Thursday, August 30, 2007

Blue Light Special on Newspaper Buildings

Think the proposed sale of the Inquirer building is an isolated case? Think again. These days, the land occupied by America's great newspapers is increasingly being eyed as a cash-generator. See the Wall Street Journal's take on the subject.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Also For Sale: My Shining White Knight

It's now official: the shining white Beaux-Arts tower that has housed the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1924 (and later, the Daily News) is on the block, along with the big chunk of real estate behind it. Ever since I first stepped through the doors in 1984, I always loved the building, by Rankin, Kellogg and Crane, for its mix of lofty ambition and no-nonsense, ink-stained utilitarianism. Sure the lobby was slathered in marble pilasters and graced with a globe of the world, but all pretense to grandeur ended right there. A few steps beyond those polished walls, and you were deep into a forest of bare concrete, broken and unmatched desks, cluttered stacks of yellowed newsprint, discarded food containers and several generations of detritus. When I first arrived, a Rube Goldberg network of pneumatic tubes still snaked around the interior, so editors could send glass rockets of typed paper copy to the composing room and pressroom. The tubes are gone, but I suspect that some of the fixtures - most notably the toilets in the third floor women's room - date to the original building. The newsroom didn't get carpeted until a renovation in the late 1990s because one crusty editor was of the firm belief that we should be able to grind our cigarettes out on the floor. Now that that the New York Times has moved to a gossamer -pretty, Renzo Piano-designed tower, the Inquirer and Daily News building is among the last of the gritty,big-city Front-Page era news buildings still in use. Its exact contemporary, Raymond Hood’s Chicago Tribune tower, still holds on.

For a great, metropolitan daily - "An Independent Newspaper for the All the People" - you couldn't find a building that better expressed the brand. Located seven blocks directly north of City Hall, the Inquirer's modest white, terra cotta clock tower was a blunt, symbolic counter-point to the ornate, marble one atop city government's lavishly decorated birthday cake. One tower was the bastion of the city's political rulers; the other, the crusading defender of the people. You'd see the pair lined up from a distance, staring each other down. I called the Inquirer a "shining white knight" in my post below on the state office building because its coloring , scale and isolation on the skyline spoke volumes about how its owners saw the newspaper's role: the noble, lone seeker of truth.

When the Inquirer's 23-story steel-frame tower went up at Broad and Callowhill Streets, it was the tallest building that far north of City Hall. Eighty years later, it is still among the tallest on North Broad Street. The decision to locate it so far north of Center City was an instance of hope triumphing over reality. The Inquirer's owners at that time wanted to believe the city's business district would continue its march uptown. It didn't. Oh well. There's still time. The Inquirer's isolated perch made it a landmark that could be seen far and wide across the city, reassuring evidence of democracy at work. Publisher Brian Tierney, a guy who knows a thing or two about branding, says he wants a new icon for the Inquirer, Daily News, Philly.Com and whatever else it is that we publish. Let's hope it speaks as clearly and passionately about the role of journalism in the 21st Century media as this out-moded old house of scribes did.

Monday, August 20, 2007

CCRA Attacks SS Bridge Design

The Center City Residents Asso-ciation has launched a major assault on the city's planned design for rebuilding the decaying and structurally deficient South Street Bridge. In a strongly worded letter signed by President Vivian C. Seltzer, and mailed Aug. 8 to a full-page worth of city officials, the neighborhood group complains that the Gannett Fleming/H2L2 design will insert an inappropriate, interstate-scaled bridge into a fine-grained pedestrian neighborhood.

I made some similar arguments in my Feb. 9 post and recent columns. But the group's letter shows just how widely held those concerns are. "It appears evident," the CCRA letter complains. "that the principal design criteria for the Bridge were to feed more traffic to and from existing ramps, and to accommodate large trucks" - hardly the conditions necessary to promote an evening's stroll between Center City and the Penn campus.
That's just the warm up. Not only is this the wrong bridge in the wrong place, the CCRA argues, but the new design will actually be "less safe to all users, including an estimated 4,000 pedestrians and 1,000 cyclists" who cross daily. The group predicts that wheelchair users will be especially vulnerable as turning motorists whip around the newly curved corners that will lead to the world's most scary highway access ramps. The group is especially irked that the city and PennDot are investing $50 million in deluxe turning lanes, without doing squat to make those merge-or-die ramps on I-76 any safer. "It seems only logical that any bridge design should be compatible with a future ramp redesign," the letter argues. Sounds reasonable to me.

Like anyone who has ever glanced at the official rendering (above), the CCRA was thoroughly non-plussed by the pasted-on design elements the city intends to use in a pathetic attempt to disguise the standard highway bridge. "Of even greater worry, however, is the opportunity the proposed semi-enclosed stainless steel towers create for high-risk hiding places for muggers, convenient urinals, trash receptacles and as targets for vandalism."

None of these are new complaints. But coming from a well-run, influential neighborhood group like the CCRA, these points ought to carry weight with the decision-makers, if not John Street, then certainly mayor-to-be Michael Nutter. Up until now, the Streets Department has stubbornly stuck to its position that 1) this is the only way to build a new South Street Bridge, 2) it's too late to think about it any more, 3)and besides, a nice bridge would cost too much. The department's engineers - and other city officials - should be required to read Saturday's stunning Op-Ed in the New York Times by David P. Billington, a Princeton University professor and renowned bridge expert. The article was written in response to the Minneapolis bridge collapse, but applies equally to the South Street Bridge. He maintains that bridge designers have gotten lazy and simply insert one-bridge-fits-all highway designs into any situation. Billington says American engineers need to start designing bridges that are specific to their place and task - and also beautiful. In this case, the place is a dense rowhouse neighborhood with a postcard-worthy view of the Center City skyline. The task is to make that a view that everyone can enjoy, whether they're traveling by foot, bike, wheelchair or car. Maybe it's time for someone in City Hall to sign up this guy Billington as a consultant.

Blurred Vision on Scheie Designer

Whoops. I was mistaken in attributing the Scheie Eye Institute to Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen. Center City architect Dan Kopple informs me the building was designed by the Kling Partnership's Dick Colville. Kopple should know since he was the partner in charge. Must have been the blurred vision after the eye drops. It's still a building worth seeing next time you're near 39th and Market Streets.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

For Sale: Groovy Gov't Office Bldg.

There's not much love in Philadelphia for the state office building at Broad and Spring Garden Street, designed in 1959 by the once ubiquitous Philadelphia firm, Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen. I'll admit there was a time when I thought the slab couldn't be blown up soon enough. (Yes, that is the shining, white knight of the Inky tower in the background.) But then the state gave the marble facade a good scrub a few years ago, and I began to take a shine to the relic of bureaucratic modernism. Somehow the cleaning made its grid of square windows dance the Cha-Cha. The architects didn't just rotely plug in window squares at regular intervals; they gave the otherwise, by-the-book International Style high-rise a serious sense of rhythm by alternating windows that are flush with the facade, with ones that protrude. The squares are finished off with a thick metal outline. But the designers didn't stop there. They also pleated the walls of the penthouse. It's a surprisingly playful touch for a government office tower, more in keeping with one of Morris Lapidus's Miami confections than the stuff of Philadelphia officialdom.

Now, two years shy of its 50th birthday, the state office building is about to go on the block. Sean Pressmann, chief-of-staff for the Pennsylvania's Department of General Services, says the state will post a Solicitation for Proposals soon on its website. The legislature approved the sale in July, and the department is already hunting for office space to lease for the 1,000 state workers now housed at Spring Garden Street. It's a little ironic, given that one of the excuses for not building a ballpark at Broad and Spring Garden was the need to retain the state presence. Now there's an even chance that the building could end up as condos.

And what swell condos it would make, with a few significant tweaks. Although I've grown to like the general look of the building, I'm still appalled by Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen's lifeless handling of the ground level. All the usual, pre-counter culture, anti-urban architectural tendencies are on view: the raised plinth separating the building from the surrounding streetscape, the shrouded entrance and the graceless, unwelcoming plaza/park. But unlike the federal courthouse at 6th and Market - one of the architects' most reprehensible projects - the mistakes at the base of the state office building could be easily corrected. It's not hard to imagine that plaza transformed into a lovely, green spot with a cafe and tables. With Loft District condos sprouting up across Broad Street and swarms of students and workers pouring out of the subway, it's an increasingly busy intersection. Ever since Lofts 640 and Marc Vetri's Osteria established their beachhead up the street, the neighborhood has been on a gentrifying tear.

You won't hear many people rem-iniscing about the work of Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen, a firm that no longer exists. But the more of their buildings I encounter, the more I'm impressed by the originality of their forms and the stylishness of their details. I doubt their reputation will ever experience a big revival, but several of their buildings are starting to look pretty good to me. My favorite is one of their last efforts, the 1972 Scheie Eye Institute at Presbyterian Hospital, a muscular concrete and brick building that is softened by curves and deep-set windows. Next time you have your eyes checked, stop (before you're blinded by the exam) to admire the rotunda lobby, which has lots of lovely details from the era, including wooden screens. The juxtaposition of the roughly sculpted concrete and brick forms put you in the mind of some of Louis Kahn's work. It's almost as if they designed the building's sensuous forms to be understood by touch, which is a nice way of approaching a building that serves people with serious eye problems. When you think about some of the plain, boxy hospital buildings going up these days, the Scheie seems an even more remarkable achievement.

Yet, even when Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen were good, they were often bad. Their designs are nearly always socially maladroit on the ground floor. Every time I pass the David Rittenhouse labs at 33rd and Walnut, I admire the round-edged, deep set, tactile square windows and then shake my head in amazement at the blank hostility of the street-wall. Ditto for the Youth Study Center on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, another of their elegant atrocities. The detailing of the limestone facade and classic ribbon windows shows real skill, but that base! There will be no tears shed when that building goes down for the Barnes Foundation's new building. Their perfectly round Bucks County Courthouse in Doylestown is another fascinating curiosity: bold in its form, inventive in the organization of the courtrooms, yet utterly blinkered to the lovely town at its feet. And then there are the What-Were-They-Thinking?failures like the Library Company on Locust Street.
While there is a lot wrong with Carroll, Grisdale and Van Alen's work, their failings are often typical of the architecture of the late '50s-early'60s, when cities were fumbling around for a way to compete with the suburbs. And yet it's evident that this was a creative bunch bursting with ideas, even as they stayed loyal to Modernism's rules about geometry and regularity. They didn't repeat the same forms over and over. Each project seems to be an attempt to create something fresh and original. And that's still worth admiring today.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Family Court: Farewell Logan Square, Hello Love Park

On the same day at that Philadelphia officials gleefully began blowing up several blocks just north of City Hall for the Convention Center expansion, Mayor Street announced that he wants Family Court to move from its neo-classically styled palace on Logan Square to a spot close to City Hall: the corner of 15th and Arch Streets, now the site of a parking lot that faces Love Park. You can see, way in the bottom right corner of this old photo, what stood on the spot long, long ago.

All in all, it could be a very good move. Now that the Barnes Foundation is supposed to displace the Youth Study Center, there is no reason for Family Court to be off by itself on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Arch Street site is closer to city offices, closer to the city's other court buildings and it's way more convenient to transit. Considering the site's prominence and proximity to City Hall, the city should commit itself to doing a first-rate design.The only way to get a decent piece of civic architecture - on the caliber of some recent federal courthouses - is to hold a serious design competition, rather than running out and hiring the usual suspects. (Exhibit A: the unremarkable Criminal Justice Center on Filbert Street).

Meanwhile, there is the question of what to do with John T. Windrim's family court building. This was the last neo-classical piece of Philadelphia's Champs-Elysee-inspired parkway to be built. Although Windrim began the design in the 1920s, the family court building wasn't built until 1939. It formed a companion to the Free Library and completed Paul Cret's homage to Paris' Place de la Concorde, but it was a pretty stuffy piece of architecture. (See my November post here.) It does boast some very fine stained
glass by Phila-delphia's D'Ascenzo Studios and a series of paintings on the themes of family and childhood done for the Depression-era Public Works Administration. It might be nice to move them into the new building.

Along with finding the right architect to design the new family courts, the city needs to give serious thought to the best use for the imposing old palace. Before the building goes on the block, the Free Library should be given a chance to see if it would make a suitable addition. But given today's real estate market, it's more likely that the columned courthouse will end up in private hands, as a condo or hotel development, following the trend established by the Philadelphia School District when it sold off its Paul Cret-designed headquarters on the other side of the parkway. It's being converted to luxury condos at this very moment.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Blowing Up the Convention Center Neighborhood

Leave it to the Pennsylvania Convention Center to send out invitations to a demolition. Actually make that multiple demolitions. Starting Aug. 15 at 2 p.m., with Buck's Hardware on 13th Street, the center will begin demolishing, imploding or otherwise destroying all the structures in its expansion path, from 13th to Broad, and Arch to Race Streets. (with the exception of the worthies remaining on Broad Street). The evite, which went out last week, welcomes guests to a pre-demolition bash in Room 114 of the center.

Philadelphians have known for a long time that the demolitions were a foregone conclusion, but still their imminent approach comes as a shock. The condemned beauties include the Lithograph Building on 13th Street and the Gibson Building on Cherry Street. The center's expansion is being fueled with casino money, which is now starting to pour into the state treasury. One bad box begets another. You can read my views in my March 2 and April 13 columns and posts on the subject here.

Among the worst casualties will be the Race Street firehouse, a proud Italian Renaissance/Medieval Gothic castle designed by J. Molitor , the city's chief architect, which has stood guard for that part of Philadelphia since 1925. Decorated with gargoyles in firemen's suits and elaborately turreted, this was a historic building until it was decertified by the Historical Commission earlier this year. Let's hope convention officials have the wit to rescue the gargoyles who witnessed so many firemen race off to rescue Philadelphia's citizens.