Changing Skyline: New legal offices breathe life into N. Philadelphia

The skeleton of the Beury building towers over North Broad Street and Erie Avenue, a decayed contrast to the sleek Community Legal Services offices nearby.
The skeleton of the Beury building towers over North Broad Street and Erie Avenue, a decayed contrast to the sleek Community Legal Services offices nearby. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff)
Posted: March 28, 2013

For the last quarter-century, the Broad and Erie triangle has been defined by a single, gutted, graffitied skyscraper. Fourteen stories and still wearing its tiled crown, the Gothic skeleton of the Beury tower taunts this North Philadelphia crossroads, daring its neighbors below to carry on in its gloomy shadow.

That so many of them do, filling their ground floors with the stuff of commerce, is cause for wonder. These are not fancy shops. Mostly it's the usual harried lineup of fried chicken and check-cashing places, but there is also an august limestone bank, a branch library, and a sprawling bookstore whose specialty is shipping to prisons.

Very few businesses on the triangle occupy buildings that could be considered beautiful, or that could claim to be on the lee side of youth anymore.

So when you stumble upon the new glass-and-terra-cotta building steps away on Erie Avenue, wedged between the Dollar Crazy store and a small market, the effect is a bit like spotting a crisp $20 bill on the ground. First you can't believe it. Then you look around to make sure it's OK to celebrate.

The sleek, modern building, home to Community Legal Services, is very much safe to celebrate. When the nonprofit, which provides free legal representation in civil matters, such as rent disputes and discrimination cases, hired Atkin Olshin Schade Architects, it was the first time in decades that a private group proposed to erect a building in this part of the North Philadelphia badlands. It took years to raise the $8.6 million for the 20,000-square-foot project. This winter, Legal Services' 40 employees finally moved in.

The office, a branch of Legal Services' Center City operation, isn't new to the triangle, a transportation hub that functions as the gateway to the city's Nicetown and Germantown neighborhoods. But the staff had kept a low profile in a former Horn & Hardart restaurant that was haphazardly converted to offices.

That dark, labyrinthine space was as uncomfortable for the Legal Services staff as for their clients, recalls Carol Horne Penn, the office's deputy director. Visitors in wheelchairs had to pass through lawyers' workspace to get to the restrooms - no small matter for a group dedicated to championing equal access for the disabled. The staff was determined to find better quarters once their lease expired.

The problem was that there was nowhere to go close to the transit hub. The Beury, which once housed the National Bank of North Philadelphia, would have made dandy law offices, had anyone had the foresight to bring the 1926 tower back from the dead.

Legal Services enlisted its architectural counterpart, the Community Design Collaborative, to help. They encouraged Legal Services to construct its own building on a city-owned vacant lot just off the triangle. Not only would it give the staff decent offices; it would also fill an unsightly gap on Erie Avenue, helping to keep the neighborhood from degrading further.

Initially, Penn says, the staff's needs were modest: "Toilets that flushed. No Rats. Windows."

The three-story building, overseen by designer Michael Schade, goes well beyond that basic program. Although its simple facade, which layers a brick-colored screen over bluish glass, looks and feels lighter than the surrounding masonry buildings, it occupies the urban site with confidence, running party-wall to party-wall and following the sidewalk line established by its neighbors. Street trees and bike racks reinforce the urbanity. Squint, and you could be in Center City.

Too bad, then, that the architects weakened their strong effort with opaque glass panels on the ground-floor, blocking views of the activity in the lobby. The ground-floor windows were obviously meant to connect the building to the triangle's retail tradition, but Schade says they were forced to make them opaque to protect clients' privacy.

Even so, the lack of transparency makes it hard to decipher the building's purpose. Is it offices? Apartments? It doesn't help that the Legal Services sign across the lower windows - "CLS" - is so utterly bland. Something colorful or clever could have redeemed the situation, and at least stood up to the exuberance of the nearby retail signage.

It would have also helped spread the word about the occupants' mission. Legal Services grew out of the 1963 Supreme Court decision guaranteeing people the right to legal counsel, whether or not they can afford it. Too often, the poor are left to their own devices in civil disputes.

More inviting windows would have gone a long way to communicating Legal Services' presence.

Once inside, however, the architect's serene aesthetic and attention to detail almost make up for the failing. The spaces are arranged in a U around a courtyard that floods the interior with natural light. Clients and staff can sit in the small garden, which is completed by the rowhouse facades that form a fourth wall. The design gives Legal Services the kind of amenities most lawyers take for granted, like private offices, conference space, a comfortable reception area and - ta-da! - accessible restrooms.

The staff also got plenty of windows, just as they requested, along with a third-floor terrace. From most vantages, they can glimpse the wreck of the Beury tower, the second tallest building in North Philadelphia.

The Legal Services building isn't showy architecture. Its strength comes from its determination to make sure those with the least are treated as graciously as those with the most. In a neighborhood not used to new things, its very existence offers the hope that decay and blight are not forever.


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

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