Monday, July 31, 2006

The Next Big Thing on Rittenhouse Square

If you've walked along the south side of Rittenhouse Square, on the little block of Rittenhouse Square Street that runs past the Dorchester, you've probably noticed the 'For Sale' sign posted on an eccentric, Jeffersonian pavilion next to a red-brick, mansard-roofed Victorian townhouse. Many Philadelphians know the place as the McIlhenny Mansion, after Henry P. McIlhenny, the great socialite, party-giver, philanthropist, and art connoisseur who donated his priceless collection of Impressionist works to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But the mansion has sat empty and decaying since 1986, the year McIlhenny died.

Not surprisingly, given Philadelphia's current real estate frenzy, the house is finally on the market. Asking price: $11,740,000.

A sale at that price would be far and away the most ever paid for a Center City home, but that is hardly the main thought rumbling through people's minds. While the $12 million tag might suggest the Philadelphia housing market has reached a whole new level, it's pretty much what developers expect to pay today for a prime Rittenhouse Square high-rise site. The sale brochure for the houses isn't even printed yet, but already a chill of fear has gone around the square: Is this going to be the scene of Philadelphia's next major preservation battle?

There are plenty of reasons not to get worked up yet. Although not historically certified, the 1853 house has seen plenty of history. It's also firmly inside the Rittenhouse-Fitler Historic District. It's an important low-rise landmark on the south side the square, which is the side least conducive to tower shadows. In 1999, a plan to add a glassed-in, roof-top pavilion provoked a battle royale at the city Historical Commission. It was eventually approved, though never built.

But you never know how the commission might react today. And this is a very big, very attractive site. The McIlhenny Mansion is no ordinary townhouse. It's 8,600 square feet of living space on six separate lots - plus a 30-foot-wide garden. The entire property measures 106-by-60 feet and goes through to Manning Street. It includes parking for four cars.

Micki Stolker, the broker at Prudential Fox & Roach who is representing the property, says she is not marketing it to developers. In fact, the property, which was bought by a different art collector, Henry S. McNeil Jr., in 1998 for $1.4 million, is being offered so that it can be broken into two separate properties - 1914 and 1916 Rittenhouse Square. Both properties are 30 feet wide and extend to Manning street. The one at 1914, which includes the red Victorian, is going for $6,875,000. The one next door, which includes the reception hall that McIlhenny had built to greet his party guests, is priced at $4, 865,000. Despite those record numbers, Stolker said there's been quite a bit of interest. Given that a sizeable Delancey Street house now goes for $3.5 million, she argues, a house like this on Rittenhouse Square is practically a bargain.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's Perfect Cube

Guess what's become the coolest hangout and biggest tourist draw in midtown Manhattan? The magically minimalist Apple store on the Saharan plaza of the General Motors building at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, created by the San Francisco office of the Philadelphia-based Bohlin Cynwinski Jackson. Ever since Bill Gates hired the architects to design his 40,000-square-foot, computer-driven hacienda in Seattle, the firm has carved out a techno niche for itself - although not in Philadelphia, where the firm still tries to strike a compromise between a modern sensibility and Philadelphia's red-brick heritage. Their local works include the recent Liberty Bell Pavillion (and its very unfortunate companion, the Liberty Bell restrooms), an addition to the Penn dental school, and the Germantown Friends fieldhouse. But they also showed they could work in shades of all gray with the Tuttleman Learning Center at Temple University.
But even the Tuttlemen doesn't prepare you for the disciplined dazzle of the Apple store. The entry is a perfect glass cube that floats on the plaza (once home to a sunken bar where people sipped drinks while sitting in miniature Chryslers). The cube houses a cylindrical elevator, wrapped with a spiral staircase, that takes you down into the sprawling, column-free underground retail space. It's only one flight down, but you feel as if you been zapped to another world by a transporter. I saw hundreds of customers clustered around heavy wood Parsons tables, trying out various Apple products and gadgets, dispatching emails, blogging, downloading music, and who knows what else. The cube acts as a giant light-gathering tower, funnelling vast amount of natural light into the basement. Brokers once referred to the retail space as the pit because of dark, dank location, says Peter Slatin (You may have to register for this link.) No more. More than one person emerging from the transporter was heard to murmur, "wow."
There's a rumor going around Philadelphia that Apple is searching for a store site here. If that happens, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson is likely to be tapped for the design. We'd love to see what the firm could do here for a client like Apple. But no red brick, please.

What's New on Wednesday

-Very good sources tell us that a deal is in the works that would allow the Independence Charter School to take over the former Durham School at 16th and Lombard Streets, allowing the well-regarded charter to expand while remaining in Center City.

-Check out the grand foyer of the Free Library on Logan Square. Workers have ripped out the bulky display cases that lined the walls, revealing the grandeur of the Horace Trumbauer-Julian Abele-designed columns. A few tiles were damaged during the construction, and the library is now determining how to make repairs. No word on when the library will start work on its Moshe Safdie-design addition. I've been hearing that fundraising is going slowly. I was reminded again last night after a creepy visit to the women's room just how desperately the library needs to start renovations. Even a fresh coat of paint downstairs could improve the atmosphere

-In Howard Haas' weekly newsletter on the Boyd Theatre, he writes that the Goldenberg Group has sold its remaining interest in the movie house, which consisted of the three small theaters facing Chestnut Street. The buyer is restaurant developer Jim Pearlstein of Pearl Properties, who is responsible for luring both DiBruno's and Devil's Alley to Chestnut Street. For a long time, there has been talk about demolishing the three modern theaters, which face Chestnut Street with blank, buff-brick walls, and building something more interesting in their place. Shops, restaurants, even a skinny midrise apartment house might be built on the site. Meanwhile, we hear that plans for construction of a live theater inside the old, art deco Boyd may be stalled.

-Bad news from Chestnut Hill. Bob Shusterman, the architect-lawyer-neighbor who has spent the last five years fighting the Venturi scott Brown & Associates addition to the Woodmere Art Museum, has filed notice that he will appeal the latest Common Pleas court decision. That ruling affirmed that the Zoning Board of Adjustment acted correctly in granting the museum a variance. The appeal means that Philadelphia will have to wait more years for the Woodmere to realize its potential.

-The previous post is now safe for linking. All the URLs have been fixed and tested.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Awaiting The Perils of Urban Success

During a talk I gave last week about Philadelphia's strange conjunction of a condo boom and a planning vacuum, one questioner asked whether I thought the city's new affluence would drive out middle and low income residents. I don't believe Philadelphia's overall housing costs are there yet, although obviously such things as school quality, safety and public amenities play an important role when people decide where to live. I think it's fair to say that the boom has been very, very good for Philadelphia. While housing costs have certainly risen in Center City and the neighborhoods that ring the core, there are still acres and blocks to go before Philadelphia runs out of affordable housing.
Still, the possibility that American cities will become the exclusive playgrounds of the rich - a phenomenon dubbed "inversion" by demographers - is something writers in other affluent centers are increasingly starting to fret about. There have been several good articles on the subject recently. The one by Alan Ehrenhalt in Governing suggests that the raging condo boom and high real estate prices in cities like Vancouver could ultimately drive out offices, commerce - and jobs. Janny Scott's piece in the New York Times this weekend focuses more directly on the rich displacing the poor. Meanwhile, Christopher Hume in the Toronto Star worries that rich cities will suck up all the tax resources. In France, inversion has already come to pass in Paris, where the poor are relegated to grim housing and inconvenient commutes on the periphery. Perhaps we could dub the phenomenon, if it ever comes anywhere near Philadelphia, the Paris Syndrome?

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Ripping out the Guts of J. E. Caldwell

The nefarious work in the shadow of darkness, so I knew it was a bad sign last week when I saw the windows at J.E. Caldwell on Chestnut Street had been covered with brown paper that was taped down to the frames. Now my worst fears have been confirmed. One of my spies was walking by when an overheated workmen cracked open the door for air. Said spy used the opportunity to gather intelligence and it wasn't pretty. Every inch of the former jewelry store's French Regency-style oak cabinetry - designed by Horace Trumbauer and Julian Abele - had been ripped from its moorings. Only the hand-cut Baccarat chandeliers remained. But for how long?
You can see some of the destruction in this photo, snapped last week by Rob Bender. Note the dumpster in the lower right corner. But my spy reports that much more is now gone, including the marble floors. The rumor is that Caldwell, which was Philadelphia's premier jeweler for 164 years before closing in 2003, is being turned into a restaurant. Surely a clever architect or interior designer could have found a way to incorporate the Trumbauer-Abele furnishings into the design. Tearing out the cases and marble isn't just barbaric, it's shortsighted. That kind of history can't be bought, and the remnants of the old Caldwell would have given the newcomer instant status and publicity. But such destruction is too easy in Philadelphia because the city's historic preservation law doesn't cover interiors.
The losses are really mounting up this summer, especially in retail spaces. H&M replaced Nan Duskin's distinctive Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa entrance on Walnut Street with a crude glass box. Last week, when I walked by Frank Furness' thrilling, three-story-high arched banking space in the old PSFS building at 7th and Walnut, I saw the contractors inside lowering the ceiling and installing what appeared to be plain white acoustical tiles. Now that Federated has dispatched the Strawbridge & Clothier store on Market Street to Ron Rubin's Preit, there is real worry about the fate of the Boar Fountain. These retail interiors are some of the most evocative historic spaces Philadelphia has. The destruction reminds me of one of those Philip K. Dick movies, like A Scanner Darkly, where the character's memories are wiped away. Soon we'll be a city of empty husks.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Barnes Foundation, Long Silent, Speaks

Just when I was beginning to think that the Barnes Foundation might never reveal its cards (or plans) for its new Philadelphia building, a press release fluttered down from the ether. The Merion (for now) art museum has just hired the New York-based Polshek Partnership Architects and the Philadelphia-based Perks Reutter Associates to figure out a program and prepare a site plan for its property on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, currently the home of the euphimistically named Youth Study Center.
Polshek is a bluechip architectural firm that has done some high-profile museum work, including the sphere-in-a-cube Rose Center at the American Museum of Natural History, Bill Clinton's presidential library, and the entry plaza at the Brooklyn Museum. Polshek was also supposed to design a new building for the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, but it never came to pass. The key thing is that the firm hired to do a program plan can very often end up as the design architect. Polshek is one of the better museum designers - modern, sophisticated, but by no means cutting edge. In the press release, Bernard C. Watson, chairman of the Barnes Board, said that the Barnes will begin its hunt for an architect in the fall. Hiring Polshek and Perks Reutter now is further evidence that the Barnes decision to leave Merion is irreversible, despite continued concern about the wisdom of the move. Only last week, Fred Bernstein, who often writes about architecture for the New York Times, expressed wonder that the Barnes would ever want to leave its quirky Merion estate, designed by Paul Phillipe Cret.
No doubt, one of Polshek's big tasks will be to figure out how to replicate the Barnes' existing floor plan inside a new museum. When the foundation and its ally, the Pew Charitable Trusts, first sought to break Albert Barnes' will and move his collection to Philadelphia, they promised to recreate the layout of the galleries and the arrangement of artwork exactly as Mr. Barnes left it. Creating a replica of the Barnes galleries inside a modern museum will be as tricky as....putting a replica of the earth inside a glass cube.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Woodmere Art Museum Expansion Okayed; Long Legal Nightmare is Nearly Over

The Woodmere Art Museum's brooding Victorian home on Germantown Avenue in Chestnut Hill looks like the sort of place where you'd wake up in a sweat from a terrible nightmare. And now it appears as if the museum itself is about to emerge from a doozy of a bad dream. After five years of legal battles with a grumpy neighbor, the Woodmere was given a green light June 27 by the Common Pleas court to proceed with a new wing designed by Venturi Scott Brown & Associates. Unless Bob Shusterman - the architect-lawyer-neighbor who mounted the equivalent of a nuclear strike against Woodmere's expansion - files another appeal before the end of July, the Woodmere plans to break ground on the 20,000-square-foot, $15 million wing in early 2007.

If the deadline passes without another lawsuit, it will bring to an end one of Philadelphia's major architectural grudge matches. When Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown first unveiled their design for the Woodmere back in 2001, it seemed as innocuous as a middle school. The Chestnut Hill Community Association gave the project its blessing , and the Zoning Board of Adjustment duly approved a use variance for the low-slung, horizontal addition. But to hear Shusterman tell it, the proposed wing would have effectively turned charming Chestnut Hill into - gasp!- a cheesy Cherry Hill. He griped that Venturi's gray, arcaded wing was "too institutional" and too "highly recognizable." He filed suit challenging the zoning variance.

Although you always hear lots of griping in Philadelphia about the ability of deep-pocketed litigants to stall development, I've never accepted that zoning lawsuits are a bad thing. Given the regular string-pulling that goes on at ZBA meetings, legal action is often the public's only way to set things straight. But Shusterman's pursuit of the Woodmere largely seemed motivated by his personal dislike of Venturi, rather than legal issues. The centerpiece of his case was that there was no legal basis for the zoning board to grant Woodmere a variance for expansion. Yet the Woodmere had added onto its original building three times before. Shusterman 't didn't object to those variances. His real complaint - if we take his words at face value - was the design. But that's a matter of personal taste, not zoning. I also find the design for the addition a bit stodgy and mild-mannered. But then, that appears to have been Venturi's intent. This is Chestnut Hill, after all. Venturi and Scott Brown were trying to create an addition that won't t upstage Woodmere's quirky original building - which supposedly served as the inspiration for the Addams Family house - and will fade politely into the sloping landscape. It should meet those goals. And then, maybe at last, the Woodmere Art Museum can get back to its main business of promoting the work of great Philadelphia-area artists like Benajmin West and Frederic Church.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Another Wash West Fire. Another Wash West Demolition?

The huge crane that was parked on the 1200 block of Locust Street last week was there to pick over the wreckage of the latest Washington Square West building to be damaged by fire, the Lincoln Apartments - an 1892 a building designed by architect George H. Fettus in a style that clearly borrows from contemporary Frank Furness. So far, Philadelphia fire marshals and the owner haven't decided whether the five-story palazzo-shaped structure can be saved, although it looks like most of the interior and the west wall are lost. If the entire, 51-unit building goes, it will be second 19th Century apartment house in the neighborhood lost to fire since the one at 11th and Spruce burned in the summer of 2003. Washington Square West is hardly the sort of neighborhood you'd expect to see going up in flames. It's one of Center City's most desirable and historic places to live.

Wash West is so desirable, in fact, that the Lincoln's owner was in the process of converting the upper-floor apartments into condos when the four-alarm fire broke out June 30, just as the city was celebrating an early Fourth of July on Penn's Landing. Firefighters had to work all through the night and into the morning to put out the blaze. By the time they had the fire under control, flames had eaten through the upper story wood joists, and the damaged floors began crashing down on one another, pancake style. It's now just a big pile of charred timbers on the inside of the U-shaped building.

But even if it's impossible to expect the owner to salvage the interior of the Lincoln, let's hope he has the sense (and his insurance company's support) to save the surviving exterior walls. The word is that the front facade and the east wall are intact. The Lincoln may not be a designated historic structure, or a real Furness building, but they sure don't build them like more this any more. The Lincoln, which has had a varied history as a YMCA, hotel and apartment house, is one of those massive blocks that makes you think of a Roman palazzo - what with its regally arched entryway, flanked by Furness-style compressed columns, and scalloped window fans, striated water table, and understated latte-colored brick. The heavyhanded replacement that was built at 11th and Spruce (by BLT) should be a caution. Just compare the Lincoln's undulating bay windows with the massive, overscaled ones on the 11 the Street corner. No doubt, though, there is someone out there rubbing his hands over the possibility of building a much bigger building on the Lincoln's footprint.