Lost Days on Broad Street

Art Club, Broad and Chancellor Streets, Southwest corner. (PhillyHistory.org)

Art Club, Broad and Chancellor Streets, Southwest corner. (PhillyHistory.org)

Philadelphia’s decades-long “reign of architectural terror” had finally come to an end. The powerful influence of Frank Furness, whose “violent mind” generated a “degree of depravity not to be measured in words” had played out. In its place, critic Ralph Adams Cram saw the rise of refinement and a “delicate sensibility” of a new posse of architects: Wilson Eyre, Cope & Stewardson and Frank Miles Day.

“These four,” claimed Cram in The Architectural Record, “became one voice crying in the wilderness, a voice proclaiming artistic salvation through the doctrine of good taste.” Day had signaled the start of a revolt in the late 1880s with his Art Club at Broad at Chancellor Streets. But this “unmistakable work of a young man just back from Europe” came across as just a bit too earnest. “Variety and picturesqueness were sought at any cost,” wrote Cram. While the building stood as a welcome “manifestation of delicacy and sweetness, of fine instincts and subtle sympathies,” the result was disappointing. “Calmness, reserve, simplicity are lost,” concluded Cram. The Art Club was “weak… in mass, composition and scale,” not quite the architectural breath of fresh air Cram had hoped for.

But it was a start, “a solid foundation” on which to build. With the Art Club, Day marked “the entrance of a new influence in a devastated field.” And as Day “found himself” as a designer, he’d come to realize that “salvation is not by fine line alone.”

Horticultural Hall, ca. 1894 (PhillyHistory.org)

Horticultural Hall, ca. 1896 (PhillyHistory.org)

As Cram saw it, architectural salvation arrived at last in the mid-1890s in the form of “two important structures” by Day. First was the American Baptist Publication Society, 1420-22 Chestnut Street, an “elaborate, ambitious, magnificent” creation, featuring “all kinds of splendor, an efflorescence of balustrades, dormers, pinnacles and diaper work” on the tower. Then there was the “bold yet delicate” architectural gem of a building in Horticultural Hall, 250 South Broad Street.

“A fine example of Italian Renaissance architecture,” complimented Asa M. Steele in Harper’s Weekly. Its “arched entrances and windows” contrast “with simple expanses of wall of golden-yellow Pompeian brick…surmounted by a roof of Spanish tiles.” Its façade resonates with “vitality and richness” with “ornate bronze gates, windows of emerald glass, and touches of brilliant gold, pink and green upon medallions, balcony grills, and deep overhanging eaves.”

Inside and out, the hall “breathes the atmosphere of blossoms, orchards, and woodlands,” wrote Steele. “The grand staircase of pink and white marble rises from the vestibule into a bower of green marble columns, and green and gold galleries surmounted by a bronze-gold-dome topped with opalescent glass. …  The entire main floor can be thrown open from end to end, giving the whole the appearance of an idealized sylvan vista.”

Day had produced a successful, mature design, a “strong and simple composition, with a just disposition of voids and solids…the building is thoroughly delightful in its mass and its general composition. Nothing appears that does not justify itself by its inherent beauty; archivolts, mouldings, medallions, balcony fronts, all are studied to the last degree; and as a result one has the same impulse to sit down before it with sketchbook and pencil that manifests itself in Italy.”

“Horticultural Hall is,” wrote Cram, “about the best thing Mr. Day has done… In detail it is just as delicate and lovely as the earlier work, but this detail is more carefully used, and disposed with far greater craft.” Although the Days hadn’t done many buildings, “their influence has been profound and far-reaching.” And most importantly, they “stood unflinchingly for good taste and for intrinsic beauty…they have done nothing that was half studied… They treated their art with respect, they never forgot that an architect must be first of all a gentleman, and they held faithfully to the gentleman’s creed ‘Noblesse oblige.’”

The Days, Cram declared, have “turned back the tide…that was overwhelming Philadelphia, and they set up their standard as a rallying point for all men loyal to good taste, to seriousness of purpose, to faithfulness in the small things of architecture as in the great.”

But the 20th century had another thing in store. As it turned out, greatness was fleeting for the Days’ buildings on Broad Street. Horticultural Hall, the last up, was the first cut down, in its 21st year. Only a few interior elements survive in the building’s remake as the Shubert Theatre (now the Merriam Theater).

The Art Club hung on into the mid-1970s. Then it, too, succumbed. The adjacent Bellevue-Stratford Hotel needed a parking garage.

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