Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Next Round for the Roundhouse

A building with a great nickname can't be all bad. But if you only read the disparaging remarks about the Philadelphia Roundhouse - aka the Police Administration building - in the Inquirer story about relocating the force to the Provident Life and Trust building, you wouldn't know this colossus had a storied architectural pedigree.

The design was written up in all the important architectural journals of the time. Yet Police Chief Charles Ramsey's lack of affection for the building, which many Philadelphians still associate with Frank Rizzo's head-busting tactics, suggests that the Philadelphia police's image of themselves may be changing. They're clearly more comfortable with the gentle classicism of the Provident. A more modern, professionalized police force is, of course, better for Philadelphia. Let's hope it will also do good things for the Roundhouse's architecture, which has its merits.

The Roundhouse didn't start out as a symbol of brutish power. The double-towered structure was designed in the early '60s by Robert Geddes, of the once celebrated Philadelphia firm of Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham , to provide a new headquarters for the city police, who were then sharing space in City Hall. Geddes ,who is still practicing up in Princeton, was a part of the Philadelphia School, the name used to describe the loose collection of architects who made the city a hotbed of innovation in the '60s and '70s. Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi and Romaldo Giurgola were some of the big names practicing in those days. What ties them together, as Pratt Professor John Lobell has argued, is their belief that the modernist style could be adapted to serve the needs of older, pedestrian-scaled cities.

I don't know if the name, "The Roundhouse," was in use before Geddes designed the concrete fortress on 7th and Race Streets in 1963, but for me it conjures up a gritty, sepulchral, Prohibition Era police lock-up, the sort of place where Hildy Johnson might run into Al Capone.
Geddes' design clearly expresses the might and power of law enforcement in its heavily, muscled concrete form. You can practically see the washboard abs in that window detailing.

The architects who pioneered Brutalist-style architecture saw their work as fostering progressive social goals. But maybe because they designed so many large government buildings, we look at the style today as anything but progressive. Constructed of rough concrete, the Brutalist-style designs started going up just around the time when our society was learning that it couldn't always trust its own government to do the right thing. It's no wonder that, from the vantage of 2008, the Roundhouse appears as a fortresses for establishment power. The impenetrable building tells you that those folks in blue are not to be toyed with. Of course, the massive concrete wall that surrounds the building doesn't do the otherwise interesting design any favors. Francis Morrone, the New York critic with an affection for Philadelphia, has called the place "ghastly."

At the time, however, the designers were more focused on taking advantage of technological breakthroughs that were coming on line in the early '60s. The Roundhouse, I'm told by Bill Whitaker at Penn's Architectural Archives, was the second building in the U.S. to employ a method of pre-cast concrete construction developed by the Dutch firm Shokbreton. The first was Philip Johnson's New Canaan lakehouse. August Komendant, who did Kahn's engineering, oversaw the structural work at the Roundhouse. If you look past the power issues, and concentrate on the aesthetics, you have to admire the level of custom, sculptural detailing of those windows. You sure don't see that level of originality on Philadelphia's civic buildings any more. By repeating the windows around the building's bold, biomorphic curves, Geddes created a dynamic, zippy rhythm.
With a good renovation and improvements at street level, I could see the Roundhouse as an interesting condo building. It would certainly put its neighbor and imitator, the former Metropolitan Hospital - another figure- eight structure that became a condo building - to shame.
Just compare these two images, one from the '60s of the Roundhouse, and the recently renovated hospital-condos from the Aughts. I see rich, human texture vs. bland, impersonal flatness.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Give Philly Books for the Holidays

This has been a good year for books about Philadelphia and its buildings. Architect James B. Garrison, who specializes in historic preservation work at the firm formerly known as Hillier (Now some ridiculous combination of letters, such as RMJM), has just published a gorgeous survey of Philadelphia great houses, called "Houses of Philadelphia, Chestnut Hill and the Wissahickon Valley 1880-1930." The book, which is part of Acanthus Press' suburban domestic architecture series, is a follow-up to his previous treatise on John Russell Pope. There are long, lovely discourses on the great houses you've always driven past and wondered about, like the French Village in West Mount Airy, with its conical Norman turrets.

In many of the entries, Garrison was able to provide images of the houses in their original attire, and after shots. The before and afters of Lindenwold, in Ambler ( just outside Philadelphia) are striking. You'll never guess that this is the house that became the castle visible from Bethlehem Pike, now home to the Catholic Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth.

I was especially pleased to see that Garrison included Square Shadows, a 1932 modernist house that George Howe designed in Whitemarsh. The staircase pictured in the book is to die for, and just goes to show how great modern design can hold its own against the painted ladies that dominate the rest of the book.

Garrison isn't the only author to deliver a follow-up book this year. Nathaniel Popkin, who makes frequent guest appearances on Brad Maule's Phillyskyline blog, has just brought out a sequel to his earlier "Song of the City." Called "The Possible City", it uses a stream-of-consciousness style to try to imagine a different, better Philadelphia. This time Popkin has included some of Maule's wonderful, evocative, off-beat photos that always make you look at Philadelphia in fresh new ways. He doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves in the book. His name should have at least been on the cover!
Earlier this year, the historian Thomas H. Keels published a book that will not soon be forgotten: "Forgotten Philadelpha, Lost Architecture of the Quaker City". It's one of those heartbreaking works, like Edward Arthur Mauger's earlier "Then and Now" that reminds you how many great buildings Philadelphia created and then casually discarded. Keels takes a high-low populist approach. So along with all the lost Furness, you'll also find Tasker Homes and the amazing Aquarama.

Friday, December 19, 2008

A Brown Refrigerator On Every Corner

Because the Inquirer sometimes chooses the oddest photos to go with my Friday column (I won't even mention headlines.), I thought I'd share some of my shots here. In case you haven't been wandering around the east side of Broad Street in Center City recently, the neighborhood has been sprouting refrigerator size boxes at every signalized intersection. They're part of a Streets Department project to digitize the traffic signals throughout the city, but thanks to the Department of Homeland Security the new system is three times the size of the old pole-mounted controls, requiring a 67-inch free-standing box. The reason? The boxes were made bigger so they could hold the computer equipment for a future surveillance network. Just what we need - a security camera on every corner!

In the first photo, workmen are installing one of the big behemoths next to Marjorie Amrom's early 19th Century home at 10th and Lombard. The box partially blocks one of the doorways to the historically certified house. Amrom told me she couldn't understand why they didn't locate the signal controller catercorner from her house, alongside the Seger Playground fence. There are already two postboxes there and another big brown installation would have blended right in.

As a point of reference, here is one of the pole-mounted signal boxes. This one is located on the west side of Broad Street. While it also contains the digital equipment, you can see it is much smaller and less intrusive. That's because it was installed in the first phase of the digitization project, before the federal government began require intensive surveillance monitoring of our little rowhouse neighborhoods.

I wonder what impact this box is having on Albert Maranca's antiques business at 10th and Pine? Didn't anyone notice that the box was blocking his shop window? One of the common complaints about the boxes is that their blank canvases are an irresistible siren call to graffiti artists. The project, which covers South to Market Streets, isn't complete yet, but already many boxes have been tagged.

Here's another window blocked by the box. This is the new Marathon Grill at 10th and Walnut, which has become a mecca for Jefferson Hospital employees. This corner used to be a real dump, but when Marathon decided to open a location at the intersection it hired Sandvold Blanda Architecture + Interiors to give the building a face lift. Although the structure isn't historic, they did research showing it once featured huge loft-style windows with cast iron detailing. The used that idiom to guide their splendid recreation of the exterior. It looks like the signal box has wrecked the best table in the house.

Even when the boxes aren't flush against Society Hill's historic, colonial-era homes, they often make a big statement on the street. Center City's streets are already so overpopulated with sign poles, hydrants, bus shelters, bollards, bicycle racks and honor boxes, there's just not much room to add any more urban equipment. Could these signal boxes be the tipping point?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What Do You Do with a $36 million Empty Lot?

Now that ARCWheeler's Boyd hotel and theater project has received the blessings of the Planning Commission (Tuesday) and the Zoning Board of Adjustment (Wednesday), we thought we would turn our attention to the project on the opposite side of Sansom Street. Does the name Castleway Properties still ring any bells?

Just over a year ago, the Dublin-based company paid $36.7 million for the last buildable lot on Rittenhouse Square, rescuing it from the low expectations of the Philadelphia Parking Authority. The firm hired Brad Fiske of KlingStubbins to turn out some renderings for an ambitious mixed-use development, which you can see in the image. The plan called for a 525-foot condo tower backing onto Sansom Street - just across the way from one of the entrances to the proposed Boyd hotel. In the front, toward the northeast corner of the square, they envisioned a 220-foot boutique hotel, with the usual assortment of restaurants and cafes.

Castleway's Jim Osbourne told me back then that he also wanted to knock down the Warwick Apartment building and the funeral home on Sansom (read the Illadelph account), but would preserve the beautifully tiled Rittenhouse cafe. In place of the two demolished buildings, he said there would be a linear park connecting Walnut to Sansom, an idea that would dovetail very nicely with Hal Wheeler's plan to upgrade Sansom Street.

Exciting stuff. The Castleway folks, who broke all price records when then paid close $37 million for the .83-acre site, were no doubt flush with Euro wealth from the then-booming Irish economy.

By early 2008, Castleway appeared to drop out of sight. Disappeared. Vanished. The Center City Residents Association stopped hearing from them. Their urgent requests for a zoning upgrade, to C5, suddenly ceased. And then soon after, the real estate market went into its current nosedive.

This is another project that looks dead, but may still have a little life in it yet. Osborne, speaking by phone from Ireland, told me the company is reassessing the project's size and mix to account for the changes in the market. He said he still believes the company "still has the best site in Philadelphia. We're not about to give up on it." The question is how to develop it.

ARCWheeler's plans for the Boyd Hotel can't hurt. Osborne and Wheeler have been talking to coordinate their projects, and Osborne says he will be in Philadelphia early in the New Year to begin work on a new development plan for the Rittenhouse Square site.

Unfortunately, things haven't been going quite so well at another project that Osborne has been involved with, separate from Castleway's portfolio. Osborne is the development director for Shelbourne Development's Chicago Spire project, the ambitious, 2,000-foot tall condo tower on Chicago's lakefront. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, that twisting condo tower was to be America's tallest residential building, but now it's a mere rain-filled hole in the ground and the contractors have filed liens against the developer for non-payment. Osborne says, however, that the condos are still selling and that con-struction will eventually resume.

So, for now, I guess having a big grassy empty lot may be preferable to having a small lake.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Saving the Boyd Theater, Part II

This will be a big week in the life of Chestnut's Street's Boyd Theater. Having narrowly escaped a threatened demolition, the theater is now being used as the means to leverage a glamorous new hotel on Sansom Street that will operate under the Kimpton's Monaco flag. The project's developer, Hal Wheeler, will be making stops at the Planning Commission Tuesday (1 p.m.) and the Zoning Board of Adjustment on Wednesday to seek the city's blessing for the curving, 320-foot hotel tower. I discussed the project in last week's column.

There's a lot to like about the design, by Martinez + Johnson Architects, who are known for their theater restorations. They did a huge amount of research on the theater when they were employed by Live Nation, which had planned to convert the movie house to a venue for Broadway-style shows. They even uncovered some decoration that had been masked by previous renovations. When developer Hal Wheeler agreed recently to buy the building and build the hotel, he wisely took on the same architects. Their beautifully detailed renovation drawings promise good things for the neglected theater. You can read some of the recent saga here and here in my columns, or go to the Friends of the Boyd website

Given the frozen state of real estate, you can't help but wonder how the developer expects to pull off this $130 million project. But the Boyd project actually has more going for it financially that some other recently proposed designs (ie. ACC). For starters, the financial world is likely to look more kindly on hotel projects because of the anticipated need for more guest rooms after the expanded convention center is finished in 2011. Wheeler's strategy for financing the project also taps into a variety of money pots. He plans to have the project qualify for federal historic tax credits. More immediately, he is applying for a $12 million grant from a state fund devoted to cultural projects. He's looking for additional federal tax credits for projects in blighted areas, which, believe it not, includes Center City. All in all, Wheeler says he feels confident that he can start construction in late 2009. He's even considering opening the theater first, before the hotel tower is completed.

Friday, December 12, 2008

American Commerce Gets Zoning. Now What?

As expected, the site of the proposed American Commerce Center got its zoning upgrade yesterday from City Council, to the C5 classification. Fortunately, the rezoning doesn't mean that developer Hill International has carte blanche to erect a 1,500-foot tower at 18th and Arch Streets. Besides the minor problem of finding tenants who are willing to pull up stakes and take new office space in this plunging economy, the developer is going to have to get the architectural design approved by the Planning Commission and its staff.

That review should show us what stuff the Nutter Administration is made of. It's clear to many people - not just me! - that the developer is trying to cram way too much stuff onto that site. The Design Advocacy Group is preparing a position paper, which I hear will voice concerns about the project's excessive density. In my column last week, I pointed out that the mixed-use ACC project has close to the same square-footage as the Time Warner Center in Manhattan, but it would sit on a site less than HALF the size. Time Warner, by the way, overlooks Central Park; The ACC would lord over 36-foot-wide Arch Street.

The developer has left so little open space at ground level - in sharp contrast to the Comcast tower - that they would have to fulfill their open-space requirement with a garden on top of the six-level shopping mall. Just ask yourself: how many successful multi-level shopping centers have you encountered? How many have successful upper levels? For Exhibit A, please see our very own Gallery. There's a reason it's owners are jumping up and down about the possibility of leasing the third floor to Foxwoods Casino.

But as I wrote, I still believe there are ways to make this proposal acceptable. The developers could slim down the tower and reduce some of the square-footage elsewhere. But here's another idea they ought to consider: Tear down the Stirling Apartment House and move the project to JFK Boulevard. JFK is a much wider street than Arch, and having the entire block would give the city's tallest tower room to breathe. I don't think anyone would complain if Hill rid JFK Boulevard of one of its trio of ugly block-long , slab buildings. You might even argue that they deserve bonus points under the category of public service.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Another Casualty of the Library Closings

You know that old Monty Python routine about the parrot, the one where shopkeeper Michael Palin claims, "'He's not dead. He's only resting."? Well you might say the same thing about Moshe Safdie's addition to Philadelphia's Free Library - first presented to the public in 2003.

The other day, I called Sandra Horrocks, the library's vice president for communications and development, to find out the status of the $175 million project in light of the Nutter Administration's plan to shutter 11 library branches. (Read my column on the system's downsizing here). Back in in April, when I wrote a column on the opening of a new cafe in the original Trumbauer building, project director Linda E. Johnson promised the library would absolutely, definitely break ground in December '08. But, not surprisingly given the branch cuts, Horrock says that the start date was postponed again by the library board on December 3- this time indefinitely.

She wouldn't go so far as to say the project is dead. "It's not over," she insisted. "We hope it will go forward. We were going to go to ground breaking this month. We had permits….But for economic reasons, and what’s happening with branches, the consensus was that it was inappropriate." She said the library board will reassess the postponement quarterly.

Sigh. The expansion and renovation of Philadelphia's central library on the Parkway is just as important to the future of the city as preserving the 11 branches. Library officials dreamed of creating a 21st Century information hub to serve a wide cross-section of city residents, especially those who don't have access to computers, the Internet and other information technology. They envisioned the modernized building as a kind of intellectual rec center where teens could hang out in comfy chairs (Not the Monty Python kind), young readers could sprawl on a carpet to read a book and adults could linger over a book with a latte in hand.

Safdie, who designed the much-praised Salt Lake City Library, was selected to design the expansion back in 2003 after a competition that was hailed then as a new model for handing out important civic commissions. He reworked the building several times as construction costs spiraled. But there's been virtually no work done since 2006, insiders say. "I'd say this project is dead," one person involved with the project told me. "No one wants to admit. It's more like "Dead Man Walking."

And in related news, the Preservation Alliance this week called on Mayor Nutter to reconsider his plans to close the Carnegie legacy branches, which account for four of the 11 to be shut down. Director John Gallery said he was particularly concerned about the fate of the historic four, especially if the city puts them up for sale or leaves them vacant for a long period. Meanwhile, at least one of the libraries, Holmesburg, isn't even owned by the city.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Judge Saves Burholme Park from Hospital

This just in: Orphans Court Judge John W. Herron Jr. has just issued an opinion denying the city the right to sell 20 acres of Burholme Park to Fox Chase Cancer Center. The park remains a park. " The public trust doctrine, the appropriate rule of law applied in these circumstances, leaves no doubt and requires that the petition for court approval to lease Burholme Park be denied," Herron writes. Read the decision here and my recent column here. More to come.

After a quick read of the decision, here are some highlights. (Sorry, other stories and deadlines demand our attention today.)

-Judge Herron concluded that leasing the 19.4 acres of Burholme Park land to the cancer hospital would violate the longstanding public trust doctrine. He writes: "There was no evidence whatsoever presented during the seven days of
hearing that Burholme Park has ceased to fulfill its purpose as a vibrant public park. On the contrary, even proponents of the Fox Chase sub-sublease attested to Burholme Park’s vitality and importance within the Fairmount Park System."

His strongly worded conclusion lays it out directly."Public parks are protected by a common law rule of law known as the public trust doctrine which has been enshrined in Pennsylvania law since the early 1900’s. The one exception allowing for the alienation of such lands concerns nonviable park land which all parties agree does not apply to Burholme Park. Simply stated, so long as a community or neighborhood actively uses dedicated park land, the City is required to hold such land
in trust for their use, is legally stopped from divesting such land and is required to maintain these open spaces as public parks.

One thing I find interesting in the decision is the judge's implicit criticism of the Nutter Administration's deal-making efforts and of Councilman Brian O'Neill's use of councilmanic privilege to obtain $4 million in spending money for his district from Fox Chase as compensation. Judge Herrron goes to great length to say there was no actual misconduct by any officials, yet he clearly was disturbed that the city obtained no property appraisals before he agreeing to lease the land to the hospital.

"While all public officials involved appear to have acted responsibly, the result of the negotiations reflect a desperate effort to contrive a way to accommodate Fox Chase’s valid needs for expansion land and, in doing o, bargaining away the City’s fiduciary duty to preserve actively used park land held in trust for the public," the judge writes.

No one has ever questioned Fox Chase's need for more space, and the judge similarly acknowledges the hospital has legitimate growth needs. But he believes that alone isn't reason to build on a large section of the park. Even though two-thirds of the land would remain open, he observes that he surviving park would be severely compromised. "The once pastoral unity of the park would be bisected by up to 18 buildings as high as nine stories," he writes.

"The planned expansion in five stages over many years would result in the construction of as many as 18 large buildings between 4 and 9 stories high through the very center of the lush park, uprooting old growth trees, destroying vital recreational areas and irrevocably altering the unique character of this singularly beautiful park land and open space....Barry Bessler, chief of staff of the Fairmount Park Commission for the past 15 years, testified that Burholme Park is “very heavily used on a regular basis” by people of all ages."

Thanks to Judge Herron it may remain that way.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Last Dash Across the SS Bridge

Gary Hack was in his first days as dean of Penn's School of Design when he was called to an emergency meeting to discuss a new design for the South Street Bridge. That was 1996, he told me during a recent conversation, and he remembers being informed the bridge's closing was imminent. But when he ended his 12-year term as dean this fall, traffic was still speeding across the bridge's pot-holed deck. He isn't the only one who has been fretting about the bridge's replacement for the better part of a decade.

I wrote my first column about the proposed design in 2001, after attending a packed neighborhood meeting at the Greater St. Matthews Church in Grays Ferry. It was clear then that the city was intending to replace the walkable, intimately scaled 85-year-old former drawbridge with a standard-issue, interstate-grade span. The neighborhood was furious and demanded that the Streets Department go back to the drawing board. But when the design was presented as a fait accompli at a second public meeting in February of 2007, not a single important detail had been changed.
The bridge probably would have ended up as the evil twin of the Walnut Street Bridge had it not been for the election of Mayor Nutter later that year and the efforts of a de-
termined group of concerned citizens, led by planner James Campbell of Campbell Thomas , the Democratic Party's 30th Ward Leader Marcia Wilkof, her predecessor Terry Gillen, and - yes - former state Sen. Vincent Fumo. Fumo secured a state grant that enabled opponents to hold a charette last winter that produced a more pedestrian and bike friendly alternative. (see blog post here.)

The changes aren't perfect, but the people who took part in the charette consider them a big victory. They came out in today's sub-freezing temperatures to celebrate with a last trip across the quirky, iron-railed bridge. Members of the Bicycle Coalition were out in force and fleece for a final ride over the bumpy deck. (That's Streets Department Commissioner Clarena Tolson being interviewed in the photo, as Marcia Wilkof looks on.) Trophy Bike's Michael McGettigan arrived just in time to provide the music with his pimped-out radio bike.

And what can we expect when the new bridge is finished, some 24 months from now? "It's going to a be a lot safer bridge than the one originally proposed," promised Kyle Gradinger, one of the planners from Wallace Roberts & Todd who worked on the changes. The new version will have four lanes, instead of the five originally proposed. That means there should be more safe territory for bicyclists and pedestrians. The group also managed to get the signal pattern for the traffic lights changed to make the crosswalk at the infamous I-76 death ramps more manageable. Once Mayor Nutter made it clear he favored a more pedestrian and bicycle friendly bridge , the city Streets Department did a 180-degree turn and began working with the neighbors to implement the changes. They even proposed one of their own: a mid-bridge cross walk to the ramp for the Schuylkill Banks trail. It shows you that mayoral leadership is just as important as federal dollars in determining the quality of Philadelphia's public spaces.
The one change that hasn't been finalized yet is the new design for the bridge railing and outlook towers. But it does seem that the awkward tin boxes in the 2007 design have been canned. The same group that organized last winter's charette plans to hold another one early next year to work out a new scheme. The city will probably be tweaking the design right up the day the bridge reopens. And if all goes well, that could be sometime in 2011.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Local Community College Bests Big-Name Schools

Bucks County Community College is probably not the first place that comes to mind when people think of top architecture departments in the country. But the school's historic preservation students scored a major upset recently when they took first place in a prestigious national competition.

The Bucks students are savoring their first place showing in the Charles E. Peterson Prize competition, an annual contest that involves precise documentation of historic structures. Peterson - a long time Philadelphian until his death in 2004- is considered the godfather of the preservation movement. He was one of the few who had the foresight to object to the creation of Independence Mall and the destruction of blocks of historic buildings.

Competitors for the prize are required to create precisely measured architectural drawings of historic structures. Such drawing skill is an increasingly rare, but important discipline, in this age of computerized architecture. Peterson, who worked for the National Park Service, helped establish a federal program called the Historic American Building Survey (HABS), which is used to document important historic buildings. The HABS drawings are so detailed that they can be used to reconstruct or repair a damaged historic structure.

The Bucks' students measured an old stone barn for their entry, but ironically it wasn't one of the many local ones. They chose to examine the Best Farm Stone Barn at Monocacy National Battlefield, a Civil War site in Frederick, Md. It took two summers to compete the project. Although the barn was far from their home campus, documenting its design gave them insight into their own local vernacular architecture. The Bucks students aren't even part of a regular architecture program. Their course is listed under the Department of Social and Behavioral Science.

Nevertheless, they bested 13 other entrants, beating out Kent State University’s College of Architecture, which placed second, and a third-place tie between Clemson University’s graduate program in historic preservation, as well as the Art Institute of Chicago’s historic preservation department. Judges were from the National Park Service, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Atheneum of Philadelphia. “If this isn’t a David and Goliath story, I don’t know what is,” said John Petito, a dean in the Department of Behavioral and Social Science, noting that BCCC was the only community college in the competition.

The historic preservation team from Bucks consisted of: Diana Barbera-Horwitz, Petrona Charles, M. Scott Doyle, Jennifer Eagen, Patricia Fisher-Olsen, R. Stephen Gray, Mirka John, Kevin Keating, Lisa Mroszczyk, Geoffrey Raike, Lexa Rio, Stephen Russell, Christopher Smith, Suzanne Stasiulatis, Vickie Stauffer, and Maureen Victoria.