Thursday, September 28, 2006

Seeing the Waterworks Garden the Way Charles Dickens and Mark Twain Did

After many years of effort and unfortunate reversals, the restoration of Fairmount Park's historic South Garden is nearing completion.

This terraced landscape on the west side of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, overlooking the Schuylkill River and its gushing dam, has been one of Philadelphia's most romantic strolling spots in since it opened in 1835. The South Garden was originally seen as a way to clean up a quarry next to the Waterworks Engine House and make the area presentable. But it quickly became a popular place for Philadelphia's growing middle class to spend their leisure time. In fact, some claim it was the first purpose-built park in America and an inspiration for setting aside the rest of Fairmount Park's 6,000-odd acres. Although the rocky cliffs and meandering paths look as if they formed naturally, they are very much the work of the garden's creators, people like the Graffs, the father and son who ran the Waterworks. The designers moved huge boulders and vast amount of dirt to sculpt the romantic riverside grotto.

Claire Donato, who has been the lead architect on the project for Mark B. Thompson Associates, says the work on the garden and the cliff paths is now in its final stages, although workers still need a few more months to complete repairs to the circular fountain, as well as the northern and southern portions of the cliff paths. From what I've seen, the place probably looks as good as it did when Charles Dickens dropped by in 1840 and proclaimed the complex "no less ornamental than useful." The South Garden was not only Philadelphia's first natural park, it was one of its earliest tourist attractions. Mark Twain was drawn there in 1853 and wrote an enthusiastic letter to his brother in Hannibal, Mo. Twain was particularly impressed by the fountain: "I must say it is one of the prettiest fountains I have seen lately. A nice half-inch jet of water is thrown straight up, 10-12 feet, and descends in a shower." Unfortunately, generations Philadelphians know the garden only as a place where you had to watch for falling rocks and the shady characters hiding in the heavy thickets.

That's all changed since the repair of the Waterworks complex, the recent opening of the Michael Karloutsos' new restaurant and lounge and the opening of the Schuylkill Banks extension of the Kelly Drive waterfront path.

Incidentally, an extension of the path to the South Street Bridge is picking up momentum. Joe Syrnick, president of the Schuylkill River Development Corp., told me that he is ready to hire a designer for the 2,000-foot addition, which will require a boardwalk over the water because there is so little available land. That path will connect by ramp to a rebuilt South Street Bridge. After years of promise, the word is that PennDot will seek construction bids in early 2007 for the two-year project. Progress is slowly meandering its way down river.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Improving the Planning Commission?

Some people argue that the Planning Commission has been badly weakened over the past two mayoral admissions. I'd argue that the city has ceased to provide real urban planning, the way that some city schools no longer provide an arts and music curriculum. It's one of the municipal services that has fallen by the wayside - and just when the construction boom makes thoughtful planning a high priority again.

At least, the subject is now being discussed in the open by elected officials. Yesterday, Councilmen Frank DiCicco and Jim Kenney introduced a bill aimed at improving the situation. The Inquirer report describes the measure as a "revamping" of the system, but that seems a bit of an overstatement. The bill, if passed, would require the mayor to appoint people with building and development expertise to the planning commission, and require public notice of proposed zoning changes.

Those are worthwhile changes, but just a small step. If Philadelphia wants meaningful urban planning, there have to be changes in the City Charter that requires the zoning board to take direction from city planners. Right now, the zoning board does as it pleases, frequently ignoring the informed opinions of planning staff. The problem goes deeper that, however. City planners routinely turn out "guidelines" abouteverything from building heights to parking garages. But does anyone care? Unless a councilperson takes an interest and gets the guidelines turned into law through a council bill, those guidelines guide absolutely nobody.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Sad News at Symphony House

This news just came into the Inquirer office: A construction worker at the Symphony House condo site on Broad Street fell and died today. His tragic death is a reminder that high-rise development is risky business for all involved. Tonight's events celebrating the Suzanne Roberts Theatre have been cancelled, and will take place next Wednesday. Look for an update on the accident later today on

The Boyd is Not the Only One

No one ever said that reviving the Boyd Theater would be easy.Or that Philadelphia was the only city trying to breathe new life into a great, Golden Age movie palace. But Chicago is using a novel approach to save its 4,000-seat Uptown Theater. As Lynn Becker at ArchitectureChicago Plus reports, supporters have filmed a documentary about the building and are now selling the DVD. It's a start. Philadelphia, by the way, has four great theaters on its to-save list: the Boyd, the Uptown (above), the Royal and the Metropolitan Opera House.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Live Nation Halts Boyd Renovation; City Officials Do Nothing

Since my story detailing Live Nation's decision to stop renovation work at the Boyd Theater appeared in Friday's Inquirer, I've gotten half a dozen anguished calls from theater people, preservationists and politicians asking what can be done to revive the project. Well, for starters, how about if Mayor Street and Gov. Rendell picked up the phone and offered Live Nation a little encouragement? If this were a troubled condo, office or even a garage project, you can bet our elected leaders would be working overtime to get it back on track. But during my interview with Duane Bumb, the city's deputy commerce director, he made it clear the Street Administration views the Boyd's problems as a strictly private business matter. "They need to go back and see how they can repackage this to make it financially feasible," Bumb said. When I suggested that a shuttered Boyd could undermine Chestnut Street's recent revival, he sniffed that the retail corridor was doing just fine without the Boyd, thank you.

It's true that the western end of Chestnut Street in Center City has made an impressive comeback since the dark days of 2002, when it looked like the Boyd might be demolished. Virtually every building on the 1900 block, where the Boyd is located, has been renovated for condos, restaurants and shops. Stephen Starr's Continental, on the corner of 19th Street, is the highest-grossing restaurant in his chain, according to Bumb.

Still, the city's passive attitude hurts Philadelphia more than its hurts Live Nation. Even though it has already invested close to $14 million to stabilize the glorious, 2,400-seat art deco theater, the media giant can afford to sit on the property as long as it wants. But Philadelphia's theater scene desperately needs a playhouse like the Boyd to accommodate big, traveling Broadway shows. Otherwise, Philly is going to lose its position as one of the industry's top try-out towns.

Sure, the Kimmel's Verizon Hall and the Academy of Music are just as big as the Boyd, but they already have too many demands on their space from the orchestra, ballet, opera and other resident companies. And Philly's other big theater space, the Merriam, can't provide the loading facilities, dressing rooms and other backstage amenities that road shows demand. Philly used to be the number one try-out town in the nation, the last stop before shows went to Broadway, and the first stop when hit shows went on the road. But sadly that's no longer the case. And, as movie maven Sharon Pinkenson, head of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, pointed out in a voice-mail message, the city desperately needs a big, deluxe space to host movie premiers, like the opening of Sylvester Stalone's new Rocky movie in December. "I can't think of another great city in America that doesn't have at least one great movie palace," she said. The Boyd, which was home to the Sameric movie theaters before they shut down, could do double duty as a live theater and occasional movie venue.

Live Nation, which took over the theater and concert arm of Clear Channel Communications in January, apparently pulled the plug on the renovation project because it felt that costs were getting out of hand. Few such theater projects are financed entirely with private money. Earlier in the Boyd saga, when it was still owned by the Goldenberg Group, Mayor Street proposed a tax-break for the theater, but he was too entangled in the pay-to-play scandal to make a credible case to City Council. Meanwhile, Gov. Rendell is so fixated on Broad Street as theater row - with the Kimmel and Academy as the city's theater flagships - that he can't understand the importance of a revived Boyd Theater.

The good news is that this won't be a repeat of 2002, when the Sameric closed its doors, and the Goldenberg Group immediately announced it would seek a demolition permit. There's too much at stake now for anyone to consider razing the theater. In fact, at this point, there may be too much as stake for Philadelphia to let Boyd sit dark.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Fences Don't Always Make Good Neighbors

No, that white picket fence you see is not on some quaint country lane. It's right in Center City, on the Race Street side of the Franklin Institute, just west of 20th Street. A white plastic rail fence seems like an odd, and rather declasse, choice for such an august institution - and one about to rake it in from the upcoming King Tut blockbuster (Feb.3, 2007). The barrier marking the museum's original neoclassical building by John T. Windrim is granite, while a dark metal fence girds the newer, GBQC wing around the back. Trish Thompson, the Logan Square resident who sent the image (Sorry, I can't explain the blurriness this time. Maybe it's Blogger's fault.), says the fence has neighbors shaking their heads. But the Franklin Institute says the fence is just a temporary solution. It was installed to prevent motorists from mistakenly driving up on the grass when they exit the garage. According to PR director Lynda Bramble, the fence will be replaced by shrubbery as soon as spring comes. That's good to hear. The Boy King from Egypt's Golden Age deserves something a bit more stately.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Locally Connected

Philadelphia buildings and architects don't get featured very often in Architectural Record these days. So we'll have to take some small pleasure in seeing Stephen Starr's New York outpost of Morimoto, exquisitely designed by Tadao Ando, lead the September issue, which focuses on interiors. (You saw it first in Changing Skyline in March. ) Another designer with local connections, Penn architecture prof Winka Dubbeldam, also makes an appearance in the issue, with a New York loft apartment. Dubbeldam's firm, Archi-Tectonics, is designing the American Loft condos in Northern Liberties for CREI, now under construction. Herfirm was also supposed to design another small tower, the Northern Life , but that appears to be one of the projects on permanent hold.

Meanwhile, another Penn prof, the incredibly prolific Witold Rybczynski, who is Slate's architecture critic, as well as the author of books on everything from domestic life to Frederick Law Olmstead to Palladio, is this year's winner of the National Building Museum's Vincent Scully Prize, named after the incredibly prolific Yale professor and architecture historian.

I don't mean to be so Penn-centric, but if you are interested in what information is being stuffed into the heads of architecture students these days, see Geoff Manaugh's wide-ranging interview with Detlef Mertins, chairman of the school's architecture department, on Archinet.

And finally, one more thing from Penn. The university's School of Design has just released this year's speaker schedule. Here are ones to watch for:
-Sept. 20, 6:30 p.m. at the ICA: Peter Eisenman and Laurie Olin discuss their joint installation, Fertilizers. (See tomorrow's Changing Skyline for my review.)
-Sept. 21, 5 p.m. Meyerson: Kenneth Frampton discusses Antonin and Noemi Raymond, whose work is now on view in Meyerson's ground floor gallery.
-Oct. 16-17, Houston Hall: A symposium on green cities featuring planner Alexander Garvin, Nobel Prize Winner Wangari Maathai and Philadelphia artist Lily Yeh.
-Nov. 2, 7 p.m. Meyerson: Architect Toyo Ito
-Nov. 6, 6:30 p.m. Meyerson: Winka Dubbeldam
-Nov. 10, 7 p.m. Meyerson: Filmmaker John Waters
-Dec. 4, 6 p.m. Meyerson: Nur Akin discusses historic preservation in Turkey

Monday, September 11, 2006

More Thoughts on the Dilworth House

The Dilworth House saga thudded to an end Friday, when developer John Turchi and architect Robert Venturi came up with a design that was acceptable to the Historical Commission (above). Even some of the preservationists and Society Hill neighbors who have been fighting the project for the past two years (and who vow to keep fighting it) felt that they had achieved a modest victory because the new scheme retains the entire front half of the Colonial Revival house, while only sacrificing the rear and side wings. (See my news story in Saturday's Inky.)
But as with many buildings designed by committee, I would argue that this one is the worst of all worlds. The design doesn't meaningfully preserve the house that Mayor Richardson Dilworth built 1957 to demonstrate his commitment to Society Hill's revival. It's not the best architecture that Venturi could offer. It adds another cartoonish facadectomy to a neighborhood that appears to be amassing a world-class collection of architectural Frankensteins. (See the Mitchell/Giurgola's Penn Mutual tower and Solomon Cordwell Buenz's St. James, both on Walnut Street.)

And, you know what the worst part is? You can't even blame this clunky compromise on cynicism, corruption or bureaucratic incompetence. The Historical Commission members worked diligently and openly over the last two years to find a balanced solution. On Friday, the commissioners spent nearly three and a half hours in an open meeting listening to arguments from both sides. And yet, for all their effort and good intentions, they still got it wrong. For me, the lesson of the Dilworth House is that city review boards can't try to turn every decision into a compromise. Sometimes you need to take the extremist position: Either you're going support good preservation or you're not. And if you're not going to be faithful to history, then let the architects do their best work. You can't expect to support a little bit of preservation and and a little bit of architecture and get good results. There's a good reason why Solomon didn't cut the baby in half. Both architecture and history suffer from this compromise.

The most unfortunate aspect of the approved design (which you can see if you look hard at the first image at top) is the overhang that crests just below the peak of the Dilworth House roof. Because the tower is cantilevered off a narrow base, it appears to be gobbling up Dilworth's little house in the great big maw of its mouth. Compare this approach with the design proposal in the second image, submitted back in early 2005. Here the tower's Washington Square facade rises straight from the street wall plane, and only the facade of the Dilworth house is preserved. You might not see this right away, but look closely on the left side of the tower and you may be able to glimpse the facade's remains in the space behind the ground-floor arcade. Since Dilworth's house, designed by Edwin Brumbaugh, was already set back several feet from the street line, Venturi's and his associate Carey Yonce were able to enclose it within their tower's footprint. This scheme would have destroyed much more of the historic house, but, ironically, it would have produced a more pleasing and sophisticated building.

I can guess why Turchi wanted the overhang, but I don't quite understand why the architects agreed to it. As a developer, Turchi knows that the thing that will make the 12 units in this 16-story building fly off the shelf (for $4 million a pop) are their views of Washington Square. The three lower levels, which will merely look toward Randolph Street, amount to a throwaway. Turchi figured he was better off turning those lower floors into storage space for tenants and the neighboring Athenaeum, and using the bottom level for parking. Once the building rises above the rooftop, it west facade pitches forward, so residents in the 4,800-square-foot unites get a closer view of the square. Great for them. Bad for the city. The condo tower is going to look awfully silly standing there, like a dog caught with a somebody's pet rabbit in its mouth. And those vague, shadowy corners below the overhang are likely to bring up unfortunate comparisons with the federal courthouse a block north on Sixth Street. Why not just solve the problem by making the units a little smaller and having the west facade come straight to the ground?

I was one of those people who argued for saving the entire house. I believe that cities have to preserve history in the flesh if they expect succeeding generations to be able to make sense of their past. Not every old building, of course, but select examples. Some advocates of the Turchi project countered that the Dilworth house, which is listed as "significant," the highest preservation class, wasn't among the worthy because it is a 47-year-old copy of a colonial building. But it's not its architecture that makes it important; it's the role it played in history. And the fakery is part of that. The house is a relic to Dilworth's heartfelt belief that cities could again become viable centers of American middle class life.

I know this won't stop another argument over history vs. development, but let me just say I like high-rises and think the recent condo boom has done wonders for Philadelphia. But I agree with attorney Carl Primavera, a lawyer known for his vigorous representation of big-time developers, when he said that, "Not every site in the city can be a high-rise building site." Actually, I think this one can work as a high-rise site, since the lot is extremely deep - but only if Turchi pushed the tower way to the Randolph Street side. In other words, it would have worked if he didn't insist on having 4,800-square-foot units. He could have also built a second house at the rear of the lot and sold the pair for a pretty hefty price. He bought the Dilworth House for $1.75 million, knowing full well it was on the city's historic register. But the city's commission's have come to believe that they must find a way to help every developer build his or her intended project.

The real danger of Friday's decision is that it opens to way for a lot more big towers to be squeezed behind other small buildings. We've already seen this sort of thing with the St. James and 10 Rittenhouse. But while both those projects cost the city some of its historic fabric, they also helped the cause of preservation by giving new life to endangered historic buildings - the old PSFS building and a fragment of York Row in the case of the St. James, the Rittenhouse Club in the case of 10 Rittenhouse. The difference with the Dilworth House is that there was no impending crisis. No historic building was about crumble and die if it wasn't saved with an emergency facadectomy.

So now that Philadelphia has sanctioned elective facadectomies - what next? At this point, the only can't-miss sites for condo towers in Philadelphia are on Rittenhouse and Washington Squares. Does this mean we're going to see a proposal soon from a developer who wants to stick a tower behind one of the surviving low-rise Victorian houses on the west side of Washington Square? Or behind the sole remaining Furness house on Rittenhouse Square? Will collage-style architectural graftings define these neighborhoods? It's worth remembering that it's an either/or decision.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

SEPTA: Never Risk Obsolescence

One quote jumped out at me while I was reading Craig McCoy's story in the Inquirer today on Philadelphia's disgraceful lack of response to the post-9/11 security demands. James B. Jordan, SEPTA's security chief, was explaining why it was impossible for the transit agency to install emergency communications equipment in the trolley and subway tunnels so that officials and rescue workers could get up-to-date information in case of an attack. "Our fear," he explained, is that the equipment "would be obsolete by the time it took to install it."

Hearing that sentence took me back a few years to the day when SEPTA's board decided against adopting the farecard system used by most big-city transit agencies. Farecards would replace the weighty, antiquated, and frequently unavailable metal tokens that the city's occasional transit riders are now forced to haul around. Farecards are like E-Z Passes. Because people buy trips in advance and store the fare on a lightweight card, they're much more likely to hop on a bus or trolley at the spur of the moment. Farecards would enable SEPTA to do away with it's annoying, 60 cent transfer passes (Try to dig that last dime out of your pocket!) and to offer promotional fare incentives. When New York's MTA introduced its Metrocards, ridership skyrocketed because it was so much easier for people to slip a card in their back pocket than to carry around a sack of tokens. Ever since Rite-Aid stopped selling tokens here, buying them has become a real ordeal.

Anyway, after studying the matter for two years, SEPTA concluded that the farecard technology would be obsolete by the time it took to install it.

It's lucky for Philadelphia that Peter Weidner didn't decide that the trolley system would be obsolete by the time he installed it.

It sounds like that quote has become SEPTA's all-purpose excuse to do nothing about anything.

Friday, September 01, 2006

RIP: Minar Palace on Sansom Street

There will be no more Chicken Zalfrazi or Lamb Biryani for Minar Palace's devoted denizens in Center City and beyond. Time, and a lease, finally ran out for the palace, the Indian take-out place on Sansom Street that stood up to real estate bully and preservationist-manque Wayne Spilove. You can see the results in the pic here, shot yesterday by my blogging assistant Sky Kalfus, editor and proprietor of the Fitler Square Fountain newsletter. (Sorry for the blurriness. That's what happens when you drop your digital camera in the sand.)

The building occupied by Minar Palace was the sole survivor of Spilove's assault in 2000 on the 1600 block of Sansom Street, a quirky street of late 19th- and early 20th Century commercial buildings. Spilove bulldozed the other buildings in group with the stated intention of constructing his dream project - an automated, 12-story parking garage. But the owners of Minar Palace reminded Spilove that they had several years left on their lease, and refused to be budged from their building. Spilove - who was then the chairman of the city Historical Commission, and is now head of the state equivalent - then used his many political connections to have the city's Redevelopment Authority begin eminent domain proceedings against his own building - a strong-arm tactic intended to force Minar Palace out of the ground floor. But Spilove never had the nerve to take the proceedings all the way to City Council, and Minar Palace continued to ladle out great quantities of curry and saag. Minar Palace may have been one of the filthiest restaurant establishments in Philadelphia, but somehow also one of the most toothsome.

After all these years and machinations, Spilove acknowledged two years ago that he was unable to pull off the garage project and asked the zoning board to let him use the site as a surface parking lot. Then, in February, he put the propertyt up for sale. The deal fell through. It's unclear at this moment what Spilove intends to do with the enlarged site. (If anyone knows - pass it on.) Maybe he'll keep pursuing his dream garage. Maybe, he'll sell it to someone who will build something meaningful and sympathetic to the Rittenhouse Row commercial district. Just let it not be a 12-story garage.