No matter that New York’s Empire State Building, which opened in 1931, was more than two-and-a-half times taller than Philadelphia’s PSFS Building. The Quaker City’s skyscraper was many times more modern. Philadelphia had “gone Gershwin” with an architecture “slick and sheer and shining…alive to the tempo of the day.” So refreshing compared with “the frumpy, bastioned City Hall” a few blocks to the west. The PSFS embraced modernism not for its own sake, but because it offered solutions that were, above all, functional. As urban planner Frederick Gutheim later gushed, “When functionalism in the United States was raw, red and steamy new it found few more devoted followers than Howe and Lescaze.”
”The sleek, streamlined bank and a 27-story slab of glass-walled office space by architects George Howe and William Lescaze turned out to be “the biggest and proudest thing in Philadelphia.” Known for its commanding role in the skyline with four, 27-foot-tall letters in red neon, PSFS provided an even more innovative achievement closer to the ground. There, its architects solved the difficult question of how a skyscraper might relate to, and make the most of, a busy urban intersection.
That design question fascinated bank president James M. Willcox, who wasn’t interested in style per se, but was committed to where and how to most effectively, practically, and aesthetically design and build. Willcox balked at Howe’s traditional-looking, first proposal in 1926 and instead had him put up a temporary, ground level bank to test customer demand. Meanwhile, Willcox commissioned Howe to design a set of neighborhood branches, two identical pairs that started historical and wound up modern. Then, in 1928, Howe left his longtime firm (Mellor, Meigs & Howe) and he left historicism for modernism.
For the 12thand Market Street site, diagonally across from the Reading Terminal, Willcox had an ambitious array of demands. He wanted a bank, commercial space, hundreds of thousands of square feet of office space, and, for a time, he even demanded five stories of above-ground parking. By late 1929, when Howe and his new partner, the young, progressive Swiss architect William Lescaze got to work on the revived project, the biggest question was how to acceptably address Willcox’s complex program for the street level. He distrusted “ultra-Modern.” What he wanted, Willcox later explained, was “ultra-Practical.” It was the architects job to prove that modern and practical were one and the same.
If some savvy Gatsby type had whispered a single word to guide the architects to a smart, elegant and ultimately “ultra-practical” design, that word would have been “steel.” Even though Howe was not used to, or comfortable with the material, the PSFS commission obliged Howe “to face the problem of steel construction.”
And steel’s possibilities “startled” Howe. He wasn’t used to such “novelty,” such “frank interpretation of modern functions,” and soon realized he was now free to get at “the underlying principles governing architectural design.” Lescaze showed the way, with drawings envisioning something complex, elegant and modern, a building like no one had seen in America. According to William Jordy, Lescaze’s street level promised a building “bathed in a mysterious luminescence… weightless as it rises effortlessly in the night above its scrubby competition.”
The weight of the office tower would be supported by rows of steel columns. And a giant steel truss would bridge the banking floor with a 63-foot span. Howe and Lescaze delineated their 2nd-story banking hall with a giant, sweeping band of windows, leaving “the ground floor free for…the kind of shopping traffic from which the bank drew its clientele.” Above, three more floors of bank offices served as a transition from the base to a boldly-cantilevered, 27-story office tower. Then came the great, groundbreaking neon sign.
Before Howe started the project, he and his partners used architecture to help clients avoid reality, and in particular, the realities of the city. “The critical weakness of the romantic architect,” Lewis Mumford criticized Howe in 1925,” is that he is employed in creating an environment into which people may escape from a sordid workaday world.” By the end of the decade, with the encouragement of an enlightened patron and the vision of a creative partner, Howe managed to make a complete aesthetic conversion. In the PSFS building, Howe and Lescaze addressed the purpose of architecture: “to remake the workaday world so that people will not wish to escape from it.”
The PSFS building turned out to be “much more than a superb marriage of function and technological innovation,” wrote Robert A. M. Stern. “It is a superbly crafted object, refined in its every detail…that rarest of phenomena of our time, a working monument.” And its style wasn’t one more in a long line of styles; the PSFS showed the way to live in the world, and a way to make the most of it.
This might have been called many things. In 1931 they called it Modernism.