Changing Skyline: A mural for PSFS? No need to cover up a classic

A photo/illustration puts a mural on the PSFS building. CONRAD BENNER (photo), MIKE MEULSTEE (illustration)
A photo/illustration puts a mural on the PSFS building. CONRAD BENNER (photo), MIKE MEULSTEE (illustration) (CONRAD BENNER (photo), MIKE MEULSTEE (illustration))
Posted: October 20, 2012

Philadelphia claims more murals than any other American city and, since this is Mural Arts Month, how about we do a great, big, honking painting on the south side of the PSFS building? Except for those corner windows, which hardly anyone notices anyway, it's a blank space, just crying out for some sizzle. Besides, an audacious mural would enable the city to beat Podunk Omaha, Neb., which currently boasts the nation's largest mural.

No, I am not serious - about either the mural or Omaha's merits as a city. But a Philadelphia blogger and photographer named Conrad Benner, who goes by the nom-de-web of Streets Dept, is, and last week he started a campaign to promote the idea.

His proposal, which ignited a small firestorm in the blogosphere, has almost no chance of becoming reality, yet I still found the idea unsettling. The urge for a mural on such an important building suggests that we have lost our ability to look at architecture and see meaning in the arrangement of stone and glass. If any building should be easy to read, it is the Internationalist-style, form-follows-function PSFS by George Howe and William Lescaze. But we've become architectural illiterates.

Benner, a 27-year-old photographer and social-media manager, started his website two years ago to document Philadelphia's rich collection of street art, of both the official and unofficial variety. He has uncovered and documented some real inspirations.

A Philadelphia native, Benner told me in an interview that he loved the PSFS building, yet always wondered, "why a blank wall?" on what is effectively the back of the 33-story tower. He concluded that a mural might "energize" the wall, and decided to float the proposal on his website and see whether anyone responded.

Did they ever. At least four other websites jumped into the fray, and Twitter lit up with comments over several days, both for and against.

Many of those taking part in the conversation pointed out that PSFS is Philadelphia's best and most important 20th-century building, a groundbreaking skyscraper that is a staple of architecture curriculums around the world - not to mention one of an elite group of National Historic Landmarks protected by federal law. The building at 12th and Market Streets currently houses the Loews Philadelphia Hotel.

Seven decades after it opened as the offices for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, the tower is as elegant as ever, rising from a gray, polished granite base that engages both its corner and the curve of the 1890s Reading Terminal Headhouse across the street.

Everything you see on the outside corresponds with what's going on inside. The ribbon of windows facing Market Street served offices. The sensuously curved glass at street level provided excellent display for a retail tenant. The back wall was left blank because that's where the elevators are. In William H. Jordy's definitive 1962 essay on PSFS, he notes that the rear facade was Howe's favorite.

But when Benner looked at the wall, what he saw was a "boring black" wall. Why not fix it the way so many blank walls in Philadelphia are "fixed" these days? With a mural.

This is a big part of the problem. We've reached the point in Philadelphia where murals have become the default balm for all our urban blights. Got an empty lot? Paint a mural on the exposed wall. Is your neighborhood shopping street on the rocks? Bring in celebrity artists Haas & Hahn to stripe the facades in tropical colors, as the Mural Arts Program did on Germantown Avenue. Paint is the panacea. It is no longer good enough for a brick wall to remain a brick wall.

Philadelphia, it often seems, spends more time boasting about its mural count - 3,000 and growing - than the quality, variety, and condition of its impressive collection of architecture. The Mural Arts Program was originally founded to fight graffiti, and later evolved into a program to involve kids in art-making. Fighting blight became part of its portfolio, too.

Now, however, there are murals going up in some of Philadelphia's poshest neighborhoods. Even worse, murals have become an end in themselves. Last year, when a developer wanted to build a new house on an empty lot at Ninth and Bainbridge, neighbors complained it would cover up a mural.

Have we really gotten to the point where our facades need pictures to be interesting?

Now, I'll concede that not everyone spends their days looking at and thinking about buildings, but I'm endlessly fascinated by the patterns, recesses, and textures of Philadelphia's hugely various building facades, the boogie-woogie rhythm of grids layered over time. Buildings aren't static, two-dimensional billboards, but ever-changing, three-dimensional objects that shift their expressions as sun and shadow caress their faces. Murals always look the same.

The pictures might occasionally help a blighted neighborhood. But PSFS isn't blighted; it's a huge success story.

Nor is its back wall really blank. That's another misreading.

Usually when we talk about blank walls, we mean those at eye level on main streets. They're one of the great urban scourges because they prevent people on the outside from interacting with people on the inside. They make us feel alone and unsafe.

But a windowless facade on the upper levels is a different issue. Lots of building facades with no windows are thrilling, like the fantastically patterned north wall of Furness' Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. PSFS' south wall is less elaborate, but its glazed black brick and corner windows provide enough texture to keep us interested.

Why would you cover that up?


Contact Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ingasaffron.

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