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.