Friday, November 10, 2006

Trouble Ahead for National Product's Tiles

In his excellent book about the complexities of preserving memory and history, The Same Axe, Twice, Howard Mansfield provides a little background to explain the title. He tells the story (which may be apocryphal) of a crusty New Hampshire carpenter who still uses his grandfather's axe, which he claims dates to the 19th Century. The blade has been replaced a couple of times, as has the handle. But the carpenter maintains that it is still an historic object. It's just "the same axe, twice."
Mansfield goes on to ponder what's more important in historic preservation: the original fabric of a building or object, or its continuing usage.
Now the same issue has come up with Philadelphia's National Products Building on Second Street in Old City. Four years ago this month, the city's Historical Commission took the unprecedented step of historically certifying the 1950s-era facade, a funky mid-century modern composition of square orange tiles, zig-zagging canopies and stylized stainless steel signage. All that stuff had been pasted onto a much older - and less distinctive - brick warehouse building. It was the first time the commission honored this kind of vernacular, commercial modernization, and many in the preservation community applauded the decision as a major advance for preservation. After all, cities don't just want to save the buildings of the rich and powerful, but those that that reflect all layers of society.
The designation came in the nick of time, too, because developers were salivating at the prospect of obtaining the National's huge Old City site for condos. But once the building had its historic imprimatur, the developer was obliged to incorporate the facade into the design.
Okay. Fast forward to last week. Developer Steve Patron appeared before the commission's architectural subcommittee. It seems the 1,600 oranges tiles are cracking at a rapid rate, partly because of a manufacturing flaw. According to his consultant, Sam Harris, a respected preservation consultant, the original glaze wasn't extended around the edges of the tiles and now water is seeping between the joints. Patron wants permission to demolish the wall. In exchange, he vows to commission an entire set of new tiles and rebuild the historic facade exactly as it looks today - the same wall, twice.
The architectural sub-committee accepted the argument. Very likely, the full commission will affirm their decision at today's meeting. That will enable Patron to erect the multi-story condos and the new wall simultaneously. No doubt, it's a much easier way to build than having to prop up the tile wall.
Why don't I feel assured by all this?
For one thing, the commission has no budget to hire experts to check on the accuracy of Patron's assessment. For another, Patron hasn't produced any samples of the replacement tiles. He has hasn't even said whether the manufacturer still exists, or whether it still possesses the chemical formula for that particular, mottled orange tile. At the very least, the commission should demand written confirmation from a manufacturer that an exact replica is possible. And then the commission staff needs to examine samples BEFORE a single tile comes off the building.
The good part is, even if the demolition is approved today, it will be what's called an "in concept" approval. That means Patron won't be able to go ahead until he has submitted all the design details to the commission staff and they've signed off. The same National Products Building, twice might be okay, as long it's really the same.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rebuild the entire wall?? aren't the tiles just the outer surface of an older wall, with various entries & windows, and with older wall above the tiles?

shouldn't they simply replace the tiles in-situ on the existing original wall?

surely they aren't proposing to demolish the entire facade in order to replace the tiles? that doesn't sound appropriate given the historic nature of the building. It would sound like an excuse for being cheap, and I doubt the facade will emerge looking the original.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The developer offered to do just as you asked, Inga... offering to provide samples of the replacement tiles to the Commission so that they may confirm that the new tiles are identical in appearance to the original tiles (though likely stronger and better glazed than the originals, so they will last longer). The Commission made this a requirement of the Concept Approval. As for the prior Anonymous' comment regarding the existing rear wall behind the tiles: this is actually a series of multiple walls and foundations, none with any particular historical importance, that were largely corrupted when the tiles were originally installed (with large new retail opening cut into them, windows and doors filled with concrete blocks, etc.). The existing orange tiles are glued directly onto the original rear walls, and it would likely be impossible to remove all the tiles from those walls without destroying the walls in the process. Besides which, it would be foolish. If you are going to reconstruct that wall with stronger, newer tiles (that look identical to the originals), and with many other salvaged items from the original wall, it only makes sense to attach the facade to a much better designed, stronger, support wall. If they simply attach the new facade to a series of old, dilapidated rear walls (that will remain hidden from view), with shifting foundations, you will get a very poor result in the end.

4:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, let's not preserve our historic buildings. Let's tear them entirely down and build something new that may, kind of, resemble them!

Disneyfication all the way!

Don't believe for one second they can't safely remove the tiles from the existing walls, and replace them, if they really need to replace them.

5:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The facade should be stabilized in place and underpined or needled to rebuild the foundation.

Understandably more expensive to leave in place but rebuilding is a loss of city "Fabric". The original material even damaged is important. Why simulate "a replica" with new tiles when the Secretary of Interior Preservation Standards frowns on this practice.

Old things settle. Weathering happens.

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thoughtful, knowledgable preservationists realize that when a material reaches the end of it's useful life, it is better to authentically replicate the material and restore it to its original condition, rather than obsess over "original fabric" as if it were a sacred relic, feverishly trying to patch and repatch and repatch a deteriorated, failed, cracked, tile that no longer resembles its original condition. the secretary of the interior standards clearly recognize this and provide for replacement of historic material when the severity of the deterioration of the original material reaches a critical point.

11:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not convinced from Inga's that new tiles really can't be placed onto the original fabric.

I read that an expert suggested a design flaw with the tiles themselves, but that's it.

I'm not convinced the entire wall and facade has to go!

12:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "manufacturing flaw" diagnosis seems hasty. A flaw as described would cause an immediate failure not a progressive one.

This is a progressive failure.
Somehow water is getting behind the wall and the tile glazing (a barrier to water migration ) is stressed from the backside. If the owner solved the internal water problem the cracks would arrest. Most restoration masons would know where to look beyond raking out old joints and tuck pointing.

The other reason for tile failure would be a settling foundation. If the cracks run up and down through many courses that would be a shear crack which is a settlement sign.

Inga ....Is it a glazed terracotta block and cinderblock construction? You say they are tiles

I have walked along this facade a thousand times and enjoy it very much...even in it's derelict condition. Keep it.

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

it is pretty humorous how all the armchair experts out there are so quick to opine about the condition of tiles, etc. without any real facts or knowledge about the actual conditions, without reading any of the reports or testimony, etc. if your "expert" opinion is based solely on assumptions and guesses, is it really worth much? even inga... has she inspected the tiles with a historic preservation expert? has she read the reports prepared by the experts? if not... then perhaps all of this opining back and forth is premature.

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that is an excellent point!!!!

so . . . the developer should put all the reports on a website and then post a link here. then we can all check it out and reach our own decisions.

better yet, the Historical Commission should post all application data online, for all projects, all the time.

think about it . . . all documents filed with the Historical Commission are public information, reviewable by anyone who has time to go to City Hall and look at the file. why not post things online?

let us demand easier access to public information.

it's only a matter of time -- we all know that. so let's get it on.

12:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the poster about armchair experts:

Building science is not rocket science.
Experts can be paid to say anything.

Post the report so we can see the findings.

11:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties, 1995

Standards for Preservation

12:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Post the report!!

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i agree that it would be a good idea to have the reports for all applications posted online; if the public has a right to view the documents, why not make the access easy rather than difficult?

as for the suggestion that "experts can be paid to say anything," i resent that implication. most preservation consultants that i know are good, reputable people that are not merely "hired guns" and will not simply say whatever their client asks them to say. i believe this particular report was prepared by sam harris, who has an excellent reputation and tremendous credibility as a thoughtful, careful, honest preservation expert. if he recommends replacing the tiles, i would take his recommendation very seriously, although i agree it is always regrettable to lose historic fabric.

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Only one way to know: POST THE REPORT!!

Mr. Harris, please send Inga the report so she can post it here.

Help this City work best by having more transparency.

Please Mr. Harris, send Inga the report . . . .

Let us see the basis upon which the Historical Commission is making its decision.

3:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let them fall--without hurting anyone, of course. I've lived long enough to remember when this type of commercial facade was new, and am still waiting for it to look like anything but an eyesore, but the passage of time is not mellowing its hideousness. The block needs plain brick fronts--anyone can see this.

8:54 PM  

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