The Audacious, Cantilevered, Disappearing Cornice

Manufacturers' Club, N.W. corner of Broad and Walnut Sts., December 28, 1916 (PhillyHistory.org)

Manufacturers’ Club, N.W. corner of Broad and Walnut Sts., December 28, 1916 (PhillyHistory.org)

Going back a century or so, the well-dressed edifice would carry itself with proud bearing. Such buildings lined public avenues instilling character through style and substance. At the Manufacturers Club, for instance, a grand entrance framed by pairs of freestanding columns finished in the Corinthian classical order welcomed (or intimidated) visitors. Rising above, entablatures and colonnades gave way to corbels, pediments, tasteful arches and courses of dentils—all in Green River Limestone. Bas-relief carvings of winged creatures and heraldry marked the corners. Stretching skyward, the entire towering eyeful culminated with an architectural “TA-DA” at the uppermost heights. Before the admirer’s gaze was finally relinquished, a final, rooftop finesse—a bold cornice—captivated the eye.

More than shade or protection from the elements, such overhangs provided a powerful visual terminus confirming stature. Projecting over the sidewalks, they reached outwards as declarations of potency, demonstrations of consequence transforming buildings into destinations and citizens into spectators. And here, at the heart of Center City at Broad and Walnut, the group proclaiming its grand arrival was the city’s’ nouveau riche: the manufacturers.

Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Philadelphians had come to expect architectural statements along the rooftops of South Broad Street. La Pierre House and the Academy of Music claimed a more modest skyline in the 1850s. Horticultural Hall and the Art Club updated it in the 1890s. Philadelphia’s earliest skyscrapers on Broad Street offered their own kind of “visual liveliness.” Architectural historian David Brownlee observed that the “chateau-esque pinnacles of the Bellevue Hotel, the boldly massed modern classicism of the Fidelity (now Wells Fargo) Building, the strong cornices of the two Land Title towers, and the Art Deco belfry of the PNB (built as the Lincoln Liberty) Building rise together with City Hall’s tower to create one of the world’s most distinctive and animated skylines.” What’s missing today, writes Brownlee, is the biggest, boldest, roofline of them all. The Manufacturers’ Club “suffered a bad haircut” when it’s “giant Florentine shadow caster, proportionately one of the biggest cornices in the city, was removed.”

Land Title Building and Annex, Southwest corner of Broad and Chestnut Streets. Charles P. Mills, photographer, December 11, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

Land Title Building and Annex, Southwest corner of Broad and Chestnut Streets. Charles P. Mills, photographer, December 11, 1916. (PhillyHistory.org)

The Manufactures’ Club earlier, 5-story Queen Anne style building by Hazehurst & Huckle opened at 1409 Walnut in the 1880s. But membership quickly expanded beyond the city’s textile manufacturers to include any industry. By 1912, 1,800 members strong, the club had acquired the site of the Hotel Bellevue after it merged with the Stratford. One architectural competition later, the club signed on Simon and Bassett and builders Irwin & Leighton and the construction of the 10-story steel frame clubhouse was underway.

Simon and Bassett designed it in the Italian Renaissance style, and a rendering was exhibited in 1912 at the Eighteenth Annual Architectural Exhibition Held by the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the T-Square Club. It featured a paneled mahogany lobby, a lounge and café above a basement billiard room and a rustic, tiled grille. On the second floor, members found the library and card rooms. An auditorium for 1,200 occupied the third floor. Above that were three floors of guest rooms, an elaborate banquet hall overlooking Broad Street on the 8th floor and a dining room above it all. “One of the handsomest and best equipped clubhouses in the world” praised one architectural journal.  A welcome contrast to “the familiar bleak ‘skyscraper’” wrote another. “A tall building of truly artistic conception … one of the most impressive sights of South Broad Street.”

Screenshot of Manufacturers' Club, center, without cornice (Google)

The Manufacturers’ Club, center, without its cornice (Google Streetview)

Edward P. Simon partnered with David B. Bassett from 1908 to 1919 and produced another great cornice that survives. This one, from 1917, is atop the historically designated Pomerantz Building at 1525 Chestnut Street. Hidden City, called this cantilevered cornice “audacious.” Its historical nomination (see the .pdf here) described it as a “radical projection” extending “more than seven feet out from the plane of the façade” causing it to “almost…float above the sidewalk.” Instead of harkening back to classical times, this feature endowed its building with something ironic. Simon & Bassett “used the daring projection of the cantilevered cornice as a reminder that the building’s structure is modern.” So, too, with the spreading cornice at the Manufacturers’ Club.

How, then, did this most expressive and defining attribute disappear?

Cornices were considered dangerous. Almost immediately after the Club opened, Philadelphians read of an earthquake in Avezzano, Italy that “knocked cornices off buildings in Rome.” Closer to home, cornices and ornamental coping were falling off Philadelphia’s own City Hall. “Danger In Cornices,” read one headline. To reassure a worried public, city officials removed five tons from the upper reaches of City Hall.

It was only a matter of time before the Manufacturers Club at Broad and Walnut would get a similar shearing.

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