Friday, December 28, 2007

Pa. History Exec:Demolitions Unauthorized

The chorus of outrage over the Saturday-before-Christmas demolition attempt on the Broad Street Two continues to grow. Barbara Franco, the director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, has sent a withering letter to the Department of General Services, condemning its assault on a pair of historic buildings that were supposed to be incorporated into the Convention Center's new Broad Street facade.

The department, which is overseeing the construction of the expanded center, was prevented from completing the legally questionable demolition on Monday after the Preservation Alliance secured an injunction from Commonwealth Court. Now, Franco, who has tended to be fairly cautious in her statements, lets loose in a Dec. 26 letter to DGS' acting head, Elizabeth O'Reilly. The Inquirer's editorial page also urged Gov. Rendell to stand by a 2004 agreement by the state to preserve those structures . All those righteous claims that the deal was non-binding are starting look pretty disingenuous.

Franco's letter should help boost the Alliance's case Jan. 8 when it goes to court to ask for a permanent halt to demolition. In the three-page document, Franco criticizes DGS for "abruptly terminating consultations" with her agency, taking "pre-emptive action to demolish" the former headquarters of the Philadelphia Life Insurance Co., and "failing to do due diligence." Franco concludes that "the preponderance of the engineering evidence clearly shows it is feasible to save the building facades."

Meanwhile, in a small bit of irony, the Convention Center just released an update rendering of its new facade, (above), done in a style that might be called "airport modern." This version has a few more details to keep the new wall from killing us with boredom. And significantly, it still includes the facades of the buildings that the center and itshenchmen tried to tear down last weekend. Love to hear that parsed by the DGS.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bulldozers Away: Convention Center Tears Down Historic Buildings

Call off the celebrations. The Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority decided it could roll over the state historic commission just as easily as it could roll over a couple of little historic buildings. Here's my report, which will appear in Sunday's Inquirer.

The state agency overseeing the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center yesterday began tearing off the facades of two historic buildings on North Broad Street, in defiance of a protection ruling issued Thursday by the state’s top preservation official.
The demolitions, which began at 6:30 a.m. and by midday had produced a waist-high pile of broken limestone, sent shock waves through Philadelphia’s preservation community, which was still celebrating Thursday’s action by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. They believed the commission’s two-page ruling amounted to a legal pardon and would stop the convention center’s bulldozers from reaching Broad Street.
But an official close to Gov. Rendell insisted that the preservation commission’s ruling was “only an opinion,” and therefore the center was not bound by it. “We have no intention of leaving those buildings,” added the official, who asked not to be named.
“I don’t get it,” said Alan Greenberger, the chair of the Design Advocacy Group, which campaigned with the Preservation Alliance to save the historic structures in the middle of the block between Arch and Cherry Streets, the former headquarters of the Philadelphia Life Insurance Co. “We, as architects, have never been able say, ‘That’s just PHMC’s opinion and we’ll ignore it’.”
The remaining bones of the historic pair will be completely demolished over the next several days, said Edward Myslewicz, spokesman for the Department of General Services (DGS), the agency that coordinates state construction projects. The conjoined structures — a modernist masterpiece from 1962 by the renowned Philadelphia School architect Romaldo Giurgola and an ornately-carved early 20th Century commercial building — were supposed to be incorporated into the convention center’s new Broad Street facade.
That arrangement was the result of a negotiated compromise, enshrined in a 2004 legal agreement between the convention center authority and the state historical commission. Although there were several other important historic buildings in the path of the center’s expansion, the commission agreed to permit their demolition on the condition that the critical block of Broad Street just north of City Hall would be left intact. Nearly all the other historic buildings in the two-block expansion zone have now been razed, with the exception of the Race Street firehouse, a beloved municipal structure adorned with gargoyles in firefighting gear.
Greenberger called yesterday’s demolition “an outrageous breach of trust,” and added, “To do it on the Saturday before Christmas, when no one is looking, is despicable.”
It is not clear why DGS chose yesterday - a day when work crews normally receive overtime pay — to start the demolition, particularly since the agency has been in discussions over the pair’s fate since August. No one from the historical commission was available for comment yesterday.
But it appears that the final decision on demolition was made only on Friday, just one day after the historical commission took a strong stand in favor of retaining the threatened buildings.
The head of the demolition crew, who gave only his first name, Pat, said their boss, Geppert Bros. did not ask them to work this weekend until midday Friday.
In her Thursday letter, historic commission director Barbara Franco rejected the DGS claim that the buildings were structurally compromised or beyond repair. Indeed, she quoted the convention center’s own architects — Emmanuel Kelly of Kelly/Maiello and Richard Holland of Vitetta — as saying the structures were sound enough to be knitted into the center’s new glass facade, as originally designed.
“We therefore conclude that there is no reason to amend the current Memorandum of Agreement,” she wrote, referring to the 2004 contract with the convention center.
But on Friday, DGS shot back with its own letter to Franco. The agency said it would be too expensive to incorporate the two old buildings into the center’s new facade. It also cited the opinion of a convention center architect, Hy Myers of Vitetta, a noted preservation architect. According to the DGS letter, Myers “strongly recommended the demolition.”
Myslewicz noted that because the 2004 contract was signed by the convention center authority, rather than DGS, “it was viewed as a non-binding agreement.”
Greenberger warned that the demoliton could seriously erode the credibility of the state historic commission, and other agencies.“Why should anybody now trust a deal made with a public agency on historic preservation?” he asked. “They don't honor deals. That's the message of all this.”
The loss of the Giurgola addition is the second important building by the architect that was demolished in the last year. The National Park Service recent tore down his jaunty Liberty Bell pavilion on Independence Mall, built for the bicentennial. Giurgola, who now lives in Australia, was one three or four internationally famous architects who made Philadelphia a hotbed of design in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
His 1962 addition to Philadelphia Life Insurance’s Broad Street headquarters was immediately hailed as a step forward for modernism because it demonstrated how contemporary design could accommodate itself to the traditional scale and masonry materials of old Philadelphia, without sacrificing its own personality.
Because the decision to demolish the two little buildings came after the convention center design was already complete, it is not clear what will take their place. In a recent interview, one convention center official said the area would problably remain empty, though he suggested it might be landscaped as a plaza.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Decision: The Bulldozers Stop at Broad Street

Tough luck, Pennsylvania Convention Center: The bulldozers stop at Broad Street.
In an eleventh-hour decision, the Pa. Historical and Museum Commission has just ruled that the behemoth center must abide by a 2004 agreement to preserve the better part of two charming and historic commercial buildings that make up a crucial block just north of City Hall. Based on the strong wording in the letter, which went out Dec. 20, it looks like the PHMC means business: The center will have to stop its devious efforts to get out of its preservation promises.

This is a big win for the Preservation Alliance and the Design Advocacy Group, which adopted the cause of the two buildings after I wrote several columns (1) (2) in their defense. In the letter, which was addressed to another state agency, the Department of General Services, and copied to the Preservation Alliance, the newly empowered state historic commission concluded that there is simply no justification for the convention center to weasel out its contact protecting the little gems. PHMC director Barbara Franco recommends in strong language (for a bureaucrat, that is) that the center should stick to its original design, which weaves three-quarters of the block into the new North Broad Street facade.

It's pretty amazing. Only two months ago, it looked as if the state historic commission was prepared to cave and allow the convention center to raze the pesky pair, which includes a stately early 20th Century insurance company building and its modernist sidekick, a 1962 addition by Romaldo Giurgola, one of the most important architects of the so-called Philadelphia School of the '60s and '70s. The convention center and DGA had claimed that a city building inspection indicated the two structures were too far gone to be saved, but later examination suggested they were exaggerating the structural problems.

There were several important issues at stake here. First, and perhaps foremost, is the relevance of the state historical commission. The deal to save the Broad Street buildings was a compromise worked out after the state commission and others agreed to sacrifice several other historic structures that were standing in the way of the center's expansion. What's the point of drawing a line in the sand if you're going to let it be crossed?

But just as important for me is the logic under girding the choice of what to preserve. The deal recognized that you need to retain whole, intact blocks for preservation to be meaningful, not just isolated, free-standing buildings. Hence the decision to sacrifice the wonderful Race Street firehouse, which is all by its lonesome, and to retain this crucial block that frames Philadelphia great City Hall.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

WSJ's Take on the Perelman

Culturegrrl, aka Lee Rosenbaum, opines in today's Wall Street Journal on the Perelman addition to the Philadelphia art museum. Boy, does she make it sound like a snooze. I had a different take in my September review. That skylit atrium with the Serra-style arcing wall isn't a "glorified corridor," it's the whole shebang. I guess you either you appreciate the zen of minimalism, or you don't.

1706 Rittenhouse Condos: Dig They Must

If it seems like years since the developers of 1706 Rittenhouse began running ads in the New Yorker for their 29-unit luxury condo tower on 17th Street - it's because they have. But judging by the machines that have been pushing dirt around the tiny site near Rittenhouse Square, they may be ready finally to start building the slim, 31-story tower designed by David Ertz of Cope Linder Architects.
Developer Tom Scannapieco, who partnered with the site's owner - Philadelphia parking king Joe Zuritsky - will only say that the crews were summoned to the site to shore up the wall of the neighboring townhouse. Over the next few weeks, soldier piles will be sunk into the ground to underpin the wall and prevent collapse. The developers own the house and will use it as a future sales office.
Judging from this model photograph, the design looks pretty much the same as it did in 2006, when Mayor Street personally intervened to settle a zoning dispute with the neighbors at 250 s. 17th Street. As a result of those talks the tower was pushed back 33 feet from the sidewalk line to preserve the neighbors' views, creating what will be a private forecourt and - unfortunately for the rest of us - a gap-toothed sidewalk line along 17th Street.
What you don't see is that the back of the tower will cantilever slightly over the townhouse. As I wrote in February 2006, it will look like the tower is"squashing the house like a bug."
Don't be surprised if the developers formally green-light this understated, but very elegant, tower, which features full-floor units starting around $3 million.
Although the condo market is slumping in lots of places, including Philadelphia, developers say there is still demand for high-end units in prime spots. Rittenhouse Square, and a few waterfront locations, like Locust Point on the Schuylkill River, have continued to sell. No wonder Castleway Properties is moving steadily ahead with its hotel-condo project on the square, which I discussed in a column this month. The developers will present the project at a meeting sponsored by the Center City Residents Association on Jan. 10 at 7 p.m, in the Lutheran Church at 21st and Chestnut Streets.