Restoring The Look Of Wcau Building

Posted: December 22, 1991

It was the first building in the United States designed to be used as a radio station.

For almost 20 years, the stars who entertained audiences from its state-of- the-art studios on Chestnut Street glittered as brightly as the glass chips in the cobalt-blue facade of what is the largest Art Deco style building in the city.

"It was not the style of building one would have expected to have been built in a city known for its colonial architecture," said Donna Ann Harris, vice president for program development for the Philadelphia Historic Preservation Corp. Yet the WCAU Broadcast Building at 1622 Chestnut St. served as the model for broadcast-station construction for the rest of the country.

The building has been owned since 1980 by the Art Institute of Philadelphia, a two-year, post-secondary school with 1,200 students, which has spent more than $2 million renovating it for classrooms and offices. Now, the school is putting $150,000 into restoring the facade to what it looked like when President Herbert Hoover dedicated the building, designed by Harry P. Sternfeld, in 1932.

The detective work required for the restoration was worthy of that old radio sleuth Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons, according to Richard J. Sheward, of preservation architects Sheward-Henderson, of Philadelphia.

"There was a fire in the 1940s in which the building lost some parts of its metal decoration," he said. "Working with local archives, we found photographs that helped us establish what those pieces looked like, and were able to recreate them."

The brass, copper and stainless-steel metalwork, which looks like something

from a Flash Gordon serial of the 1930s, is called spandrel ornamentation, and is below each row of windows on the first four floors of the building. Sheward said they were stumped for a long time on one piece, "but looking through newspapers, we came across a photo of a fire in a building next door, and saw a corner of it." Problem solved.

The metalwork is being cleaned and refinished. The roof is being tightened up, windows are being replaced or reglazed. Repairs also are being made to the stucco facade.

The biggest part of the restoration, according to Donald F. Stevenson of Sheward-Henderson, will be painting the facade in the spring. And that, too, required some detective work.

The painting was to have been done some years ago, but it was postponed over worries about the dust from the Liberty Place construction across the street. It was in adequate condition, Stevenson said, so there seemed to be no hurry.

Using a 1930s Philadelphia Record photograph of the exterior, they were able to determine what kind of designs had been painted into the facade, especially a rectangle of dashes above the door to the building's tower. To match the color, a local microscopist took samples from the facade and from the window frames and sashes. He matched the samples to a color system that paint companies use to replicate old paint finishes.

Sheward-Henderson put the paint out to bid, and ordered 300 gallons of heavy acrylic cobalt-blue that will be applied - believe it or not - with rollers, Stevenson said.

In the 1930s, the facade did indeed glitter. The stucco has glass chips in it that give the paint on top of it a reflective quality, Stevenson said.

"What we are doing is trying to restore balance to the original feeling of the building," Sheward said. Since there are many variables in paint - some colors are too light, colorfastness is often uncertain - the MAB paint company has been hired to determine how the paint will break down when it is exposed to the elements, "so when we look at it in five years, we know what we have."

A lot of things can't be restored. When WCAU moved to City Avenue in 1952, the building's new owners removed elements such as the mezzanine designed for broadcast performances of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and built structural floors in two-story spaces, including the one that accommodated a Woolworth's on the ground floor. The studios are long gone, though one classroom follows the design of one of the larger ones, according to Phillip Juska, the Art Institute's director of education.

On top of the building, the WCAU sign that was lighted whenever the station was broadcasting is gone. Since August 1990, there hasn't even been a radio station called WCAU.

But even alterations have a bit of the original. The lobby was redone to accommodate the flow of students, but the original marble stones in the lobby floor were reinstalled, Sheward said. The elevators still have WCAU on them, and the Art Deco mailbox on the first floor is intact.

And on the sixth floor, there is an "on the air" sign that still works.

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