Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bulldozers Away: Convention Center Tears Down Historic Buildings

Call off the celebrations. The Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority decided it could roll over the state historic commission just as easily as it could roll over a couple of little historic buildings. Here's my report, which will appear in Sunday's Inquirer.

The state agency overseeing the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center yesterday began tearing off the facades of two historic buildings on North Broad Street, in defiance of a protection ruling issued Thursday by the state’s top preservation official.
The demolitions, which began at 6:30 a.m. and by midday had produced a waist-high pile of broken limestone, sent shock waves through Philadelphia’s preservation community, which was still celebrating Thursday’s action by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. They believed the commission’s two-page ruling amounted to a legal pardon and would stop the convention center’s bulldozers from reaching Broad Street.
But an official close to Gov. Rendell insisted that the preservation commission’s ruling was “only an opinion,” and therefore the center was not bound by it. “We have no intention of leaving those buildings,” added the official, who asked not to be named.
“I don’t get it,” said Alan Greenberger, the chair of the Design Advocacy Group, which campaigned with the Preservation Alliance to save the historic structures in the middle of the block between Arch and Cherry Streets, the former headquarters of the Philadelphia Life Insurance Co. “We, as architects, have never been able say, ‘That’s just PHMC’s opinion and we’ll ignore it’.”
The remaining bones of the historic pair will be completely demolished over the next several days, said Edward Myslewicz, spokesman for the Department of General Services (DGS), the agency that coordinates state construction projects. The conjoined structures — a modernist masterpiece from 1962 by the renowned Philadelphia School architect Romaldo Giurgola and an ornately-carved early 20th Century commercial building — were supposed to be incorporated into the convention center’s new Broad Street facade.
That arrangement was the result of a negotiated compromise, enshrined in a 2004 legal agreement between the convention center authority and the state historical commission. Although there were several other important historic buildings in the path of the center’s expansion, the commission agreed to permit their demolition on the condition that the critical block of Broad Street just north of City Hall would be left intact. Nearly all the other historic buildings in the two-block expansion zone have now been razed, with the exception of the Race Street firehouse, a beloved municipal structure adorned with gargoyles in firefighting gear.
Greenberger called yesterday’s demolition “an outrageous breach of trust,” and added, “To do it on the Saturday before Christmas, when no one is looking, is despicable.”
It is not clear why DGS chose yesterday - a day when work crews normally receive overtime pay — to start the demolition, particularly since the agency has been in discussions over the pair’s fate since August. No one from the historical commission was available for comment yesterday.
But it appears that the final decision on demolition was made only on Friday, just one day after the historical commission took a strong stand in favor of retaining the threatened buildings.
The head of the demolition crew, who gave only his first name, Pat, said their boss, Geppert Bros. did not ask them to work this weekend until midday Friday.
In her Thursday letter, historic commission director Barbara Franco rejected the DGS claim that the buildings were structurally compromised or beyond repair. Indeed, she quoted the convention center’s own architects — Emmanuel Kelly of Kelly/Maiello and Richard Holland of Vitetta — as saying the structures were sound enough to be knitted into the center’s new glass facade, as originally designed.
“We therefore conclude that there is no reason to amend the current Memorandum of Agreement,” she wrote, referring to the 2004 contract with the convention center.
But on Friday, DGS shot back with its own letter to Franco. The agency said it would be too expensive to incorporate the two old buildings into the center’s new facade. It also cited the opinion of a convention center architect, Hy Myers of Vitetta, a noted preservation architect. According to the DGS letter, Myers “strongly recommended the demolition.”
Myslewicz noted that because the 2004 contract was signed by the convention center authority, rather than DGS, “it was viewed as a non-binding agreement.”
Greenberger warned that the demoliton could seriously erode the credibility of the state historic commission, and other agencies.“Why should anybody now trust a deal made with a public agency on historic preservation?” he asked. “They don't honor deals. That's the message of all this.”
The loss of the Giurgola addition is the second important building by the architect that was demolished in the last year. The National Park Service recent tore down his jaunty Liberty Bell pavilion on Independence Mall, built for the bicentennial. Giurgola, who now lives in Australia, was one three or four internationally famous architects who made Philadelphia a hotbed of design in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
His 1962 addition to Philadelphia Life Insurance’s Broad Street headquarters was immediately hailed as a step forward for modernism because it demonstrated how contemporary design could accommodate itself to the traditional scale and masonry materials of old Philadelphia, without sacrificing its own personality.
Because the decision to demolish the two little buildings came after the convention center design was already complete, it is not clear what will take their place. In a recent interview, one convention center official said the area would problably remain empty, though he suggested it might be landscaped as a plaza.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

How unfortunate. I am disappointed that these building will be lost. Any architect worth his salt could have woven the buildings into that behemoth of a Convention Center. The clandestine methods of destruction of these two buildings was a small and cowardly act perpetrated by small and visionless people. I am especially perplexed by the comments of highly respected preservation architect Hyman Myers for his concurrence to tear down the historic buildings. Why would an architect who devoted his life to preserving historic buildings not be advocate for such important and savable buildings?

8:07 PM  
Blogger carise said...

Unbelievable. these people have no shame. disgusting.

8:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is awful. What a loss for the city, and for architecture. A friend called me this morning from Broad Street to tell me that a contractor was taking a sledgehammer to the Giurgola facade, and I could hear glass shattering over the phone. Yesterday I emailed friends about the PHMC decision and ended that email with the phrase, "Yes, Pennsylvania, there is a Santa Claus." Today, it appears there is also a Grinch. I am unspeakably sad about this loss.

10:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Considering the recent articles regarding the convention center (using revenue estimates that are not realistic, not releasing reports that don't jibe with Rendell's opionions) it just makes it seem that the fix is in. It woudl seem that Fat Eddie's love for Philly is a fat farce and the PCC is nothing but a make-work project for the well connected.

2:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forgive me for swearing..I realize this may not be posted as a result...but I am fuming. What is the fucking bullshit that governs Philadelphia? After Thursday's good news, I felt - Finally, archiecture wins out over common state bureacratic stupidity. But no, that was just a fleeting feeling of hope. Philadelphia is not capable of benefiting from higher thought. The blockheads at the state pull all the strings, and Philly be damned.

I've been pondering a move back to PA from Florida for some time now. But forget it. I loathe the State Of Pennsylvania and its idiot government. I wanted to come back for the urban character as much as anything. But I can see now that the STATE is a pathetic, inept custodian of anything of urban value. I want nothing to do with a STATE that thinks casinos abd convention centers are the answer to all ills. I used to cling to a pride that I was from PA. Now, PA nauseates me. No wonder every other Northeastern state is doing better than PA.

9:15 AM  
Blogger shockcorridor said...

As if I needed any more reminders as to why I moved from that backward, Neanderthal state of PA. Enjoy your state liquor stores and corrupt bumblefuck leaders.

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sounds like Hy Myers is about to replace George Thomas as "Philadelphia's pre-eminent preservationist for hire"

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Philadelphia has made a Faustian bargan with the state that it probably did not realize it was making when it allowed the convention center to be so funded by the state that it became the "Pennsylvania Convention Center". Now all control has passed to the state. This and the disregard of our zoning laws when it comes to the placement of casinos is very ominous since the Republicans in state goverment have only disdain for Philadelphia.

3:10 PM  
Blogger AllMusicFan said...

The quote that got me is: "We have no intention of leaving those buildings," added the official, who asked not to be identified."

This person is a coward. Pure and simple. If they are reading this, I am calling them out. Identify yourself, you miserable excuse for a human being! Then go directly to hell.

Inga, please identify them. Thank you.

5:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is Huey Long the governor? Is there no decency, no shame, no sense of living up to an agreement? Rather, there's the haste towards demolition, to thumb one's nose in the face of the PHMC? Private citizens couldn't get away with this, but the State can????

11:10 PM  
Blogger Fernando08 said...

Compare this attitude with the slave quarters of the the first White House. A few protests from a marginal group of incensed African-Americans nobody ever heard of before vs. a bona fide ruling of a public agency with the force of law. Well, do they or don't they have a non-recourse final say in these matters, especially after a negotiation. Does any one know for a fact that this is legally binding in any way? Can a court fine them on a daily basis until they perform as agreed? How does millions of dollars get rounded up for an archaeological site for one preservation effort and none for this? Maybe Michael Coard, the driving force attorney behind the howls of outrage at Independence Mall, should be retained by the preservationist to litigate on their behalf. I don't think the genteel types understand the exact nature of the politcal process they are contending with.

12:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there is more to the story then just the wrecking ball slamming a few good old buildings down.

Wasnt Nutter the head of the PCC at one time? Cant he help? Guess not, but thanks for the vote folks........

Think about the continual union work grab fight that is ongoing in city hall.

Why has not one single property that has been purchased / sold under domain laws been published with its sale price on the BRT?

What is the overall % of ground floor retail relative to the centers total floor plan?

Smells like Philly again.

8:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's not forget Mayor Street's blame in this. He could have stopped it - sent in the police to halt demo - gotten an injunction from the courts - and he did nothing. He his an embarrassment.

Rendell - you liar - you are nothing but a politician.

10:48 AM  
Anonymous dan said...

Let's not forget Mayor Street's blame in this. He could have stopped it - sent in the police to halt demo - gotten an injunction from the courts - and he did nothing. He his an embarrassment.

Rendell - you liar - you are nothing but a politician.

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the risk of offending everyone, these buildings lacked distinction. I know all about Romaldo Giurgola and the Philadelphia School and their venerable place in the heroic humanization of the Modernist movement. But to paraphrase another famous Phildelphia archtitect who never received his proper share of commissions in his home town (Robert Venturi), sometimes you have to distinguish a truly worthwhile design from an old sock your grandparents bought at Woolworth's. That being said, any agreement with the Commonwealth for its money is a pact with the devil because Harrisburg always jumps at the opportunity to give Philadelphia a knock upside the head. It does so out of the purest sense of inferiority.

11:04 AM  
Anonymous bingo said...

as upset as I am that the buildings would be torn down, flying in the face of a courts decision...and yes I truly believe it is wrong...I'm MORE uposet at the attitudes of some of the people on this comments board. Do you think moving away or saying negative things about PA and Philly is the answer? Yes we have corruption and some things are set up wrong, but if it weren't for the continuing battle of the people THAT ACTUALLY LIVE HERE, we wouldn't have a chance. A Lost cause is a cause worth fighting for...

Enjoy your new home towns. I'm sure your just as active in those communities and I'm sure their are NO Problems where you live...

I'm not turning a blind Eye to the problems here, I'm actually trying to find out what I can do to help.

11:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has anyone else noticed that none of the TV station websites are running this story? It seems kind of odd to me. Are the TV stations owned by the Convention Center builders?

2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bingo, who are you talking about? I posted the Huey Long comment.
I'm a tax paying Philadelphian and am outraged that a government agency sent workers out to rip the face off a historic building a day after another govenment agency ordered that the buildings shouldn't be demolished!

6:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The courts have halted the demolition. read at

11:45 AM  
Anonymous Zur said...

Where was your "outrage" when they leveled Pender to put up Skirkanich?

Pender Labs.. a "Philadelphia School" masterpiece.

Guess... just like the Schuylkill River Trail Bridge..

you only get outraged at specific things...

your tomatoes... and the PCC.

I know you won't post this.. you never do.

A critic that dislikes criticism.

3:01 AM  
Anonymous Davis said...


You're right, of course, getting involved is the answer, but when you've been involved for a lifetime and continue to see how the city's agencies corruptly allow the demolishing of good architecture one after another there comes a point at which one gives up.

9:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The holidays never stop terrible people such as these. As a 5th year architecture student who has been trying to decide whether or not to stay in Philadelphia after graduation, this makes me want to leave and never return. If the parts of the city that we know and love aren't safe from being demolished by dishonest sniveling officials there won't be anything left to stick around for.

1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought that this was Sunday's column. What happened?

2:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What has been lost....

11:49 AM  
Anonymous bingo said...

I posted my comment before the huey Long comment. and I'm making reference to the people that say (and not necessarily JUST the people on this thread)"I'm so sick of Philly, I'm moving away...or I'm not moving THERE!"
do me a favor...MOVE! LEAVE! DON'T COME!leave the city to the people that APPRECIATE it, for all it's good points and especially the BAD points.

yes, I'm very upset that they started tearing down the buildings...much like the streets department started ripping up the special blox a few years ago on the avenue of the arts.

but whereever you go, I'm sure it will be a perfect little haven for you that has NO problems and No bad people etc.

Big city= bigger problems.

11:54 AM  

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