishment of architectural historians, it seems he also designed a pretty nice house at 7048 Germantown Avenue in Mount Airy.

Although the house, which was built around 1850 for George Howell Garrett, has been on the National Historic Register, no one had any idea that it was anything more than a relic of old Philadelphia and a prominent Philadelphia family until it was threatened - as usual - with demolition. After a developer starting making plans to build 10 sets of twins on the site, a group of nearby residents mounted a campaign to have the house listed on the city's historic register, since it offers more protection from demolition. They succeeded, and in the process discovered the house was even more significant than they realized.

Their work peaked the curiosity of Jon Farnham, the staff director at the Philadelphia Historical Commission. On a hunch that Walter was involved, Farnham decided to poke around the Girard College archives to see what he could discover. It didn't take very long before he found a drawing that matched the Mt. Airy house, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Walter was the architect of the portion on the right in the photo.

Looking at the house now, you might ask, what's the fuss. Actually the fuss has been much covered up over time. Walter was a leading figure in adapting Greek temple architecture to the civic institutions of the young American republic. He conceived the Garrett House as a country temple, with a strong hip roof and Greek-revival brackets just under the cornice. But over time, tastes changed. The Greek temple elements were obscured. An addition was grafted on the left side in the photo, giving the house the air of Italianate country palazzo, complete with a grand arch doorway and tri-partite loggia over the entrance.

Although there are only a few remnants of Walter's house, Farnham thinks the discovery will be a goldmine for historians specializing in the architecture of the early American republic. Along with the capitol dome, Walter also put the columned side wings on that building for the Senate and House chambers. He was the darling of Washington until he fell ill in 1865 and was forced to return to Philadelphia. He spent his last years advising John McArthur on the design of City Hall. The discovery that Walter could also do country houses reveals that his range was wider than previously believed. It's known that Walter designed Andalusia in Bucks County, but who knows how many more modest country houses he left behind in Philadelphia.

UPenn Loses Philly Advocate

Omar Blaik, the UPenn vice president who was the university's strongest advocate for good urbanism, is stepping down from his post, and that's a big loss for Philadelphia. During his nine years at Penn, Blaik held the unassuming title of Vice President for Facilities and Real Estate Services. But he became the closest thing Philadelphia had to a planning visionary.

Blaik's greatest achievement was transforming West Philly's Walnut Street from the university's unloved back door to its beloved main street - thus restoring its importance as a Philadelphia thoroughfare. He helped Walnut Street get its groove back in countless ways.

It was Blaik who reimagined 40th Street as a 24-hour intersection with movies, restaurants and a grocery store. Blaik was the mastermind behind the Hajoca Building's metamorphosis into The World Cafe music club and WXPN studios at 32nd Street. He lobbied for money to landscape Hill Field, once a muddy parking lot. Together with former President Judith Rodin and VP John Fry, Blaik promoted a policy of urbanizing Penn's anti-urban buildings along Walnut Street, like the Annenberg School of Communications - literally forcing them to make their front doors face the city street. While the Left Bank, which populated Walnut Street with hundreds of new residents, belongs on Fry's account, it was Blaik, an avid soccer player, who insisted in turning the parking lot just below the viaduct into a grassy playing pitch.

It is becoming quite the trend for urban university to re-engage with their neighorhoods. The thing that distinguished Blaik is that he also showed good architectural taste - a rare thing for a university official. He understood that planning without good design isn't enough, and he lobbied for top-notch architects, from MGA Partners for the Annenberg renovations, to Todd Williams/Billie Tsien for the new engineering school building going up on 33rd Street. Although Penn was his boss, you also sensed that Blaik cared equally about making the city better. He sat on the board of the Schuylkill River Development Corp. and helped raise the group's ambitions.

As described in today's Daily Pennsylvanian, Blaik is leaving Penn to start his own business promoting Penn-style private development around urban universities - what else?. We wish for only two things - beyond Blaik's success. One is that Penn stay the course that Blaik pioneered. The other is that Blaik - now freed from the diplomatic constraints of being a Penn VP - will use his informed voice to elevate the planning and design debate in Philadelphia.