Brotherly Hub Independence Visitor Center, opening today, will be a winner at regional marketing. But it falls short of another goal: Connecting the mall to urban life.

Posted: November 20, 2001

A quarter-century ago, during the run-up to the Bicentennial celebrations, Philadelphia hired a Boston architecture firm to design a visitor center to greet the hordes of tourists expected for the event. It was a boxy, bricky, abstracted version of Independence Hall. It was not a success, either as architecture or as a way to promote the city.

Vowing to correct the mistakes of the past, a group that includes the city, the National Park Service, and the Pew Charitable Trust decided to build a new visitor center that would help lift Philadelphia into the ranks of destination cities. Designed by another Boston firm, the center opens today on Independence Mall at Sixth and Market Streets. It is an elongated, bricky, abstracted version of Independence Hall.

The new $32 million Independence Visitor Center is not a total success. Yet, despite the architectural flaws, it has its virtues - a prime location, an ambitious program, and a bright, soaring interior. These make the new center an improvement over the dud at Third and Chestnut Streets that it replaces.

Ordinarily, a visitor center is pretty far down on the list of a city's attractions. But the Independence Visitor Center - which started life as the Gateway Visitor Center - has been given two big assignments that make it more than just a place to get directions and use the rest rooms. The building is expected to serve as the engine of the region's burgeoning tourist industry, touting its attractions and giving visitors incentives to spend the night here.

Its other task, which is just as important, is to help repopulate the barren wastes of Independence Mall. Located on the center block, the visitor center is the first of four new buildings planned for the underused park. It is the linchpin of the entire renovation project.

Outfitted with a full-service concierge desk, the center seems likely to fulfill its marketing mission on a grand scale. But it falters badly in its urban goals.

Unfortunately, the intended tourist magnet looks a little too much like a stretch version of a little red schoolhouse. Given the goal of making the Philadelphia area seem like fun city, the academic association may not send quite the right message.

To an extent, the center's updated Colonial look was ordained by the building guidelines. In a bout of misguided contextualism, the Park Service mandated large quantities of brick. These instructions effectively required a modern interpretation of a Colonial building.

Architect Michael McKinnell of Kallmann, McKinnell & Wood complied and gave the visitor center a regimental brick-and-glass facade. He topped it with a peaked roof and cylindrical cupola that borrows its shape from the bell tower atop Independence Hall, the modest little statehouse where the founders hashed out the U.S. Constitution.

To be fair, the result is several notches better than when the plan was unveiled in 1999. At that point, the visitor center was a repetitious, flat-topped mausoleum of a building. Because of budget problems, McKinnell later had to strip away features that were meant to mask the building's long, skinny profile.

After some harsh criticism from this critic and others, the Pew added $1.4 million to its already sizable $10 million contribution. The gift, along with additional donations, enabled McKinnell to restore the peaked copper roof.

While it is still impossible to forget that you are looking at a facade spanning two-thirds of a city block, the extra height has improved the building's proportions. Although the cupola verges on silly, its placement helps moderate the building's extreme linearity. On the mall side, the long facade is broken into manageable portions by several indentations. Once a vine-draped pergola is installed, the experience from the mall side may be rather pleasant.

The tragedy of this building is that the face it shows to the city on Sixth Street will never be as nice. For all the talk about reconnecting the mall with the city, the visitor center still turns its back on Philadelphia.

The Park Service argues that the Sixth Street side is relieved by the glass wall of the Great Room - essentially a double-height entrance to the underground parking garage - and the windows of the souvenir shop. The problem is the stuff between these windows: a long expanse of brick wall punctuated by service doors.

The failure to make Sixth Street as compelling as the mall side compounds an already bad situation along the block. Across the street from the visitor center, a row of federal buildings also turns its back on the public street, reducing an important thoroughfare to a service alley.

While McKinnell might have tried harder to make the Sixth Street side more engaging, many of the building's flaws stem from the flaws of the mall's original design.

In the urge to honor the history of Independence Hall, Philadelphia city planners created a monster in the 1950s - the great, wide, harsh, often lifeless expanse of Independence Mall. By the 1990s, the city and the Park Service conceded that the mall was a failure. They began making plans to turn the space into a greener, friendlier park. But history has proved hard to undo.

During a series of public hearings to discuss the new design, many concluded that the only way to make the mall better was to make it smaller. But when Manayunk architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown submitted a plan to shrink the mall, it was rejected as radical.

Landscape architect Laurie D. Olin was hired to find a way to soften the mall and improve its connections to the rest of the city. The strength of his master plan is the way it makes those linkages.

It calls for buildings along Sixth Street: the visitor center, a new Liberty Bell pavilion, and the new National Constitution Center. These buildings give the mall a purpose. They also help narrow the open part of the mall so that it will be a less formidable crossing. To blur the boundaries between mall and city, Olin's plan reinstates the east-west streets eliminated when the mall was built.

But the problems with the visitor center have highlighted weaknesses in the master plan. McKinnell was dealt a bad hand when he was asked to design a building on such a slim footprint.

McKinnell, a wunderkind who designed Boston's city hall while he was still in his 20s, was far more successful with the center's interior. The sun-filled hall is an exhilarating public space, not unlike the one McKinnell designed for Boston's convention center.

In fact, the visitor center is so comprehensive that you can't help wondering if too much is going on. In addition to the concierge desk, there are two theaters, two exhibition areas, and a coffee bar. Visitors can take a handsome staircase up to a second-floor terrace, where they may gaze out at Independence Hall or attend a banquet. Let's hope some actually leave the place to tour the rest of region.

Although the center is now open, the mall is still a construction site. The grass won't be planted until spring. There is time to think about improving the park's connections with the city.

And what of the Third Street visitor center by the firm of Cambridge Seven? It is supposed to be turned into a museum that will show off architectural fragments from the 500 buildings that were lost when the mall was built. (There is also a small, spaceship-like visitor center on 16th Street.)

With its blank facade, smoky glass, and a ridiculous interior ramp that nearly conks you in the head as you walk in the door, the Third Street visitor center is one of the worst buildings in Philadelphia. I suggest that it be replaced with something better. Sell the land and let a private developer build something useful. The new visitor center's weaknesses are all the reminder we need of what Philadelphia has lost in the name of preserving history.

Inga Saffron's e-mail address is isaffron@phillynews.com.

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