“A building that should be treated tenderly and remain undisturbed”

521 Spruce Street, just before restoration in 1964.
Photo from PhillyHistory.org.

“Immediately south of Independence National Historical Park,” wrote historian Louis Mumford  in 1956, “down as far as Lombard Street…is a district that should not be left to time, change and the conflicting aims of real-estate operators. This district has become nondescript—a mixture of seedy residences, lunchrooms, factories, lofts, tombstone-makers’ sheds, old burial grounds and historic churches… This part of Philadelphia is still known as Society Hill, and it still contains many houses that justify the name… rows of elegant dwellings of impeccable craftsmanship, which only need a little loving care to be nursed back to life.”

Mumford imagined more of what was already underway—a sweeping and positive transformation of an inner city when the very term was synonymous with decay.  Philadelphia had discovered its lightning-in-a-bottle solution, the key to Center City’s turnaround and Society Hill’s success. It wasn’t so much about historic landmarks or landmark developments, although these would be part of the mix, but hundreds (and thousands, city wide) of residential properties with age and character where Philadelphians could  make history theirs.

The city planner behind Philadelphia’s array of projects, including this calculus, knew he was onto something. And by November 1964, Edmund Bacon had parlayed success into fame with a TIME magazine cover story featuring his own façade framed by old and new icons of Society Hill. “Renewers of the city want not only to bring people back from the suburbs to shop, but back to town to live,” wrote TIME. “Society Hill is studded with 18th-century houses and historic landmarks, and Bacon opened up vistas around them by chopping out the factories and dingy warehouses, threading greenery through them and building new houses in harmony with the 18th-century beauties.”

By the fall of 1964, Ford and Mary Jennings had snagged their diamond-in-the-rough at 521 Spruce Street and were well on their way to a state-of-the-art renovation and restoration. As Bacon held forth for TIME, the Jennings’ held hopes that their plans would be approved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Construction began shortly after, and soon 521 Spruce was awarded the city’s 289th historic plaque. The Jennings installed it with pride beside their brand new front door.

If the door wasn’t historic, the doorway was. Five-twenty-one Spruce seemed liked any many other houses in Society Hill—but this one carried an extra-added association with its first resident, John Vallance. In 1792, the year the house was built, Vallance, Philadelphia’s leading artist/engraver was at work on illustrations for America’s first encyclopedia and the famous L’Enfant plan of the soon-to-be-new national capital in Washington D.C.

Renovated and ready for its historic plaque.
Photo from PhillyHistory.org.

Twentieth-century Philadelphians had come to expect as much of their past. Everywhere you turned in Society Hill stood something remarkable, but just as remarkable was the success of the neighborhood’s revival. The sheer scale of this turnaround was one of the main reasons why Society Hill earned a place on the National Register as “the first large-scale urban renewal project to plan for historic preservation.”  No single project, or even collection of developments, could have surpassed the crowd-sourced community building achieved in Society Hill in the third quarter of the 20th century.

But in all this renewal, something special about these gems was getting lost. It had tugged at Mumford in the 1950s when he wrote of the nearby Headhouse at 2nd and Pine Streets: Here was “a building that should be treated tenderly and remain undisturbed.” An appreciation of the nuances of patina and accrued features  had fallen by the wayside. Now something harsh and hard had replaced it. In the rush to restore, preservationists purged all but the distant past, or a facsimile of it, anyway. Evidence of intervening time, and, by default, the building’s sense of itself—its very authenticity, was compromised. That’s the irony of Society Hill: buildings that had survived in spite of preservation were suddenly being “saved” at the hands of it.

Nuance didn’t have much of a chance as this dynamic played out. At the Headhouse, which underwent restoration as well, a feel for the complex past gave way to a simpler, cleaner, and ultimately less interesting interpretation. At 521 Spruce, and at hundreds of other properties, the elusive patina and the authenticity of acquired age wouldn’t–and didn’t—stand up to the untender restoration aesthetic that came to define Society Hill.

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Why We Love Frank Furness

Chestnut Street from Third, looking West, with Frank Furness’ National Bank of the Republic (right) and Guarantee Trust and Safe Deposit Company (left). Both are demolished.

We didn’t always. Love Frank Furness, that is.

“The man came out of the [Civil War] a swearing, swaggering, bewhiskered figure of martial bearing, a bulldog personality ready to challenge the architectural status quo,” James O’Gorman tells us in a review of Michael Lewis’ book, Frank Furness: Architecture and the Violent Mind. “He organized his office like a military unit. Having waged war, Furness would now ‘wage architecture,’ charging headlong at building programs, competitors, and critics alike. The impact of his war experiences coursed through his professional life.”

“But there was more to his work than militaristic fury,” O’Gorman assures us. For those same late-19th century decades when technology, industry and railroading dominated Philadelphia on its own terms, Furness’ work connected truth and beauty. His buildings, according to George Thomas, had “the raw impact of giant machines, even as they transcended their materials.” All of his buildings, certainly his railroad stations, but also his libraries and schools, operated as grand mechanical-aesthetical projects. Furness’ library at the University of Pennsylvania, Lewis tells us, “has been called a collision between a cathedral and a railroad station;” his Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts “a laboratory for experimenting with new technology” with machine-like balusters working their eccentric charms.

We are reminded that Furness’ clients were engineers in a world newly-refashioned by their innovations, folk who relished “visible iron trusses or riveted iron girders, the industrial repertoire.” Furness gave them that, and more. He considered the interlocking elements of his buildings “legible pieces of machinery” and he moved them, as Lewis put it, “from the train shed to the lobby and the salon.” But these buildings didn’t feel like machines. Exuberant expression was the heart and soul of Furness. As the 17-year old Louis Sullivan, a “father of modernism” put it after his first encounter with a Furness building: “Here was something fresh and fair…a human note, as though someone were talking.”

But Furness’ individualistic work, his “overscaled and willfully distorted details,” his “clashing colors,” his decorative “wry comments on mechanical details, exposed industrial materials, muscular massing, top-heavy loading, dizzying compositional juxtapositions” soon became too much exuberance for an age of rising restraint. Furness not only grew out of style, he grew to be despised—and demolished. “He  was  for  all practical  purposes consigned to  the junk  heap of history for  the  first  half  of  the  twentieth century, wrote Ian Quimby, because he embodied the worst of Victorian excess in the eyes of modernists.”

One early 20th-century critic wrote off Furness’s buildings as “the low-water mark in American architecture.” Another damned his work as a corrupting influence, citing the Provident Life and Trust Building for “meretricious ugliness.” Robert Venturi remembered “loving to hate those squat columns as my father drove me past the Provident Life and Trust Company on Chestnut Street in the thirties”–not long before its demise. No matter that this building and the nearby National Bank of the Republic were two of Philadelphia’s most interesting, most compelling structures. Public opinion had swung against “strident individualism” and the kind of “directness of expression” that would later come to define the best architecture of the late 20th century. No matter, as Lewis put it, that Furness “aspired to truth as much as beauty.”  No matter that Venturi and others would soon find Furness’ forms “tense with a feeling of life and reality” and develop an “absolute unrestrained adoration and respect for this work.” In mid-20th century Philadelphia, the days of buildings audacious enough to “echo mannerism and predict postmodernism”—buildings that fit “somewhere between Michelangelo and Michael Graves”—were numbered.

But the days when Furness’ ideas and the memory of his masterpieces, both extinguished and extant, mean something are not numbered—nor will they ever be again. We now know what Furness achieved. Like Walt Whitman, “he turned the process around.” Writes Lewis: he “looked for the poetry in the vital forces of the modern age, and sought the flower in the machine.”

A century later, Philadelphians find confidence in the truth and a healthy appetite for such poetry. Today we celebrate the genius of Frank Furness.

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Landmark or Not: The Musical Fund Hall is a Site of Conscience

The Musical Fund Hall, 808 Locust St. Designed in 1824 by William Strickland, renovated in 1847 by Napoleon LeBrun and again by Addison Hutton in 1891.

Philadelphia’s got a raft of National Historic Landmarks, the crème de la crème of historic sites. The list is long here: 65 in all, from Independence Hall to Eastern State Penitentiary to the John Coltrane House. And it would have been longer had the National Park Service let stand their original, 1974 ruling in favor of the Musical Fund Hall. But they didn’t, and it isn’t. In 1989, shortly after developers converted the hall’s auditorium into condominiums, the feds withdrew the coveted designation. In America’s most historic city, the Musical Fund Hall is the only site to hold such a dubious distinction.

No matter. Violated or not, this building stands as a genuine American site of conscience, and that’s something that can’t be taken away. Sure, the building was home to one of the nation’s earliest musical organizations and the preferred performance venue of soloists including Jenny Lind (“The Swedish Nightingale”), lecturers including Charles Dickens and political events including the first Republican National Convention. Maybe we’ve been spoiled, jaded even: in a city chock full of the past, this seems like everyday history. What makes us want to take a good, hard, second look at the Musical Fund Hall is an account revealed by Scott Gac in a book entitled Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Reform.

The New Hampshire -based Hutchinson Family performed 12,000 concerts across the United States and abroad, effectively morphing abolitionism into popular culture. In their concerts, the Hutchinson’s performed original and provocative songs, including Get Off The Track of 1844 which warns: “Jump for your lives! Politicians, / From your dangerous false positions.” (Listen here.) Wherever they went, the Hutchinsons attracted a large following, and an interracial one.

Three years after their first popular performances in Philadelphia and a few months after their successful tour in England (with their friend Frederick Douglass) the Hutchinsons returned in the Spring of 1847. After several performances before “amalgamated” audiences at the Musical Fund Hall, Philadelphia Mayor John Swift stepped in and demanded the singing stop. (This is the same Mayor Swift who was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to stop rioters who destroyed the Abolitionist’s new Pennsylvania Hall in 1838.) Swift assured Musical Fund Hall management that more shows would certainly result in rioting there, too. Starting immediately, the Hutchinsons (and all future lessees) had to agree to two conditions: “That no Anti-Slavery lecture shall be delivered” and” That no colored person may form a portion of any audience.”

Silence followed. No riot. No performance. “The Hutchinson Family Singers refused to play for white patrons alone,” writes Gac. Never again would America’s original group of protest singers hear applause in the City of Brotherly Love. Never again would Philadelphians hear the Hutchinsons’ sing:”Men of various predilections, / Frightened, run in all directions / Merchants, Editors, Physicians, / Lawyers, Priests and Politicians. / Get Out of the Way! Get Out of the Way! / Get Out of the Way! Every station / Clear the track of ‘mancipation.

But a dozen years before the Civil War and 15 years before Black and White together, fifteen years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Philadelphians did hear, and rejoice in these prophetic lines – at the Musical Fund Hall.

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Frankford’s Fate in Post-Industrial Philadelphia

Well-intentioned officials pose at the start of the flood mitigation project on Frankford Creek in 1950.

Once upon a time it didn’t matter that the Frankford Creek flooded. But that was before people lived and worked in Frankford Creek’s flood plain.

Then Frankford got its mills and its mill workers, thousands of them. Overwhelmingly, these were textile mills built during the 19th century with immigrant know-how and operated by immigrant labor. Frankforders combed, carded, spun, winded, wove, warped, bleached, dyed, starched and produced. First came woolen blankets and calico printing, then felt, then carpet, and more. In the 1820s, at least eight textile firms operated in or near Frankford. By mid-century, thirty mills produced textiles in Frankford. By the 1890s, there were no fewer than 38 employing more than 3,100 workers. Several mills were situated squarely in the floodplain.

Just about every year and ofttimes many  more, floods threated the health and welfare of Frankford’s citizens and impeded the productivity of its mills. At the turn of the 20th century, the Pennsylvania Department of Health took a hard look at the situation, realized that “Frankford Creek is in a foul and insanitary condition” and something had to be done. Harrisburg officials agreed to consider a “comprehensive sewage plan for the collection and disposal of the sewage of the entire Frankford Creek drainage district.”

Those were dry times, in 1912, when a city photographer made this charming view from Powder Mill Road past the perennially water-logged Frogmoor Street down to Frankford Creek. The early round of improvements had been made, but proved not aggressive enough. In 1946, another study found that “in 17 years only three years passed without flood damage.” Something serious had to be done.

This time, City Fathers took more drastic measures. In 1950, they chose to widen the path of the creek, forfeit any hope of the reestablishing natural banks and build a dedicated, concrete channel. The idea was to relieve the drainage problem, protect the water supply and enable unfettered production in the mills.

North Wall at Tremont Mills before modification.

The Fates had other ideas. From the mid-20th century and into the 21st, manufacturing employment in Philadelphia tumbled from 365,500 jobs to 29,800. (And that was before the Great Recession.) Just as the Frankford Creek was being transformed into the Frankford channel, mill owners were starting to abandon Frankford’s century-and-a-half tradition in textiles. Victims of the global economy, Frogmoor Mills, Frankford Hosiery, Frankford Dye Works, and Hughes Spool Cotton, La France Textile, and others sold, left town, or simply shut down. The oldest building at Tremont Mills (and possibly the first textile mill in Frankford: Samuel Pilling’s Calico Print & Dye Works of the 1820s ) was still in operation. As the city widened Wingahocking Street during the flood mitigation project someone thought to document and preserve, rather than demolish, Tremont’s (and possibly Frankford’s) oldest mill . At least two-thirds of it, anyway.

More than sixty years later, the abbreviated ruins of Tremont await their fate, boarded up above, biding time as a car parts shop, below. And like the picturesque ruins of Rome, Tremont is a survivor with a growing and appreciative following.

The time is right. Tremont is one of ten structures and the only mill in Frankford recommended for historic designation in the Philadelphia’s 2035 District Plan for the Lower Northeast. The Draft Plan was released for public comment on August 21. And the comment period ends October 1st. Now’s the time to speak up and secure Frankford’s post-industrial fate.

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Keeping Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Names Honest

12th and Spring Garden Streets in 1916, before the neighborhood became known as The Eraserhood.

Want to start an argument? Ask a Philadelphian (any Philadelphian, a new one, a longtime one – it makes no difference) how many neighborhoods there are in the city. It’s one of those questions that stirs primal juices. Want to turn the heat up on that argument? Ask folks to pin down the borders between one neighborhood and another – especially if it means something to them.

It’s a centuries-long game of push and pull that culminates in a heady sense-of-place-ness that grows over time and defies resolution. It’s part of a powerful, human/hierarchical/historical process that’s gone on since the first and goes on to this day. And let’s hope it’s not resolved any time soon. The day Philadelphians happily join hands over neighborhood-identity issues is the day you can take me out of the city, never to return.

The names and numbers of neighborhoods vary dramatically depending on whom you ask. The last edition of The Bulletin Almanac published in 1976 listed 42 neighborhoods. More recently, when Metropolis reported the “Percent of Individuals Living in Poverty,” Tom Ferrick used the acceptable breakdown of 56 city neighborhoods. But the Philadelphia Office of Housing and Community Development has listed 97; this archive (PhillyHistory.org) uses a robust 155 names and the Philadelphia Neighborhoods page at Wikipedia has crept up to 182. When The Philadelphia Almanac and Citizen’s Manual published its final edition in 1995, a dogged editorial team reported 395 neighborhood names, both current and defunct. And since then, the Philadelphia Department of Records built on that to arrive at a compilation that tops off at 449.

We should welcome Philadelphia’s web of place-ness and the ever-present arguments it spawns as evidence of life. And in those arguments we’ll find stories of places that left behind boring names (the citizens of Flat Rock rejected Bridgewater and Udoravia before adopting the more colorful Manayunk). We’ll find names that simply disappeared, as did Rose of Bath, aka Bathtown, swallowed up by Northern Liberties. And then there were those places simply lost in the mists of time: Goat Hill, Good Intent, Goosetown and Grubtown. But the one thing we know for sure is that each and every one of these places had its following and had its day.

Which is why, when it comes to Philadelphia neighborhood names, we should welcome the idea that after the city’s 20th century decline, less can be more. And our honest embrace of that lesser, as is, Philadelphia is a rare and admirable thing. Which is why we should welcome the idea that the heavily-patinated, “nightmarish post-industrial landscape” along the streets defined by this map to the north of Center City, should be known as “The Eraserhood.”

Having hit bottom, the Divine Lorraine Hotel is well-positioned as the iconic northwestern outpost of the rising sense-of-place-ness that celebrates Philadelphia’s misfortune and moodiness. The entire neighborhood was a ready-made noir set for the short, loving video by Shawn Kilroy. And PhillyHistory offers up about 1200 photographs and about 90 maps of the place, many close to the time when David Lynch lived across from the City Morgue at 13th and Wood Streets and studied painting at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He stored up experiences and impressions in Philadelphia that fueled his film Eraserhead.

Lynch found Philadelphia “horrible, but in a very interesting way. There were places there that had been allowed to decay, where there was so much fear and crime that just for a moment there was an opening to another world. It was fear, but it was so strong, and so magical, like a magnet, that your imagination was always sparking in Philadelphia…I just have to think of Philadelphia now, and I get ideas, I hear the wind, and I’m off into the darkness somewhere.” The Eraserhood name is a deft act of preservation – preservation of the spirit that made Philadelphia what it is, for better and for worse. Either way, both ways, it’s our Philadelphia – but we’re richer for coming to terms with the bitter (and compelling) truth, just as it is being erased from memory.

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Photo Gallery: Dilworth Plaza through the years

Former Mayor Richardson Dilworth (1956-1962) in 1957. Dilworth died
in 1974, three years before Dilworth Plaza was completed.

Dilworth Plaza is currently a hollowed-out pit of fenced-in concrete on the west side of City Hall, but soon it should be so much more. Center City District’s plans for the new plaza are modern, chic and supposedly practical in a way that the original construction, which took more than a decade and spurned plenty of controversy, was not.

You can see an EarthCam photo of Dilworth Plaza’s progress here.

But even before Dilworth Plaza was named for the man on the left, former Mayor Richardson Dilworth, the location had served a wide range of purposes throughout the years. Until construction began earlier this year, the plaza was most recently made nationally famous as the site for Philadelphia’s Occupy Protests.

While we anticipate what the new Plaza will do for Center City, let’s take a brief photo tour of the purposes the space has served in the past.

Dilworth Plaza Photo Tour

2002

A pre-event for Take our Daughters to Work Day in Dilworth Plaza.

1981

A show of Christmas festivity on Dilworth Plaza in 1981.

1971


Redevelopment of Market Street including a view of the construction at Dilworth Plaza.
A second view of the redevelopment and construction progress.

1960

Two photos (above and below) of a 1961 car crash that occurred right on the spot that would become Dilworth Plaza.

1959

A shot of the Department of Streets booth during Employees Week in 1959 on what would become Dilworth Plaza.

A shot of the Fairmount Parks Commission booth during Employees Week in 1959 the eventual Dilworth Plaza.

A look at the City Commissioners Employee Week booth.

1938

An indirect view of the western side of City Hall which would one day be Dilworth Plaza.

1903

A 1903 view from the west side of City Hall, which would eventually become Dilworth Plaza.

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When Guion Bluford, the first African American in space, came home

November 1983: Guion Bluford speaks at a press conference in City Hall upon his homecoming
after his first successful space mission.

By Yael Borofsky for PhillyHistory.org

Guion Bluford — he goes by Guy — is the man at the center of all that attention in the photo to the left. Nearly thirty years after becoming the first African American to go to space, he doesn’t exactly remember what he said in that City Hall press conference, but given that the event marked his homecoming, he probably doesn’t need to.

“It was so long ago,” Bluford told PhillyHistory. “I do remember it was exciting and I was happy to be home.”

Bluford also remembers that being in Philadelphia was a whirlwind. After completing the successful STS 8 mission in September of 1983 and spending a whole month on the road doing public relations events all over the country, Bluford was finally back home for four days, though he was staying at the Four Seasons downtown, not his childhood home in West Philly.

In addition to the City Hall press conference, then-Mayor Bill Green, III, presented him with the Philadelphia bowl (Bluford still prizes it in his trophy case, he says), he met with then-Governor of Pennsylvania Dick Thornburgh, and soon-to-be Mayor Wilson Goode. He visited with sick children at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, and he’s not entirely certain, but thinks he may have also spoken one other time in Society Hill. To cap it all off, Bluford served as grand marshal of the 64th annual Thanksgiving Day parade.

The city had every reason to celebrate the man. Bluford would go on to complete three more successful space missions — the STS 61-A, STS-39 and STS-53. But the city could have treated him as a public hero and role model even before that. After graduating from the Air Force ROTC with a degree in aeronautical engineering from Penn State University in 1964 — his dream since at least high school — Bluford decided to join the U.S. Air Force as a pilot.

“I was going to go into the Air Force as an engineer and spend three to five years and decide, at that point, if I was going to stay in the Air Force or go work in industry,” Bluford recalled. “Between my junior and senior years, I went to ROTC summer camp… and at the end of the four weeks I took a physical and the doctor asked me why I didn’t want to be a pilot. So I decided to go in as a pilot. I thought I’d be a better engineer if I knew how to fly airplanes.”

According to Bluford’s NASA biography, he flew a total of 144 combat missions, including 65 over North Vietnam.

While in the Air Force he received two degrees from the Air Force Institute of Technology and eventually became a NASA astronaut in 1979. As if space flight was not enough, during his time working for NASA he also received his MBA from the University of Houston, Clear Lake.

Bluford says that when he began working for NASA in 1979 he was aware that an African American had never before traveled to space, he just wasn’t focused on being the one to do it. When it turned out that he was the man to assume that role, he says he was both honored and humbled by the privilege.

“I realized I was setting an example not only for African Americans, but also African American astronauts, and letting people know that African Americans can be astronauts and do just a good a job as everyone else,” Bluford said. “When I went into the astronaut program my goal was to make a contribution and I’m proud of the one I made.”

During his NASA career, Bluford confirmed that he logged 688 hours in space.

Today Bluford lives in Cleveland, Ohio and is the President of the Aerospace Technology group, having begun what he considers to be his “third career” in “industry” after retiring from NASA and the Air Force in 1993.

Though he and his family currently have no plans to move back to Philadelphia, Bluford says that then as now, he will always think of Philadelphia as home.

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100 years of the signage debate in Market East


Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos
A 1911 photo of a hodgepodge of signage covering buildings on
North Juniper Street.

Just over a hundred years after this photo of North Juniper Street was taken, businesses in the Market East corridor may once again find inspiration in the jumble of advertisements adorning this row of buildings.

Late last year, Philadelphia adopted a revamped Zoning Code that promises to have important implications for the city’s attitude toward signage, particularly in the struggling central area along Market Street that spans from 7th to 13th streets. The new rules loosen the restrictions on commercial signage and, according to the New York Times, require a minimum investment of ten million dollars, making the sign licensing a way for developers to generate new revenue to enhance redevelopment.

The policy change combined with the Inquirer’s move to the old Strawbridge and Clothier building at 8th and Market (think enormous news crawler and four total digital signs) are supposed to be a one-two punch that will make the area more exciting and appealing to new businesses.

“The city has been embroiled for years over whether signs are evil or merely disgusting and terrible, but when you look at cities, and this goes all the way back to ancient Rome, commercial districts have always been filled with signs,” George Thomas, a Penn Lecturer on Urban Studies and adjunct faculty at Harvard Graduate School of Design in the strategic and critical conservation program, said. “They’ve always been about communication and connecting people with words and images.”

The realization of the city’s dreams for Market East may take some time. But the genesis of their central assumption — that signage can improve a neighborhood, not blight it — already marks a shift in the way the city thinks about the urban experience.

One hundred years of urban planning finds the city once again in support of the sort of building signage — multistory, LED — that makes the collage of ads in the photo above seem benign. So what happened in between?

At the time this photo was taken, these large, bright, crafted forms of signage were part of a dying breed, according to Thomas. Late in the 1800’s the purifying City Beautiful movement, which frowned on large scale commercial signage, was already on its rise to dominance in the cadre of urban planning paradigms.

Thomas, who is also a partner in architectural consulting firm Civic Visions, says the signs were already being treated as imagery-non-grata in rich areas, like Rittenhouse Square.

“In a larger local frame it was also part of the shift from valuing the engineering and industrial culture that we had created in the Workshop of the World to one that denigrated commerce — with Philadelphia elites losing their connection to the physical world,” Thomas said.

What’s odd is that the haphazard pyramid of antique typefaces seems beautiful today, the randomness of so many commercial entreaties adorable, thanks to the benefit of a century of nostalgia.

“Buildings spoke and people were bombarded with commercial information,” Thomas said.

But those responsible for urban renewal over much of the 20th century, particularly through the 1950s and 1960s, saw no such whimsy in the blunt signage. The broader erasure of so many signs from building picked up pace during these years as stricter sign restrictions became ever more closely tied to urban renewal and modernism.

“The historic preservation movement of the 1950s and 1960s also valued primarily colonial and federal era architecture – hence a great deal of great Victorian architecture (and a lot of [Frank] Furness buildings) got demolished in that era and we adapted a somewhat stylized idea of preservation in which lots of signage from federal-era buildings in Society Hill was also removed,” Center City District President Paul Levy said.

Fifty or so years later, enter the most recent controversy over signage in Market East. In 2007, the city began investigating what new signage rules might mean for Philadelphia by observing other cities, like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston. What Philadelphia learned, Levy said, was that it could relax signage restrictions without turning Market East into Times Square, a major concern for some stakeholders.

“The goal was not to cover every building with a sign, as in Times Square, but rather to use these signs as a tool to help prompt redevelopment,” Levy said. “Developers would have to do substantial renovation or new construction in order to be eligible for a sign and then would have to animate and open the building at street level (primarily the Gallery) to enhance pedestrian activity.”

The controversy over signage in downtown Philly hit an apex in advance of the Zoning Code passage in December 2011, but Thomas says decades of opposition to signage has scared companies like Unisys out of the city and into the suburbs where commercial signage regulations are friendlier to businesses.

“Commerce was and is a language and a meeting point of a community — and the commercial zone reflected this. Notably when cities were at their most vital they were also at their most communicative. And note too that as sign ordinances and controls began to limit commercial real estate, business moved to malls where signs are the dominant interior landscape feature and keep the quality of the Victorian street.”

The hope now, is that a modern vision inspired by the 1911 photo above, will act like an abstract version of an electric billboard to draw some of those companies, and many of those jobs, back to Market East.

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PMN leaves the Inquirer Building: a look back in pictures

A 2006 shot of the Philadelphia Inquirer Building. Photo Credit: Medvedenko

For decades, Philadelphians have picked up two of the most prominent city newspapers — the Inquirer and the Daily News — knowing that the lens through which they learned about Philadelphia, good and bad, was secure in the imposing, palatial Inquirer building on North Broad Street.

The building and the publishing company have weathered alterations over the years. But as of last week, a more jarring change impacted workers at Philadelphia Media Network, as they settled into a new office at the Strawbridge and Clothier building at the bustling corner of 8th and Market.

The new space is roughly one fifth the size of PMN’s former habitat, according to numbers reported by the New York Times. It’s unclear what the future holds for the publishing company, but the storied history of its home is certain.

In honor of the move and the future, what follows is a gallery of photos depicting the Inquire building through the years. Best of luck to the two daily newspapers and staff.
Read More »

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The archaeological investigation at the West Shipyard is open to the public Friday


A 1914 picture of Pier 19 possibly taken from the West Shipyard
lot undergoing excavation.

When someone says the words “archaeological dig,” ancient Greece, Egypt or Rome tend to come to mind along with visions of buried treasure and mummies galore.

But Philadelphia has started its own archaeological excavation led by the John Milner Associates along with the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation who have collectively started digging up a thatch of the waterfront at Columbus and Vine, across from Pier 19, in search of the remains of the West Shipyard.

The crew, of course, is not hunting for mummies. They are hoping to discover evidence of the ship building and repairing business that a man named James West owned from 1676 to 1701 — reportedly pre-dating the arrival of William Penn — according to the West Shipyard blog.

The slipway being prepared for excavation is commonly referred to as the Hertz Lot after a Hertz Rental Car opened a location there in 1969 and was listed as the first archaeological site on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, according to the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum.

Today the spot in question could not be more unassuming as a battered old parking lot across from the beer, fries, and gameland that is Dave and Busters.

In a recent story on the dig at Hidden City, Harry Kyriakodis, an expert on Philadelphia’s waterfront, describes the original use of the West Shipyard this way:

“In the days before dry docks, sailing ships needing repair would be dragged up slipways (launching ramps) to enable repairs to be made. New vessels, needless to say, were also built on such ramps. A ropewalk (a long straight narrow lane where rope was made) was immediately north of the West Shipyard.”

Kyriakodis reports that West’s son took over after his father’s death in 1701, turning the locale into “miniature ‘company town,’ complete with shops and inns to support its workers,” but advancements in shipbuilding technology eventually outgrew the small shipyard.

Of course the goal is not simply to unearth remains. The study is part of the DRWC’s larger stated plans to redevelop and preserve Philalphia’s once lively, but now underutilized waterfront.

The archaeological dig began on July 16 and is open to the public Friday afternoon, July 20, from 1:00pm to 3:00pm, but you can also click here to arrange an appointment to survey the dig during the week of July 23-27.

Update: An additional public tour time has been added due to popular demand. The site will also be open to the public on Tuesday, July 24, from 5-7pm.

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