Thursday, August 16, 2007

For Sale: Groovy Gov't Office Bldg.

There's not much love in Philadelphia for the state office building at Broad and Spring Garden Street, designed in 1959 by the once ubiquitous Philadelphia firm, Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen. I'll admit there was a time when I thought the slab couldn't be blown up soon enough. (Yes, that is the shining, white knight of the Inky tower in the background.) But then the state gave the marble facade a good scrub a few years ago, and I began to take a shine to the relic of bureaucratic modernism. Somehow the cleaning made its grid of square windows dance the Cha-Cha. The architects didn't just rotely plug in window squares at regular intervals; they gave the otherwise, by-the-book International Style high-rise a serious sense of rhythm by alternating windows that are flush with the facade, with ones that protrude. The squares are finished off with a thick metal outline. But the designers didn't stop there. They also pleated the walls of the penthouse. It's a surprisingly playful touch for a government office tower, more in keeping with one of Morris Lapidus's Miami confections than the stuff of Philadelphia officialdom.

Now, two years shy of its 50th birthday, the state office building is about to go on the block. Sean Pressmann, chief-of-staff for the Pennsylvania's Department of General Services, says the state will post a Solicitation for Proposals soon on its website. The legislature approved the sale in July, and the department is already hunting for office space to lease for the 1,000 state workers now housed at Spring Garden Street. It's a little ironic, given that one of the excuses for not building a ballpark at Broad and Spring Garden was the need to retain the state presence. Now there's an even chance that the building could end up as condos.

And what swell condos it would make, with a few significant tweaks. Although I've grown to like the general look of the building, I'm still appalled by Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen's lifeless handling of the ground level. All the usual, pre-counter culture, anti-urban architectural tendencies are on view: the raised plinth separating the building from the surrounding streetscape, the shrouded entrance and the graceless, unwelcoming plaza/park. But unlike the federal courthouse at 6th and Market - one of the architects' most reprehensible projects - the mistakes at the base of the state office building could be easily corrected. It's not hard to imagine that plaza transformed into a lovely, green spot with a cafe and tables. With Loft District condos sprouting up across Broad Street and swarms of students and workers pouring out of the subway, it's an increasingly busy intersection. Ever since Lofts 640 and Marc Vetri's Osteria established their beachhead up the street, the neighborhood has been on a gentrifying tear.

You won't hear many people rem-iniscing about the work of Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen, a firm that no longer exists. But the more of their buildings I encounter, the more I'm impressed by the originality of their forms and the stylishness of their details. I doubt their reputation will ever experience a big revival, but several of their buildings are starting to look pretty good to me. My favorite is one of their last efforts, the 1972 Scheie Eye Institute at Presbyterian Hospital, a muscular concrete and brick building that is softened by curves and deep-set windows. Next time you have your eyes checked, stop (before you're blinded by the exam) to admire the rotunda lobby, which has lots of lovely details from the era, including wooden screens. The juxtaposition of the roughly sculpted concrete and brick forms put you in the mind of some of Louis Kahn's work. It's almost as if they designed the building's sensuous forms to be understood by touch, which is a nice way of approaching a building that serves people with serious eye problems. When you think about some of the plain, boxy hospital buildings going up these days, the Scheie seems an even more remarkable achievement.

Yet, even when Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen were good, they were often bad. Their designs are nearly always socially maladroit on the ground floor. Every time I pass the David Rittenhouse labs at 33rd and Walnut, I admire the round-edged, deep set, tactile square windows and then shake my head in amazement at the blank hostility of the street-wall. Ditto for the Youth Study Center on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, another of their elegant atrocities. The detailing of the limestone facade and classic ribbon windows shows real skill, but that base! There will be no tears shed when that building goes down for the Barnes Foundation's new building. Their perfectly round Bucks County Courthouse in Doylestown is another fascinating curiosity: bold in its form, inventive in the organization of the courtrooms, yet utterly blinkered to the lovely town at its feet. And then there are the What-Were-They-Thinking?failures like the Library Company on Locust Street.
While there is a lot wrong with Carroll, Grisdale and Van Alen's work, their failings are often typical of the architecture of the late '50s-early'60s, when cities were fumbling around for a way to compete with the suburbs. And yet it's evident that this was a creative bunch bursting with ideas, even as they stayed loyal to Modernism's rules about geometry and regularity. They didn't repeat the same forms over and over. Each project seems to be an attempt to create something fresh and original. And that's still worth admiring today.

11 Comments:

Anonymous Max Buten said...

Although I've passed the State building a zillion times, I've never noticed that the windows were varigated. But the effect is not nearly as strong as in the drawing you show, especially on the north, shaded side. It's barely visible in the photo I took during the reconstruction four years ago, http://www.pbase.com/mistermax/image/84054761.jpg.
Agree that the entrance is dreadful - it's even hard to find how to get in to the building.

The Scheie building, though, has very strong windows. See
http://www.pbase.com/mistermax/image/84054758.jpg .

7:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I fell in love with the Spring Garden/Broad office building several years ago and am glad to see you give it such a positive reassessment. I actually especially like its plaza--just a couple blocks from CCP, it's a natural place to stop and eat lunch from one of the many food trucks, and this well-proportioned, whimsical building makes for a great backdrop.

I imagine we'll see a lot of new development of North Broad during and after the Convention Center expansion, and it'd be nice to see a mix of low and mid-rise buildings. I actually suspect that this area will become a cold, corporate "neighborhood" like the emerging Seaport District in Boston (lots of hotels and swanky condo developments that despite their expensive landscaping, add little to street life). It would be great if CCP or another widely-used institution that brings local foot traffic to relocate/expand to this area and breathe life into this section of Broad. In my wilder dreams, it'd be nice to see the Pennsylvania Academy for Fine Arts build a nearby annex or another cultural institution locate on this strip and continue the Avenue of the Arts further to the north. In fact, the best part of Boston's Seaport area is the new ICA (a modern arts museum), but it's unfortunately too far from the street to ensure great pedestrian life.

11:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, a building definitely worth putting to a good use. There is one thing about much of this institutional 50s architecture that does not get mentioned -- they still used solid, quality materials. I am often amazed at the interesting, beutifully grained wood panels, marbles, slates, and other materials, especially on the interiors for lobbies, stairwells, etc. I assume the architects were not so far from the Deco era, and still had that love of solidity and quality. This alone can make these buildings worth noting, especially compared to the cheap cladding and interior materials that soon followed.

12:57 PM  
Anonymous vince dean said...

I've always loved that building although, I've heard many people say it's ugly. I say, they have no vision ! Its the best example of modern architecture I've ever seen. Elegant and understated, with a subtle touch of flair.

7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a long standing passion for this building. My father worked there for 25 years, and I fondly recall many visits. The interior is a little heavy-handed, but hey, it is a state office building.

I recently saw a "sister building" to this one while visiting Houston. I've never been able to determine if it is a Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen project, but it is almost a duplicate.

I do miss the landmark of the big blue box on the roof...

9:52 PM  
Anonymous Vince Dean said...

It also reminds me of another favorite modern building that has been modernized and subsequently, ruined. The old Conrail headquarters building at 17th. and Market. It was unpolished marble(like city hall)with symetric square pink mirrored windows. It was GEORGOUS ! The New York firm who did the modernization, turned it into a generic striped window piece of crap that could be found in any suburban office park. Not to mention they turned the first three stories into parking decks. Can you tell I'm still bitter !

9:10 AM  
Anonymous Davis said...

They are often overlooked, I fear, but I actually liked the misplaced pre-addition Youth Study Center. The State Office Bldg was much improved and aside from the entry level (which speaks for its time more than for their thinking) and will remain I think a classic of the period. I'm glad it was saved. And right, the Library Company is a disaster...

12:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

any chance of a book being written of the firm's work???

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worked in the State Office Building (SOB). It is a dump inside. Over the years the state has not maintained the SOB. The roof has been leaking for 20 years. The elevators have alawys been a problem.

1:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe the Scheie Eye Institute was designed by Kling.

2:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sale of the state office building opens up great possibilities for the development of North Broad St. The building itself is bland with small windows and the streetscape of concrete is uninspiring. To retrofit the State Building with a new more vibrant skin should not be that difficult. The concrete park could be converted into additional retail space that is very much needed in the area. A brew pub, gourmet 24 hour market and a Starbuck's type cafe with outdoor seating would be great. The large parking lot across the street could be developed into a mixed use condo and/or 500 room hotel for the convention center that is less than 5 blocks to the south. Attractive ground floor retail at the hotel complex would make the street a 24 hour street.

5:37 PM  

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