Comcast Center: Already a Philly presence

Posted: June 21, 2007

Essay by Eric Mencher, staff photographer of The Inquirer.

In the beginning, I looked down on the Comcast Center. From the vantage point of my nearby 11th-floor apartment, it was, for all too long, just an eyesore of a vacant city block. I knew it would grow tall, like a crazy urban weed, into another mirrored building, its only purpose to block the natural light in my living room.

And I just knew it would obscure my view of the squat, but somehow appealing, puzzle of Center City buildings that surround the dignified Arch Street Presbyterian Church. It would bring more SUVs and more cigarette butts on the sidewalk.

Cynicism on my part, it turns out.

I look up to the Comcast Center now, all 57 stories. And not just from my apartment, but from all over the city and beyond. Everywhere I go, it seems, the building has a presence. From early on, when it looked like a large concrete block, to its recent topping off, it now appears, even in its unfinished state, perfectly integrated into the city's skyline.

For the last year and a half, I've watched and photographed it intensely. Initially, I snapped from my apartment window: in the snow, the rain, the fog, and in gorgeous late-afternoon light. From there, it looked different minute by minute.

The buildings around it looked different, too, changed by its presence. "Nine floors now," a neighbor said to me many months ago. "Nineteen now," he said a short time later. Even at that height, the structure loomed large when I stepped out my front door.

So from my immediate neighborhood, I photographed it from every conceivable angle, framed by nearby buildings or peering over a church. Oddly, the cranes that rose with the Comcast Center seemed almost lifelike, and they became as important to my camera as the concrete core and steel beams themselves.

And then, almost overnight, the building became less an oddity and more a fact. It was here to stay, to be critiqued, to be ogled, to be sworn at when traffic tied up nearby. Photographically, its height allowed me to move farther and farther away, miles at times. What began to interest me most was how it sometimes could be just a part of the picture, often a bit player. It didn't have to dominate to announce its presence.

Now, I see it everywhere I go. I photograph it incessantly, as if I fear it will disappear and my project will end. I'm not even sure how I feel about its appearance. I liked it more when it seemed a skeleton, somewhat fragile, trying to make a name for itself.

These days, with its assertive, fancy-glass facade, it seems colder. But one thing is sure: The building's become part of my life and, I suspect, part of Philadelphia's, too.

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