The New Batch

Written by Kristin Hagar

A magnificent block of North 2nd Street runs the gamut of Philadelphia architectural history.  Stand midway down the block between Arch and Race Streets and slowly turn around 360 degrees:  in one glimpse you’ll see the Paul Cret’s Ben Franklin Bridge, I.M. Pei’s Society Hill Towers, iconic Elfreth’s Alley, and a strikingly snazzy 1950s commercial storefront.  But what’s the story of the least known (though certainly not shy) part of timeline?
The National Products Building, or The National, built in 1957, was in line for demolition by 2002.  It had been a food service equipment store, amid a concentration of restaurant suppliers along North 2nd and Arch Streets, but was vacant since the 1990s.  The Philadelphia Historical Commission halted demolition by motioning for designation on the city register.  That’s a good thing.  The Historical Commission preserved not only a prime example of mid-20th century storefront design but also a streetscape that offers a more vernacular, arguably more authentic, historical experience to complement the big History attractions a few blocks west.

A lot of preservation organizations these days are turning their attention toward mid-20th century Modernism.  While the questions of “what specifically?” and “how?” continue to spawn debate, the question of “why” is well answered.  At least within the preservation community (if not yet in other circles), it is accepted that mid-century Modern buildings are potentially historical and call for proactive measures in terms of both planning and materials conservation.

The National was one of the first postwar buildings to be added to the Philadelphia Register, but that fact shouldn’t give us a false sense of security.  Today there are only 7 individually-nominated Modern buildings, and, with the exception of The National, they’re by the big names (Louis Kahn, Richard Neutra, I. M. Pei, et al).  There are so many more.  Certainly not all warrant the formal protection of the Register (and to push for what Robert Venturi has called “pure” preservation only damages the credibility of the profession).  Many are architecturally derivative or culturally insignificant.  But all are growing older by the day.  We’re going to miss some of them.  Or, even if we never do, future Philadelphians will.

Regardless of their relative youth, mid-century commercial buildings are the products of a pivotal time. “By the mid-1950s, a profound shift was occurring in the design of American commercial architecture,” writes architectural historian Richard Longstreth. “The change encompassed far more than the particulars of expression, which are frequently modified or discarded and replaced by a new repertoire.  The post-World War II era brought a redirection in basic attitudes of design…. These changes affected the physical organization of commercial development, the architectural aspects emphasized, and often the form of buildings themselves.”[1]

Significant formal features of The National storefront include the brightly colored terra-cotta tile; the cantilevered canopy in a zigzag shape; the “open front” façade illuminated by exterior lighting; the giant signage over the windowless second floor, made from letters of bold, sans-serif font individually mounted to the wall; and the smaller asymmetrical sign projecting perpendicularly from the building to catch the attention of people in cars.  Some buildings are significant because they are exceptional; others are significant for the very opposite reason:  they are representative of a building type, such as this storefront type, that was common at one time.  …And rare in survival today.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission was good to have motioned for designation just in the nick of time, and it permitted the conversion of the building to a lucrative use—upscale condos since 2003—while retaining the storefront façade, the locus of significance.  But it’s better to establish historic resources proactively, not reactively.  Architecturally and culturally significant resources of the recent past are especially vulnerable.  Even if it’s strange to view a 50- or a 30-year-old building as “historical,” it certainly might be outmoded by then, and so initiative must be taken to identify potential resources early on, to promote adaptive reuse rather than demolition, and to encourage conservative rehabilitation.  It’s also important for preservation organizations to publicize historical context and architectural guides like this and this, which elucidate why a building might be significant even though it’s not the work of a noted architect or the site of a particular event.

How to deal with the recent past is a new issue because of the relative youth of the preservation field itself—we’ve spent the past few decades dealing with all of the really old stuff and are just now getting up-to-date.  However the future of the field is in dealing with the most recent past.  It’s the preservationist’s job to think about what might possibly be considered historical before it’s considered historical.



[1] The Buildings of Main Street: A Guide to American Commercial Architecture, 2nd ed. (AltaMira Press, 2000), p. 126.

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2 responses

  1. Rob Kettell

    RE: National Products Building
    I understand that plans for the conversion of the building to condos was approved by the Historic Commission several years ago. The plans called for a 6 story addition, demolition of everything except the front facade, replacing the front facade with a new structure and the replacing of all the historic orange tiles with new tiles. In other words, building a brand new historic building.
    Is this preservation?

    August 1, 2010 at 10:53 pm

  2. Kristin Hagar

    Mr. Kettell, I agree with you certainly: the idea of building a brand new “historic” building warrants questioning. As for façade-only preservation, I would say that it’s rarely an appropriate preservation method — but it may be in the case of historic commercial storefronts, where locus of significance is the façade (i.e., the storefront). As for replacement of the original orange tiles, that could diminish the integrity of the building (and it seems unnecessary for terra cotta tiles). Then again, in a modern building, is it the material or the concept that’s most significant? Just yesterday a colleague handed me the current copy of the National Trust’s Forum Journal, in which an essay by Theodore Prudon asks, “Do current efforts to preserve modern architecture differ in any way from preservation practices as we have previously known them….?” The preservation of recent-past buildings may allow for a decrease in material authenticity in the interest of conceptual/design authenticity, since the material has little age-value to begin with and we have good documentation (photos, original drawings, etc.) indicating the original design. Besides, buildings that are older have already had their own replacement/maintenance work done over the years, Prudon points out, so what we think of as original fabric of very-old buildings may not be quite “original.” Still, I don’t think this argument should be applied to The National if the building is (as far as I know) in fine condition – only what is irrevocably gone (e.g., missing tiles) should be replaced anew.

    August 4, 2010 at 10:36 am

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