Curtis' need to grow vs. historical concerns

Posted: October 04, 2007

The Curtis Institute of Music is moving ahead with plans to demolish all or part of several buildings on Locust Street to make way for a 10-story tower and adjoining four-story structure housing an orchestral rehearsal hall, studios, cafeteria, and dorms for 88 students.

The elite conservatory would keep and renovate its Rittenhouse Square buildings, while acquiring the properties one block east at 1610-18 Locust St. from the school's chairman, philanthropist H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, who purchased them several months ago.

Curtis brought its conceptual design by Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates before the architectural committee of the Historical Commission last week, showing models and renderings of a four-story brownstone-clad building on Locust Street with large windows, a bowed front, and decorative elements echoing its neighbors'. Rising an additional six stories in the rear is a beige/gray-brick tower.

Curtis declined to provide copies of the renderings shown at the meeting in the Historical Commission offices.

School officials said the project did not yet have a price tag. A capital campaign would raise money for the expansion, as well as for an increased endowment and renovations to the buildings currently owned by Curtis.

If the project proceeds, it would add to Venturi, Scott Brown's portfolio a rare downtown Philadelphia building (depending on how you define its parameters), which has often proved elusive for the internationally active Manayunk-based firm.

For Curtis, the 100,000-square-foot expansion would help alleviate a "critical" need for upgraded and expanded facilities. Elizabeth Warshawer, executive vice president, said the percentage of students accepting offers to the full-scholarship conservatory had dropped from 100 to 85 during the last two years.

That, she said, "certainly indicates to us that we are not addressing facilities needs. In the end, they want a more suitable physical environment."

The school plans to ask the Historical Commission on Oct. 12 for complete demolition of the former Locust Club building, dating from 1960, and for demolition of all but the facades of 1610 Locust (completed in 1893) and 1618 Locust (built around 1855).

The staff of the Historical Commission said it recommended approval of Curtis' plans, but the architectural committee itself did not have the three of seven members required for a quorum, so the two members who were present made suggestions as individuals rather than as an official body. One member of the committee, Daniel McCoubrey, was present - but recused himself from the proceedings since he is also the Venturi architect leading the Curtis project. Another member, Suzanne M. Pentz, recused herself; she works for Keast & Hood, the firm retained to do the structural work on the project.

The two remaining members advised Curtis to beef up its application to better show its justification for destroying the interiors of the historic buildings.

"The Historical Commission can recommend demolition under two possibilities, and the one being argued here is not financial hardship, but doing something in the public interest," said Daniela Holt Voith, a member of the architectural committee. "But their application does not overtly demonstrate how the citizens of Philadelphia benefit. We think they could, but we just didn't think they did."

More important, said Jonathan E. Farnham, the Historical Commission's acting historic-preservation officer, Curtis did not adequately show that its proposed project could not fit in the historic buildings without gutting their interiors.

The two buildings have been occupied by hair salons and other small businesses over the years. The house at 1610, known as the John H. Converse House, was designed by the Wilson brothers. John Notman, the much admired Philadelphia architect, designed 1618 Locust, which got a new Wilson Eyre facade about 1888.

"They're pretty intact, beautiful properties," said Voith. "If what you're asking for is demolition, you have to tell us why it's absolutely necessary."

The demolition of 1610 is being opposed by the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which says the building still has many of its original interior architectural features. Less intact is 1618, which has been heavily altered over the years, according to a Preservation Alliance staff member.

Curtis will proceed with its request to demolish all but the facades of both historic buildings, Warshawer said.

"If we can't demolish behind 1610, the rehearsal hall will have to be redesigned or altered, which would cause us to lose significant program space," she said, "which might alter the facade."

Curtis says that if it can demolish the interiors, it will restore the facades of both historic buildings.

The school must also demonstrate to the Historical Commission that the new Venturi building is compatible with the character of that section of Locust Street. The tower portion of the building would be barely visible to passersby, set back 45 feet from the street, Venturi architects say.

The height and mass of the tower were reduced, Warshawer said, after discussions with neighbors, who had raised strong objections to an eight-story condominium previously proposed for the site.

Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/artswatch.

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