Archive for the ‘Cities’ Category

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Philly’s culture of invention shows up in Baptist Temple rebirth

In Cities,Heritage,Historic Preservation on May 4, 2011 by urbanpros Tagged: , , , , , ,

The new lobby at the Temple Performing Arts Center

Last night, I joined fellow historic building fans and saviors for the Preservation Alliance’s annual preview tour of one of the group’s upcoming Awards luncheon honoree projects:  the former Baptist Temple, now the Temple Performing Arts Center.  What a great rehabilitation project I discovered, and what a perfect architectural example of Philadelphia’s 250-year-old and still thriving reputation as a center of innovation and invention.

Project architects rmjm/Hillier and engineers Keast & Hood were presented with a 100+ year old stone landmark that had been abandoned for more than 20 years.  The team was challenged with transforming it into a performing space with enough flexibility to welcome the University orchestra, rock concerts, weddings and weekend church services.  One of their most interesting tasks required inserting a substantial lobby space into what was originally designed in 1891 as one large preaching barn.  Restored auditorium of the Baptist TempleA big, square open space – no interior columns to intrude on the sightlines of the 4,000 congregants to the pulpit, 200 voice choir loft and “River of Jordan” baptismal font  – had to be divided to provide a traditional, separated lobby with the usual audience amenities and new vertical circulation.

Thankfully, instead of trying to create a historicized, pseudo-19th century lobby, the architects chose a very sleek, modern vocabulary that draws patrons through a glowing glass and steel environment into the stunning, and slightly surprising, restored auditorium.  Meanwhile, the designers also had to engineer a structural upgrade that complemented the four underperforming columns at building corners, which stretch from foundation to roof, that Keast & Hood tour guides described as ” like a waiter supporting a tray on the tips of four outstretched fingers.”

Baptist Temple and Temple University founder Russell Conwell headed up Victorian Philadelphia’s premiere megachurch here, where he built a theatre that was designed to focus his star struck flock’s attention, center stage, on his notoriously uplifting and inspiring sermons.  So the University’s preservation project at Conwell’s Temple can’t be called an adaptive use; it’s still a theatre.  But the careful rehabilitation includes textbook restoration of lots of historic elements, like conservation of scores of art glass windows.  The spectacular central fan window above the entrance now casts a gloriously colorful glow in the auditorium through an enormous – and soundproof – glass wall in the new lobby.

Tourgoers look in vain for the turntable on the stage of the Chapel of the Four Chaplains

One historic element didn’t make the restoration planning cut, however.  In the Chapel of the Four Chaplains, a splendid undercroft designed in an elegant Romanesque style in 1951, the great central arch frames the platform from whence interdenominational religious services were to be conducted.  But the turntable within the arch that allowed the Catholic, Jewish and Protestant altars or regalia to be rotated into view when needed was never fully used, and has now been dispensed with.

Observers like marketing guru Patricia Mann are extolling Philadelphia’s current brand as an incubator of innovation and the logical extension of our long history as a “cradle of invention.”  (See Ben Franklin.) The inventively and beautifully reborn Temple on North Broad is a first rate performance hall, a terrific model of preservation with out-of-the-box thinking, and a worthy recipient of the Preservation Alliance’s Achievement Award.

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Managing change

In Cities,Historic Preservation,Neighborhoods,Sustainability on March 24, 2011 by urbanpros Tagged: , , , ,

Slick Art Moderne retail topped by a parking garage. Girard Square, 12th & Chestnut, Center City Philadelphia

Jeez.   Change is hard.  Here I’ve been a change agent for all these years – though I didn’t really know to call myself one until fairly recently.   And now my own life is changing as my story is taking off in new directions.  I’ve spent a lot of time over those years thinking about/helping others to make decisions on/persuading those who resisted making choices about how and whether to preserve the existing built places that make cities, towns and landscapes unique.  For a long time most have called that “historic preservation.”   But those two words have come to be misunderstood, as recently described by Johanna Hoffman in Next American City, if not actively resisted or even despised.  Maybe we ought to try “change management.”

So even as my personal story sees the turn of a few more pages, and I inform, persuade, cajole (and put the bite on) folks in different ways, I can’t help but see the change agent role remaining as a constant in the chapters of my story ahead.

It’s tricky trying to help shape decisions about the art and commerce of making or destroying or changing buildings, spaces and landscapes that people use and live in.  Buildings and spaces require use – an engagement with people in direct ways not usually experienced by the consumers of visual, theatrical, musical, fine or popular arts.  It’s a level of interactivity that places an extra layer of meaning onto architecture and design.  Decision-making and opinion-shaping are more difficult when you’re talking about places.  Managing change with a preservation ethic means having to make hard choices and having to explain and justify them to skeptics who always wonder who made you the taste police.  And the speeding up of development, and development decision-making, in a creative city on the rise like Philadelphia makes being a change manager still harder. #PhillyRising.  We have to not only discern what places are important to people now but anticipate what people might find important in the – maybe not even too – distant future.  Example?  We dodged the bullet aimed at our generation by a previous one that really wanted the “ugly” Philadelphia City Hall erased from Penn Square.  I sure don’t want to be aiming similar guns at the Millenials.

Stephen Girard Building, 1896, , 12th near Market Street

Here’s a more current example.  I saw a presentation recently on the latest proposal for the eminently re-developable Stephen Girard block in Center City Philadelphia.  Previous, pretty grandiose dreams for blading the entire block between 11th and 12th Streets and building a gazillion square feet of mixed uses on Market and Chestnut are thankfully history.  Now, the low-slung, full block Market Street building (a building beloved by few) may be replaced by an exciting mixed-use glass structure, better-scaled and with some cool potential tenants and slick graphics.  For the rest of the block: no announced plans, yet.

And there’s the provocative change management problem.  On 12th Street, in mid-block, is the Stephen Girard Building, an imposing and nicely detailed Renaissance Revival skyscraper.  A little tatty right now, but it has good bones and is marked with an important name in Philadelphia history, after all.  Most preservationists will probably argue passionately for its preservation and repurposing.  I will.

Then there’s the interesting, maybe not as pretty, Art Moderne building filling the block fronting Chestnut Street.  That one takes some more careful perusal and thought.  Built in the 1930s, it replaced much altered rowhouses that had long been used for retail.  Several levels of parking sit atop the storefronts, which are nicely articulated in great Modern Movement materials and finishes.  Certainly, it’s a unique building telling an important story of Machine Age change and urban growth.  I’ll bet there will be fewer passionate advocates for this one, but I’m voting for trying to find a way to better monetize and preserve it.  It’s an important part of the connective tissue in the retail heart of Center City and a subtly urbane streetscape building.

The decision-makers and taste-arbiters are going to have a big change management challenge soon on the Girard Block.  It’ll be interesting.

Johanna at Next American City says preservation is misunderstood.  You think?  After all these years, my family back in Denver still isn’t sure what I do for my day job.  But now that I’m managing change for other organizations and in my own story, they kind of get it.  Kind of.

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Philadelphia designer couple are excited about water, space and architecture

In Cities,Neighborhoods,Sustainability on February 3, 2011 by urbanpros Tagged: , , , , ,

It snowed in Philadelphia – again –  yesterday.  But already the piles of white that had turned grey, slushy and icy are melting and the water is flowing into the storm sewers and thence to the rivers.

A proposed rowhouse block urban watershed project by North Street Design

The little rivulets of trickling water among the crunchy piles of snow lingering on the pavement remind me that beneath the city are ancient brick culverts not unlike the Paris sewers in miniature.  In them: a spiderweb of historic streams and creeks that once knitted together the tiny communities and isolated residents of the lower Delaware and Schuylkill watersheds.  In the 18th and early 19th century farmers, millers and factories relied on them.   Wildlife and farm animals drank from them.  They were pathways and destinations.  And then, as the city spread across them, they were channelized, enclosed and undergrounded.

Reopening the historic creeks through the densely built city isn’t likely to happen.  The city’s Water Department says that’s “crazy.”  Nevertheless, Philadelphia architects Gavin and Juliet Riggall have a vision and a business built on capturing the rain and snow from the sky.  These two friends of ours are working on plans for new watersheds in Philadelphia neighborhoods, creating both beauty and utility, which the Riggalls regard as two parts of the design whole.

Married and working together in their emerging young firm, Juliet and Gavin are committed to making a difference.  North Street Design, which they started in 2008, is literally breaking new ground with a diverse portfolio and an even broader vision of how design can make positive change in Philadelphia and across the region.

We knew about their cool design aesthetic and commitment to making their residential clients feel comfortable living through the chaos and disruption of a home renovation project.  My husband and I are one of those clients.  But what I didn’t know until recently is the story of their partnership with another design firm in an award-winning project, “Waterwork.”  It’s about empowering people in city neighborhoods to take control of the spaces they inhabit and helping to answer the question “”how do we turn vacant land into an asset in Philadelphia,” creating long-term solutions for the 40,000+ vacant properties in the city.

There are more than 40,000 vacant lots in Philadelphia. Urban Voids seeks to find ways to capture opportunity from them and making neighborhoods more livable and residents empowered.

The venture, in its fifth year, proposes to reclaim vacant sites and make them green filters by capturing rain water and redirecting its flow.  The City Parks Association and the Van Alen Institute, sponsors of the Urban Voids design competition, praised the Waterwork proposal as they awarded it their Grand Prize:  “This design strategy offers ecologically sound recreational and infiltration solutions for the use of naturally cleaned storm-water run-off.”  The social and economic, not to mention ecological, benefits of the plan have captured the interest and involvement of Drexel’s Civil Engineering department, the City of Philadelphia Water Department and the Point Breeze neighborhood.  There, the Riggalls and their partners are deeply involved in engaging the community in work on a green infrastructure master plan.  What’s needed now is further funding to realize the plan.

Meanwhile, Gavin and Juliet are building a practice that responds to design challenges in a very personal way.  “Good and beautiful environments make people happy,” says Juliet.

The couple met on their first day as graduate architecture students at the University of Pennsylvania’s  Graduate School of Fine Arts.  Gavin’s background and undergraduate education was in art, while Juliet arrived with a civil engineering degree – having switched from aerospace engineering when she saw that her desire to work on (literally) stellar  structures like the International Space Station was less likely to be realized “than working on helicopters and cargo planes.”  Both saw the creative and society-enhancing opportunities that architecture can, in its best incarnations, offer as a profession and a calling.  While each spent time working for other firms, they say that their goals and aspirations are best fulfilled working in their own business.

The historic, Pennsylvania Railroad-built Cynwyd Station. Photo: the Lower Merion Historical Society

They are wisely diversifying their products and their skills to respond to a fluid and uncertain marketplace.  They are not only designing but are involved in the fabrication and installation of rainwater harvesting devices and systems that offer the aesthetic and practical functions that they always demand from anything they’re involved with.  Their current design projects include an exciting rain water harvesting installation on the historic Cynwyd train station as part of an extensive rehabilitation of that landmark by the Lower Merion Historical Society. The challenge there, remarks Gavin, is to appropriately integrate a 21st century technology and application with the historic architecture.  Similar challenges will face them as they begin work soon on a rain water harvesting project at historic Woodford Mansion, in Fairmount Park, in collaboration with the Philadelphia Orchard Project and the East Park Revitalization Alliance.

They are busy, and excited about their prospects.  Gavin describes the many nights at Penn Design when he slept under his desk: “Creation makes me happy – it’s a source of contentment.”  I’ll bet he still sleeps at his desk occasionally, while the 3-D computer models he’s working on take their languorous time to render.  Here’s hoping that the groundbreaking and poetic design ideas that the Riggalls are bringing to the social and economic environment in Philadelphia are as inexorable as the flow of water, falling from the sky, that flows into the streams and culverts and then gathers force and spills into the rivers that help define us as a city.

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Does Denver win the teardown prize?

In Cities,Historic Preservation,Neighborhoods,Sustainability on December 31, 2010 by urbanpros Tagged: , , , ,

What IS this?

We were in Denver – my hometown – last week and saw, with horror, the results of the continuing teardown phenomenon that may have slowed somewhat nationally but is apparently still rampant in the Mile High City.  In every neighborhood, there they were:  overscaled, mostly terribly detailed Tuscan villas, French chateaux, phony Colonials.  Spec houses for the most part, we surmised.

Obviously, Denver hasn’t gotten a grip on the practice yet.  An ordinance passed a couple of years ago that gives neighbors a chance to respond to proposed teardowns, along with a period for potential designation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, is coming under increasing fire from the crowd that cries “real estate terrorism”.  In their sights this week:  a terrific mid-century modern house in Belcaro Park, an upscale development of the 1950s and ’60s on Denver’s near east side.  (Full disclosure:  I grew up there.)  Once a cohesive district of large ranches, Usonians and traditionals, most of them architect-designed, Belcaro is losing its sense of place at a dismaying rate.  The area has avoided the scourge of overscaled replacements that plague other historic Denver neighborhoods only because the lots are positively vast to begin with. The permanent deed restrictions and strong neighborhood association that were counted on for decades to protect the character of the place have now apparently failed to stem the tide of scrape-offs.

Wallbank House, 1958. Denver's Belcaro Park

The 1958 Wallbank House, designed by architects Tician Papachristou, a colleague and biographer of Marcel Breuer, and my old friend, prominent Denver designer Dan Havekost, is set to be replaced by a house just 400 square feet larger.  So the landfill-enlarging teardown isn’t even justified by overheated expectations for ostentatious amounts of space.  Just a lack of imagination and appreciation for a stunning mid-century design that could easily be adapted and expanded.

Like so  many post World War II developments across the country, Belcaro hasn’t been formally surveyed to create an inventory of significant properties to justify the historic district it could have been.  (Ironically, it was in suburban Denver where the first National Register district of mid-century modern houses in Arapaho Acres was listed a few years ago.)   It’s time to do so.  The shift of ownership in the neighborhood suggests an opportunity:  a younger cadre of buyers are part of a generational trend toward appreciation for the architecture of the 1950s and ’60s.   Places like Belcaro Park should learn, quickly, to capitalize on their architectural assets, educate residents and would-be buyers about the unique character and opportunities of the existing built environment and help realtors and investors to make informed, creative and environmentally sustainable decisions.

I hope it’s not too late for Belcaro.  Other historic Denver neighborhoods – Hilltop, Bonnie Brae – may have lost too much.  Sad.  And here I thought northern New Jersey was the teardown capital.

Wallberg House. (photos thanks to The Denver Eye)

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National Trust award winner Tony Goldman’s golden touch in Philadelphia

In Cities,Heritage,Historic Preservation,Neighborhoods on November 17, 2010 by urbanpros

Tony Goldman, the developer with the magic touch who transformed SoHo in New York and South Beach in Miami Beach, among many other re-imagined and revived commercial districts on the Atlantic Coast, recently won the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Louise DuPont Crowninshield Award for his “superlative achievement in the preservation and interpretation of our historic and architectural heritage.”   Goldman has seen opportunity in older urban enclaves over and over again, and we in Center City Philadelphia are lucky to be receiving the fruits of his vision and investment.

Goldman Properties have rehabbed some 25, mostly historic, buildings in the Midtown Village area just east of Broad Street.  (I wish we could agree on a snappier name for what many in the community – although maybe not savvy brokers and marketers – still fondly know as The Gayborhood.)  From the signature, Horace Trumbauer-designed Philadelphia Building on Walnut Street and fanning out north and south, Goldman’s retail, office and residential projects have revolutionized the area.  Once stagnant and maybe even a little seedy, it’s now an animated district of interesting restaurants and amazing entrepreneurial businesses, attracting hipsters and tourists (even tourists from Jersey).

The Lincoln, Camac & Locust

This week, we midtown denizens are eagerly awaiting the annual launch of the Beaujolais Nouveau vintage, when  quite a few of those entrepreneurs will offer tastings, pairings and wine specials at eight restaurants and shopping deals, demonstrations and samplings at six retailers.  Vive la Beaujolais Day!

And vive la difference the Goldman touch has made on the larger neighborhood.  We’ve waited a long time, but work has started on the shuttered Grand United Order of Odd Fellows Lodge at 12th and Spruce.  It looks like the elegant but dingy terra cotta-swathed building will offer full floor flats, with huge windows looking out on 12th Street’s big honey locust trees.   Word is that just around the corner, on our neighborhood’s arguably most picturesque street, Camac, the burned-out Lincoln Apartments is poised to be reborn as a boutique hotel.  And across the road, Stephen Starr will soon open still another in his seemingly endless herd of dining establishments in the former Deux Chiminees, nee Princeton Club..

Odd Fellows Building, 12th & Spruce

Back at the Philadelphia Building, tenant Next American City, the edgy and thought-provoking nonprofit magazine and advocacy group that promotes and celebrates innovation and urban life in cities like Philadelphia, is joined by many youthful,  creative economy firms, including my husband’s web development company.

It’s pretty exciting, especially since we’re all looking for signs of a rebounding economy.

Is Tony ahead of the curve?  He certainly has been all along.  Kudos to Tony Goldman for the incredibly transformative visions he invests in.  And kudos to the National Trust for acknowledging his work.  Oh, and I can’t wait to smash a couple plates at Opa when it opens on Sansom Street sometime soon.

A construction dumpster can often be a good sign in front of a long-unloved historic building

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Neighborhood preservation, commercial corridors and a conference audience that looks like Philadelphia

In Cities,Neighborhoods,Sustainability on October 9, 2010 by urbanpros Tagged: ,

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia hosted the second annual Neighborhood Preservation Conference at Temple University yesterday.  PAGP  unveiled their Neighborhood Initiative programs and grant opportunities, and presented some terrific seminars focusing on how residents and organizations can help preserve and enhance “middle market” neighborhoods in Philadelphia.  I was thrilled and inspired to see a roomful of conference participants – at a preservation gathering! – that looks like Philadelphia.  In my 30+-year career in historic preservation, I’ve long joined my colleagues in being utterly frustrated and dumbfounded at the narrow demographic of the people we collaborate with, learn from and network with.  We’ve railed against the lack of diversity in the  preservation “community,” but that real diversity of talent and interest has been a long time coming.  Now the Alliance, with partners and supporters led by the William Penn Foundation, have been doing exactly what we should all have been doing all along:  helping folks manage change in and improve the neighborhoods where they live and are invested.

It was an inspiring and informative day.  The workshop on commercial corridor revitalization was moderated by Jim Flaherty, the City of Philadelphia’s senior manager for economic initiatives, whose portfolio includes the city’s Main Street program.  Among his fellow conversation leaders were developer  David Waxman from MM Partners, who’s making incredible investments in Brewerytown along Girard Avenue; Paul Aylesworth, who until recently led the commercial revitalization project for the Korean CDC on North 5th Street; and Patricia Blakeley, Executive Director of the amazing, 150-year-old Philadelphia institution that invests in small businesses in the city, The Merchants Fund.  Each talked  talked about their experiences and collaboration with each other and many more civic leaders, like the Community Design Collaborative,  and residents, in bringing real change to great, emerging neighborhoods in Philly.

The “audience” wasn’t an audience at all.  The participants in the conference are all active change-managers in their neighborhoods all over Philadelphia.  Which is, I recently heard, growing in population again after decades of sliding the other way, with 7,000 new residents last year. Great news.

For-profit developers, nonprofit community development corporations, residents and civic associations, passionate neighborhood leaders, fresh food advocates (I can’t wait to visit Romano’s Grocery in Juniata Park) and historic preservationists were all together, sharing information and working toward common goals.  It’s a a long time coming.  And fantastic.

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Adele Chatfield-Taylor to receive 12th Vincent Scully Prize

In Cities,Historic Preservation on September 30, 2010 by urbanpros Tagged: , , ,

I’m pleased to see that our preservation colleague Adele Chatfield-Taylor, longtime President of the American Academy in Rome, is to receive the 12th annual Vincent Scully Prize at the National Building Museum in November.  Adele joins a distinguished company of leaders who have, through ideas and scholarship, influenced the world of design and architecture.   Among the previous Prize winners are Vincent Scully himself, Prince Charles the Prince of Wales, recently retired National Trust for Historic Preservation president Richard Moe,  the Agha Khan, Jane Jacobs and Robert A.M. Stern.

In the words of the National Building Museum’s announcement of her award, “Ms. Chatfield-Taylor has consistently promoted excellence in the design world, while ensuring that the planning, architecture, and historic preservation disciplines remain connected to the public.”  I can think of few of my colleagues, mentors or teachers (all of which Adele has been over the years) who better represent or promote that nexus of people and place.  A fellow Columbia Preservation Alum (as well as one of my teachers there) and Rome Prize winner, Adele’s contributions to the field are legion: from the New York City Landmarks Commission to the Design Arts Program at the National Endowment, where she helped to create the Mayors’ Institute on City Design.

It’s gratifying to see that the Vincent Scully Prize Jury recognizes the importance of preservation as an integral part of making and conserving great places and Adele’s important and sustained voice and leadership in that endeavor.  Congratulations Adele.

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Urban Prospects

In Cities,Historic Preservation,Neighborhoods on August 29, 2010 by urbanpros Tagged: , , ,

Urban – characteristic of city life, of or related to the city

Prospects – belief about the future, search for something desirable, a prediction of a future course