Changing Skyline | On N. Broad, two more needless condemnations

Posted: September 14, 2007

When two protected historic buildings were razed in June at Front and Chestnut Streets after years of flagrant neglect, the case was seen as an aberration: Philadelphia's preservation officials and building inspectors were outmaneuvered by a couple of canny developers.

But today, an almost identical sequence of events is unfolding just one block from City Hall, on North Broad Street. And this time, the perpetrator isn't a developer. It's the state.

Like that unfortunate Chestnut Street pair, the condemned Broad Street buildings are modest in stature but anchor an important block. They sit midway between Arch and Cherry Streets, a stretch that will soon become the front door for a greatly expanded Convention Center.

One is a five-story neoclassical office building. The other, its modernist sidekick, was designed as an addition by architect Romaldo Giurgola, who belonged to a path-breaking 1960s movement dubbed the Philadelphia School. Because these buildings set the scene for their more famous neighbors - Frank Furness' Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and John McArthur's City Hall - Convention Center officials gave them a reprieve from demolition and incorporated them into the new facade's design.

Yet just like the developers who razed the Chestnut Street duo in Old City, the state-controlled Convention Center Authority has now managed to take a routine building-code violation and pump it up into an emergency situation it says justifies immediate demolition of these important National Historic Register structures.

After these venerable office buildings were rated "unsafe" in August by city inspectors, the state interpreted the designation as a mandate for demolition. "Our understanding is that they cannot be saved," said Joe Resta, a deputy secretary at the state Department of General Services.

But a citation for unsafe conditions isn't the same as ordering its execution, countered Licenses & Inspections Commissioner Robert D. Solvibile. While the term "unsafe" sounds ominous, it is the least bad of the city's major code violations and is often used to encourage owners to stabilize their structures.

Yes, "there are holes in the roof," Solvibile explained, but "I've never testified that it's not fixable. . . . Anything can be repaired."

There's no denying that the two buildings look like wrecks and need attention. They were neglected for years while the center's expansion was put on hold, ignored by everyone except the homeless who sought refuge in their doorways. No building inspector or Convention Center official was ever dispatched to check on their condition. The Giurgola building, considered a landmark of 1960s architecture, was so beaten up over the last decade that it had to be bandaged with plywood.

So, having allowed the pair to rot, state officials are now waging a campaign to have them torn down. They've applied for a demolition permit.

There's just one hitch. In 2004, Convention Center president Albert Mezzaroba signed an agreement with the state Historical and Museum Commission promising to retain the pair, along with an early-20th-century skyscraper on the corner of Arch Street. There are several historic buildings in the path of the Convention Center's expansion, but those were the three deemed most important.

There's no doubt that many Philadelphians would have preferred to save the Race Street firehouse, a red-brick castle bedecked with fanciful gargoyles in slickers and fire hats. But charming as it is, that redoubt stands alone.

The beaux-arts office building, the Giurgola addition, and the early skyscraper form an intact ensemble, unchanged from its Roaring Twenties heyday. As important as it is for cities to retain great individual buildings, maintaining great blocks is even more essential.

Beside being in its original state, this block is a key to understanding Philadelphia's evolution into a commercial powerhouse in the early 20th century. With the completion of City Hall, the giants of banking and insurance huddled around its fringes. That block of Broad Street forms a counterpoint to the noble row of skyscrapers south of City Hall.

The state historical commission understood those nuances when it negotiated its contract with the Convention Center in 2004. So why doesn't it understand the block's importance today? The commission acquiesced to the demolition request without a murmur of protest. It didn't even ask for an independent engineering inspection to see whether the pair could be saved.

"All of those things are beyond our control," said the commission's Ann Safley. "Our role in this is advisory. We can't stop it."

Yes, they can. The commission can hold the Convention Center to its signed contract. It's worth noting that the commission is chaired by developer Wayne Spilove, who demolished a great block of Sansom Street in 2000, while heading the city's historical commission.

It's not just Philadelphia that will lose if this pair of buildings is allowed to be demolished. So will the Convention Center's design. The 510-foot-long facade, already painfully bland, will be worse without the older buildings to break up its unrelenting, two-block march along Broad Street. It needs something to provide some relief from the continuous glass facade.

It's not only this one block that deserves respect. Several others are suffering from damaging neglect, including the early-19th-century Girard warehouses on Front Street and the National Products building on Second Street, both in Old City. But if the state gets its demolition permit, why shouldn't private owners?


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|