Posts tagged “Mid-century

Tube Tuesday: Architectural Wallflowers

In this gem of an interview produced by Temple University, photographer Betsy Manning and professor Ken Finkel (whose Redbricker column for Philly Brownstoner never ceases to amaze/amuse) discuss Manning’s passion for documenting the lesser-known corners of the city.  She describes her subjects as “architectural wallflowers”– overlooked, ignored, nondescript, until you stop and really see them.  The Preservation Alliance is excited to host Manning as she presents more of her work on Wednesday, October 27 at 6:30 pm at the Northeast Regional Free Library (2228 Cottman Avenue). Free and open to the public, registration is encouraged by emailing ben@preservationalliance.com or calling 215-546-1146 x5.

And a teaser– expect more of Manning’s finds to turn up on Field Notes in the near future….

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Tube Tuesday: Greenbelt Knoll

Greenbelt Knoll was designated a Philadelphia Historic District in 2006, and in 2007 the residents of the neighborhood received the Preservation Alliance’s Community Action Award.  This short documentary was produced for the Scribe Video Center’s Precious Places series.

For more on Greenbelt Knoll, click here.


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.

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Unlisted: Robinson’s

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: 1020 Market Street

Architect: Victor Gruen and Elsie Krummeck

Built: 1946

The former Robinson Department Store is maybe the least “Philadelphian” of any building in the city.  It looms over Market Street like a Pacific swell breaking over a square city’s streetscape. But the surging tide of modernism the building once promised never really reached us, and today Robinson’s stands frozen and forgotten, like a plastic kiddie pool propped up against an abandoned house.  The store was designed by Victor Gruen, who is today mostly demonized for spawning the shopping mall as we know it. But in 1946 Gruen was a new American, having fled Vienna before the war to work in the drafting rooms of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In the 1940s, he and partner Elsie Krummeck were at the vanguard of commercial architecture, building sleek and radical storefronts in downtowns nationwide. The Market Street store was one of eleven the couple designed for the California-based Grayson-Robinson chain of budget womensware, and each of these Austro-Angelean behemoths was a unique flourish of curves, color, and commerce. They were machines for blinging, and they heralded a bright new era of architecture as advertisement.

The Philadelphia store is one of  the last to remain standing, but it casts a Dorian Gray-ish pall over Market Street today. The tile mosaic facade is waterstained and pockmarked with bolt-holes from the now-lost Robinson sign. One parapet has been lopped off. Once an elegant arcade with floating glass display cases, the ground floor is now stuffed with standard-issue storefronts, complete with metal security grates and plastic back-lit sign boxes. It’s weird, dirty, and dated– like a Frank Furness building probably looked in 1946.

Gruen’s chickens have come home to roost in the Gallery at Market East across the street– a bustling but architecturally invisible affirmation of Gruen’s later shopping mall ethos.  But is it too late to give up on his earlier urban visions?

For further reading:

Hardwick, M. Jeffrey.  Mall Maker: Victor Gruen, Architect of an American Dream. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Heller, Steven and Heimann, Jim.  Shop America: Mid-Century Storefront Design, 1938-1950. Los Angeles: Taschen, 2007.

Jackson, Mike.  “Storefronts of Tomorrow: American Storefront Design from 1940 to 1970.” Preserving the Recent Past 2, Deborah Slaton and William G. Foulks, eds.  Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 2000.

Wall, Alex.  Victor Gruen: From Urban Shop to New City. Barcelona: Actar, 2005.