Unlisted

Unlisted: A. Pomerantz & Co.

Written and drawn by Ben Leech

Unlisted is a series of portraits highlighting unique Philadelphia buildings not yet listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.  To learn how to protect a building by nominating it to the Register, click here.

Address: 1525 Chestnut Street

Architect: Simon & Bassett

Built: 1916

This edition of Unlisted will linger a while on the 1500 block of Chestnut Street, stopping to admire the incomparable Pomerantz Building standing guard across the street from last month’s Kresge Building. The first thing that jumps out at you, quite literally, is its cornice, a terra cotta riot perched so far out over the sidewalk that even the most chronic shoe-gazing pedestrians can occasionally be seen glancing up nervously as they pass beneath it.

But while the cornice grabs all the attention, the building is just as interesting underneath that fancy cap. Ignore all the ornate swishes, swoops and swirls for a moment, and you’ll be struck by just how modern the rest of the building looks, especially for something built in 1916. Virtually every other tall building in the city built before World War II features some variation of a punched window: individual openings set into a surrounding cladding material, usually masonry.  Here, the windows are arranged as if the building’s two slender stone columns and single cross-beam are standing in front of an otherwise unbroken, five-story glass curtain wall. Instead of masonry or metal spandrels separating the individual floors, the Pomerantz Building features continuous vertical ribbons spanning multiple stories.  I can’t think of anything else in the city with spandrel glass this old. For perspective, the building generally considered to be the world’s first commercial glass curtain wall, San Francisco’s Hallidie Building, was built two years later.

Also rare is its great collection of vestigal signage– three signs from three eras in three different styles, all advertising the same office furniture and supply company that constructed the building and remained its tenant for almost 90 years (the company is still in business elsewhere, now owned by former Phillie outfielder Garry Maddox). Up top, we’ve got the precisely engraved stone entablature. Down below, the plastic fantastic Eisenhower-era blue curlicue storefront sign. Around the side, a fading ghost sign in a boxy 1980s font.

The building has been vacant since a planned condo conversion stalled out in 2006, and I doubt all of this signage will survive if and when its redevelopment gets back on track. Hopefully the cornice has better prospects, but without the protection of historic designation, even its future looks tenuous. Gravity is a powerful force, and so is value engineering.


Unlisted: S.S. Kresge Co.

Written and drawn by Ben Leech

Unlisted is a series of portraits highlighting unique Philadelphia buildings not yet listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.  To learn how to protect a building by nominating it to the Register, click here.

Address: 1520-22 Chestnut Street; 1521-23 Sansom Street

Architect: Silverman & Levy

Built: 1934

This  little Art Deco assemblage began life in 1934 as a S.S. Kresge Co. store, the five-and-dime forerunner of today’s K-Marts.  Designed by the firm of Silverman & Levy with frontage on both Chestnut and Sansom Streets, it’s hard to decide which end has been more abused over the years by new tenants with ten-foot ladders.  But above their ground-floor degradations, both elevations feature surprisingly intact upper stories with bold and playful machine-age ornament echoing the nearby WCAU Building and the sadly-lost  Trans Lux Theater that once stood directly across Chestnut Street.

But even the ground floors have their own curious charm.  Long before the dubiously-named “Eternity Fashion” outlet occupied a portion of the Chestnut Street side, the space was occupied by a pub named Pub, which left behind a nice little terrazzo vestibule.  And on the Sansom Street side, a bizarre homage to (or rip-off of) Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1948 V.C. Morris Store in San Fransisco turned up sometime in the 1980s.  All in all, a forgivable blend of quirk and class (though how nice would a full restoration be?).


Unlisted: West Philadelphia Title and Trust

Unlisted is a series of portraits highlighting Philadelphia buildings not yet listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.  To learn how to protect a building by nominating it to the Register, click here.

Address: 4000 Lancaster Avenue

Architect: Walter Smedley

Built: 1897

How is this stately bank building on the corner of Lancaster and 40th not on the Philadelphia Register? Well, up until a few years ago, it was overgrown with billboards and signage, its decorative bloom of terra cotta concealed by Clear Channel’s mongering shroud. Huge kudos to the People’s Emergency Center, which convinced the building owner to kick the ad habit. After the necessary cleaning, repointing and stabilization, what emerged was a spectacular neighborhood landmark. Walter Smedley, the building’s architect, was a founder of the venerable T-Square Club and designed a number of Register-listed buildings, including the East Park Canoe House and listed-but-lost Northern National Bank.

Historic (c. 1899)

Before (c.2008, courtesy James Wright, PEC)

After (c.2010, courtesy James Wright, PEC)


From the Inbox

Back in July, our Unlisted series featured the former Schlichter Jute Cordage Works factory (click here to view the original post).  We just got the following note in response, and wanted to share.  Thank you, Mr. Casale, for a wonderful mystery solved!

Dear Ben Leech/ Preserve Philly/field notes,

my name is Cody Casale, the grandson of Martin Stein, who is the president of Sterling Paper company. The other night I was randomly browsing google images and came across your article about my Grandfathers factory.

I am pleased to read what you wrote, the illustration of the building and also the photos you shot. I would like to add some of my knowledge about what I know, to inform you:

The paper company is still in business and my Grandfather has been struggling to keep it alive- but it is still going… union workers and all. The original signage that was on the top sides of the building said “it takes a golden effort to make a sterling product”. After a while, (about in 2001), that signage became old and the Philadelphia Mural Arts wanted to add some mystery to the building. I was getting ready to attend RISD, Rhode Island School of Design and wanted to help out with the project. Meg Saligman, one of the main artists from the philly mural arts went in and spoke with my grandfather about his past, and wrote down bold statements that he stated as he told his stories to her. She then used those statements and in a “subtle” manner (w/o runing the run down look of the building) had Tony (local graff. artist and myself) add the sayings, the paintings of my grandfather, my mother and myself, also the “1st, 2nd and 3rd” shift paintings. To this day, after the mural was finished- people would walk by the building in confusion wondering what it all means- asking my grandfather numerous questions. If it was up to him, he would of rather of had his original Sterling Paper slogan redone, in crisp black/white paint.

I really appreciate your effort to acknowledge your awareness of the building and will be sure to pass your article on to my grandfather and aunt (president and vice president).

Thanks!

Cody Casale

 

 


Unlisted: Horn & Hardart

Written and drawn by Ben Leech

Unlisted is a series of portraits highlighting Philadelphia buildings not yet listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.  To learn how to protect a building by nominating it to the Register, click here.

Address: 6828 Market Street, Upper Darby

Architect: Ralph Bencker

Built: c.1930

Standing just beyond the Philly city limits in Upper Darby, this Horn & Hardart Automat-cum-Crown Fried Chicken is of course not listed on the Philadelphia Register.  If it were a only few blocks east, it would be.

Philadelphia once had dozens of these Horn and Hardart Automats, coin-operated cafeterias and bastions of pure uncut class that catered to the pocket change of prince and pauper alike for most of the early twentieth century.  Imagine for a moment that every Dunkin Donuts and Crown Chicken in the city today was instead a gleaming art deco jewel box that dispensed steaming hot food from nickel-fed boxes in the wall, with linen on all the tables and stained glass in all the windows.  I generally take exception to the nostalgist’s lament that “things were better way back when,” but in the case of the Automat, the nostalgist is right.

Most were the work of Ralph Bencker, a minor master of over-the-top art deco facades. One former Horn and Hardart Automat is listed on the Philadelphia Register (818 Chestnut Street), and at least one or two more survive unlisted and in various degrees of mutilation.  But the vast majority have disappeared without a trace, and judging from the few historic photos I’ve been able to track down, the loss is painful. See for yourself below. (more…)


Unlisted: Saint Rita of Cascia

Written and drawn by Ben Leech

Unlisted is a series of portraits highlighting Philadelphia buildings not yet listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.  To learn how to protect a building by nominating it to the Register, click here.

Address: 1154-62 South Broad Street

Architect: George Lovatt

Built: 1907

Of the thousands of historic church buildings in Philadelphia, only a small fraction are listed on the Philadelphia Register. St Rita’s is just one of the hundreds that could be but isn’t. A gleaming, swirling terra cotta temple that looks plucked from an opera stage, the church is an apt face for these masses of undocumented landmarks yearning to stay standing.   Though it’s not the largest or oldest or grandest, it was built as a shrine to Rita of Cascia, the patron saint of lost and impossible causes.  And while the future of this particular church, thanks to a healthy and well-funded congregation, seems forseeably safe in spite of its unlisted status, the future of hundreds of others is far more troubling.

Big old churches citywide are fighting against time, gravity, leaky roofs, and dwindling congregations.  And mostly they are losing.  The recent plight of the Church of the Assumption drives the point home– landmark status alone cannot ensure the future of these buildings that so define the skylines and streetscapes of our neighborhoods.  “Saving” these churches just by landmarking them is like trying to pound a nail with a screwdriver.  Unlike factories, another increasingly obsolescent building type we have in spades, churches are usually easier to demolish than repurpose, and even “protected” churches like Assumption are no match for the wrecker’s backhoe when the economics of preservation are not immediately, blatantly, even obscenely, obvious to those left holding the keys.

But if a screwdriver is all you have, swinging it is better than doing nothing. The Church of the Assumption would already be a surface lot if it hadn’t been listed on the Philadelphia Register in 2009. Plenty of others are now landfill because there was no legal mechanism to postpone or prevent their demolition. Along with a good roof and a little patience, listing on the Philadelphia Register can help today’s Assumption or Bonaventure or Boniface or Saint Peter be tomorrow’s Baptist Temple.

But back to Rita.  In addition to being the patron saint of lost causes, she’s also the patron saint of baseball.  So if you happen to be heading south on the orange line for any reason, especially, say, on your way to Citizens Bank Park, you may want to tip your cap at the Ellsworth-Federal stop. You’ll be sitting under a shrine that’s been keeping its end of the bargain in the good architecture department and the good baseball department.  A little recognition is in order.


Unlisted: Overseas Motor Works

Written and drawn by Ben Leech

Unlisted is a series of portraits highlighting Philadelphia buildings not yet listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.  To learn how to protect a building by nominating it to the Register, click here.

Address: 1501 Fairmount Avenue

Architect: Unknown

Built: Unknown (c.1930s)

What ancient art deco civilization left this Babylonian-looking castle-cum-garage on the corner of 15th and Fairmount?   Carlos, who has operated the Overseas Motor Works in the building for the last thirty years, has no idea.  “It was vacant when we moved in,” he remembers.  “An old man used to pass by here when we first started, said he remembered the place divided up into little stalls, like a market. Places selling parts, appliances, that kind of thing.  But I have no idea who built it or why.  Not much history here that I know of, Ben Franklin was never here, you know?  I did have a guy looked just like him as a customer for many years, though.”

It is an enigmatic building, to say the least.  Adorned with ram’s heads, maidens’ faces, doves in a dovecote, flower-filled urns, and palm fronds aplenty, the walls are made from pink-hued concrete blocks.  The same material was used in another art-deco building a few doors down Fairmount, built in 1932 as a showroom and warehouse for the National Casket Company. With the vaguely funerary aura of its urn-topped tower, its tempting to guess a connection to the casket building, but I couldn’t prove it.  Can anyone help solve this riddle?