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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.

Tube Tuesday: Gimme Shelter

Still a functioning SEPTA bus shelter at 33rd and Dauphin, the Strawberry Hill Bus Barn was built in 1901 as Philadelphia’s first and only trolley depot. Meet the neighbors who are fighting to protect this neighborhood landmark from demolition– the sad fate of so many other pieces of Philadelphia’s transit history, including the Fairmount Park station pictured above.

These Places Matter

Two area sites are among 100 historic places nationwide selected for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s This Place Matters Community Challenge. Philadelphia’s Visitation BVM Parish and West Chester’s Lincoln Biography Building are competing for a share of $40,000 in grants in the Trust’s annual contest.  You can vote for your favorite project now through June 30, one vote per person.  Represent Philadelphia (or West Chester) by voting here.

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?).

New additions to the Philadelphia Register

At last Friday’s Historical Commission meeting, five new properties were approved for listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places: four neighborhood bank buildings and the historic interiors of the Family Court Building, providing protection from demolition and adverse alteration. For more information on the designation process and criteria for inclusion, CLICK HERE.

Left: PSFS South Broad Branch, 2001-07 South Broad Street (Mellor, Meigs & Howe, 1924) CLICK HERE for the nomination.

Center: PSFS West Philadelphia Branch, 15 S. 52nd Street (Mellor, Meigs & Howe, 1926) CLICK HERE for the nomination.

Right: PSFS Lehigh Branch, 1025 W. Lehigh Avenue (Mellor, Meigs & Howe, 1924) CLICK HERE for the nomination.

Rosenbaum Bank, 603-05 S. 3rd Street (Magaziner & Potter, 1907)

Family Court Interiors and Murals, 1801 Vine Street (John T. Windrim and William R.M. Keast, architects, 1941) CLICK HERE and HERE for the nomination.

Living on a Prayer

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Mayor Nutter channeled Bon Jovi to sing the praises of historic preservation at the recent ribbon-cutting for the Presser Senior Apartments, a 2011 Preservation Achievement Award recipient: “Given the incredible history of this city, you have to pay attention to preservation,” he said. “You have to hold on to what you have.”

Accident?  The former Presser Home for Retired Music Teachers and the adjacent Nugent Home were both saved from demolition by concerned neighbors in 2005.  Presser is the first to be rehabilitated into senior housing, and with 200 people on a waiting list for the 45-unit building, the Nugent Home shouldn’t be far behind.  So yes, Mr. Nutter, we’re half way there.

Read more about the ribbon-cutting from NewsWorks HERE.

Read more about the Alliance’s Preservation Achievement Awards HERE.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

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This before-and-after montage illustrates the unfortunate effect that replacement windows can have on the unique character of the city’s historic architecture. Like a cartoon character’s x’d-out eyes, the slap-dash vinyl windows recently installed in this Chinatown commercial loft robbed the building of some fantastic, one-of-a-kind diamond panes (some nice balcony railings have apparently gone the way of the scrapper, as well). This is Exhibit A in the case for more historic districts being needed in Philadelphia, where such short-sighted changes are regularly averted through design review.  And before shouting “energy efficiency,” the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s online resource center for historic windows is worth a visit.  So is this video.