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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your publisher isn't likely going to construct a new iconic building in Center City! More likely, he just wants the profits of selling the existing building to a residential developer. Will the newspaper staffers have to move to the burbs?

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wouldn't that be great--"The Philadelphia Inquirer: coming to you from Bucks County!"

How about the Comcast Center, Brian? I hear they and the Cira Centre still have a few floors available...

6:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that building would make a great condo-conversion.

8:42 PM  
Blogger HughE Dillon said...

I would love to live in the Inquirer building, it's beautiful. Could we turn the 7th floor roof into a deck with a garden please.

12:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh well. If its for the good of the paper, I can stomach it.
I think a condo conversion might be good for that part of the city. if we can put soem people into that sea of street level parking lots. Maybe an owner of a street level lot or two will be willing to build something.
Street level parking.
My god what a disgrace that is.

In the immortal words of Rodney Dangerfield in his timeless classic Caddyshack, "graveyards and golf courses and street level parking lots... biggest wastes of prime real estate!"

Or something like that I'm sure.

7:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The paper already owns some picturesque land in Conshy where the printing plant sits right now....

8:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Inquirer Building is another great opportunity for the Spring GArden area of the city. A hotel, condo or even increasing the office buling capacity to more firms in that historic building seems like a good idea. i don't think situating the Inquirer and DN on a secondary street like 15th and Callohill is an iconic setting as their current management suggests for a change. How about 1500 Spring Garden? CW and CBS 3 already have signs on the back of the building. The Inky and DN can put their Mastheads on the front of the building and even steal a few jounalists from their competition. Share news-gathering services...whatever!!!!!!!!

6:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't care if the quote is a little less than correct....but in my book, Rodney Dangerfield's line in Caddyshack captures my sentiments exactly. Surface parking lots are a waste of real estate.

6:41 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wow. I dont know what to say. I feel as though this is being done to put some more dough in the publishers pocket.

Laugh in the face of Mordor forever.

12:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is the Rodney quote:

"Golf courses and cemetaries. The two biggest wastes of prime real estate."

3:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The goal here is to free up capital. It's terrible timing since the financing for residential construction and even more-so, residential conversions, has all but completely dried up. It's a nice chunk of land and even if they don't get what it would have sold for in 2005 when the money was flowing everywhere and into everything, they will certaintly be able to pay down debt which is a major burden on the firm. I don't know the details of the Philadelphia Media Holdings financing, but I can only assume it was done by a bank consortium and it may have a reseting rate coming up. Switching into leased space is a no-brainer for a levered company like this. The interest on the PMH buyout loan is definitely higher than the appreciation on the asset at this point.

7:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Inga: Saw you referenced in today's Wall St Journal on this topic and it prompted me to write.

No one should be surprised by PMH selling assets. There's no one in the ownership group actually dedicated to journalism. This is just a financial engineering exercise, like every other LBO completed over the last 30 years: overleverage the company and then seek ways to reduce expenses, because they can't raise revenues enough to justify their purchase price. Also, how come no one points out that the bank that led the financing for PMH is Citizens Bank, which coincidentally now "sponsors" the business page. I saw lots of commentary on the Citizens Bank "sponsorship" as negatively impacting journalistic integrity, but no one took it a step further to show the relationship between the parties.

5:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone want to take bets on the following ? ...

1. The Inquirer will now either buy or lease a property owned by the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Philadelphia

2. The current building will find even less use than the regrettably empty Strawbridge's is finding, and will eventually be imploded.

12:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 12:09 AM sounds like either a Belfast Protestant or is in the demolition business. Either way he/she should take a course in logic and reasoning.

9:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 1209 merely sounds to me like someone who knows about Tierney's connection at the hip with the Catholic Church - thought everybody knew that.

Nor is there much illogical about imploding a tall building if it is unwanted. The logic impaired folks would seem to be the ones that imagine there is anyone left to buy more zillion dollar condos.

Anonymous didn't say what they imagine would be done with the empty space though. My bet is surface parking ;)

12:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well anonymous 12:53am must then think Mayor Street has sold out the city to the 7th day adventists (he is joined at the hip). The Beaux Arts Inquirer building is only unwanted by PMH as they look to lessen debt and get out of the real estate business. It is not that tall of a building and has many possibilities from mixed use or to a convention hotel. And sorry the empty space at the Inquirer building can't be used as a surface lot after demolition; since it is on the historical buildings register. However, it could be used as a monastery or retirement "convent" for an order of nuns.

12:08 PM  

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