Archive for the ‘Heritage’ 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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Spring, litter critters and wisteria

In Heritage,Neighborhoods,Uncategorized on April 27, 2011 by urbanpros Tagged: ,

This really warm weather brings out the walkers, including me, and a day of exploring Washington Square West confirms that Philadelphia is looking pretty great in all this sunshine.  More historic streetlights are going up on South 12th Street; that block by the slowly rebirthing Odd Fellows Building really needs the light, notwithstanding the horrendous flashing LED’s washing the facade of the new nightclub next door. (And does anyone know what “The Leoncalvo” was, by the way?)

Tulips, azaleas and wisteria splash across the front of the beautiful and historic Pennsylvania Hospital with vibrant color, reminding me of my first days as a new Philly resident and coming upon that glorious monument to Dr. Thomas Bond’s and Benjamin Franklin’s vision that became America’s first hospital.  I knew I was someplace extraordinary.

And then there are the Litter Critters: fanciful re-imaginings of the very functional and very boring Big Belly recycling and trash cans along the sidewalks of Headhouse Square and South Street.  The exuberantly designed vinyl wraps encircling the trash receptacles would put a smile on any face with their individual personalities and colorful palettes. 

Thanks to the city’s extraordinary Mural Arts program (Mayor Nutter just bragged that Philly is the mural capital of the universe!) for their Big Picture art education program.  I finally connected the mental dots about the so-cool, festively decorated trash trucks that started appearing last year.

Similar kudos to the Lombard Street homeowner who, fed up with the poorly located and ugly traffic signal powerboxes on our sidewalks that also serve as major tagger-magnets, hired an artist to make “her” powerbox a perpetual reminder of spring.

It’s quite a spring in Philadelphia:  PIFA is just wrapping up, and what a magnifique three weeks of massive arts festival the @Kimmel Center has brought us.   We had no trapeze lessons, but enjoyed many of the terrific offerings.  Can’t wait for next year.

Now for Penn Relays.  And the first blooms in our own garden.

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Is it pork or is it our culture?

In Heritage,Historic Preservation on April 1, 2011 by urbanpros Tagged: , , , , ,

Philadelphia's Mother Bethel AME, a proud recipient of Save America's Treasures preservation grant funding. Maybe among the last. Photo courtesy Mother Bethel AME Church

The final verdict is in.  President Obama and the “tough-on-spending” crowd in Washington got their way when the latest stopgap federal funding bill that Obama signed recently abolished the Save America’s Treasures grant program.  It’s true, certain members of Congress had hijacked some of those grant funds by way of their own pet project earmarks over the past few years.  Nevertheless, thousands of fragile pieces of our national culture were saved, preserved, restored and celebrated thanks to the SAT grant program that began as a vision of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton in the mid-1990s.

In Philadelphia, we’ve been fortunate that a lot of pretty important and valued landmarks have been the recipients of SAT funding.  Mother Bethel AME Church, the founding location of Rev. Richard Allen’s African Methodist Episcopal church, built in 1890, got badly needed structural repairs.  Christ Church in Old City, the Eastern State Penitentiary and more than 30 other critical heritage projects got funding that, because they required matching money, leveraged much more private philanthropic giving to see the projects completed.

Now, no more.  The nation’s only source of bricks and mortar preservation help is ended.  In the thirty years that I’ve been making my own small efforts to help preserve our cultural patrimony, I’ve heard so often “why can’t America be like Europe, where they appreciate their historic buildings and places and really preserve them?”  I never paid much attention to that comparison question (apples to oranges in so many ways).  But now, quoting Winston Churchill, who was responding to a wartime minister who proposed slashing cultural spending in Britain, I ask “then what are we fighting for?”

Let’s do some comparisons.  The Tory/LibDem coalition government in that selfsame Britain, which has just slashed its spending by an even greater proportion than Congress’ deficit hawks are calling for, has announced that the Heritage Lottery Fund will give out £300 million (pounds) – that’s more than $500 million – a year starting in 2013 for heritage preservation and conservation projects in the UK.  That’s ten times the largest ever annual US appropriation to Save America’s Treasures.  Makes you wonder why so many American leaders, who holler about American values and our cultural exceptionalism, are utterly unwilling to help pay for sustaining it.

Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia. Photo Credit: by Tom Crane, courtesy of Wagner Free Institute of Science

So what if a New Jersey Senator successfully earmarked some dough to restore and re-open Thomas Edison’s Invention Factory?  Just like at the Wagner Free Institute of Science in Philadelphia – with perhaps a slightly more recognizable brand – the Edison Factory used that SAT money to preserve and present to our kids and future generations an inspiration for getting interested in science and innovation.

While Congress and the President have ignored the cries from thousands of Americans who have argued for the job-creating, culture-preserving value of Save America’s Treasures (the abolition of which will save the beleaguered Treasury the equivalent of a tiny rounding error in the federal budget) the English Heritage Lottery Fund has embarked on a nationwide consultation to get UK residents’ opinions and ideas on how the £300 million should be spent each year.  What a daft idea.  Listening to the tax payers.

Is NPR really next?

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New Jersey loses out on heritage tourism dollars; there goes fiscal prudence

In Heritage,Historic Preservation on December 15, 2010 by urbanpros Tagged: , ,

Channel 6 video

The Petty's Run archaeological site, where iron and steel forges and a cotton mill dating from 1730 helped build an American industrial economy. Soon to be a field of grass again.

So much for slashing unnecessary spending in the New Jersey budget.  The Capitol Joint Management Commission (JMC) recently approved expending an as yet undetermined amount of money (“more than $400,000,” according to the beleaguered designers and historic preservation consultants hauled before them) to fill in the Petty’s Run archaeological site on the New Jersey Statehouse grounds in Trenton.  As historians and archaeologists from all over the U.S. and Great Britain are howling about the wasted opportunities for scholarship and study, Trenton business and tourism leaders are mourning the effects of another blow to the capital city’s constantly thwarted efforts to build a tourism economy.

In spite of the hundreds of thousands of dollars – constitutionally dedicated and previously appropriated – already spent on exploration, study and design for an interpretive park construction project that is also already funded, New Jersey’s spending more indeterminate dollars to  cancel the park, fill in the hole and plant grass.

Meanwhile, downriver in Philadelphia, saner and cleverer lovers of history and economic development are opening the exciting President’s House on Independence Mall, steps from the Liberty Bell.  It’s another (ahem) internationally significant archaeological site that is being beautifully interpreted and presented to a public and visitors who have already proven that it’s a big attraction.  Hundreds watched from viewing platforms every day as the dig unfolded.  Kudos to the City of Philadelphia and the National Park Service for their recognition that history and tourism mean economic activity.

No explanation, now, from the Governor’s or Lieutenant Governor’s offices in Trenton for  the undue haste in filling in the Petty’s Run site.  Preservationists and archaeologists wait anxiously for revelation of the plan for appropriate recordation, artifact retrieval, masonry conservation and careful protection of the site as it is filled.  (The JMC approved this “project” not only without a budget but without a plan.)

Some people just have no imagination.  I’m glad Philadelphia does.

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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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Casinos, heritage, authenticity. What’s gone wrong?

In Heritage on September 6, 2010 by urbanpros Tagged:


New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says he wants to make Atlantic City “Las Vegas East.”  And Christie’s counterpart (both would hate that description) Gov. Ed Rendell and his Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board seemingly have never met a casino proposal they don’t love.  The character-less Sugar House Casino on Philadelphia’s waterfront is set to open in a couple of weeks, right on top of the site of a British Revolutionary War fort.  Oh, and another soulless slots parlor – “now with table games!” – in the Philadelphia suburbs is dealing with a rash of incidents where parents, and grandparents, are leaving their young children alone in cars in the parking lot while they gamble.

Surely there are many things wrong with this picture.  And perhaps the most audacious idea yet, a slots “resort” in an abandoned motel less than half a mile from the Gettysburg Battlefield, may actually have legs.  Two days of public hearings earlier this week thankfully brought out hundreds of thoughtful folks who passionately objected to the very idea of a gambling parlor near, actually really on, hallowed ground.  And the No Casino Gettysburg group presented an inspiring video, featuring David McCulloch, Ken Burns, Susan Eisenhower and a host of Gettysburg residents articulating their heartfelt opposition to the casino developer’s contention that slots and roulette wheels will “attract tourists to the Battlefield Park.”

What?  The authentic experience of walking the paths that American soldiers trod on their way to one of the most important confrontations in American history isn’t enough?   You’d rather leave the kids in the car while pretty colored lights flash in your eyes than share with them the story of America’s survival in the face of deep division and unspeakable  suffering?  Heroic acts, or a free buffet?

Many observers, Richard Florida among them, bemoan an America “awash in generica.”  That certainly describes Atlantic City, the prospective Las Vegas East.  I wonder if Christie’s goal includes creation of a higher level of inauthenticity than one can imagine: a replica Las Vegas version of a fake New York or a phony Paris.  Sadly, there’s so little left of the authentic, historic Atlantic City, and so few who even care, that it probably no longer matters.  There.  But Gettysburg is a real place, that tells real stories.  And  I believe that people – yes, even Americans – can still tell the difference and do care.

More and more towns are signing up for the Main Street revitalization programs, and are buying into a heritage tourism promotion mentality. My friend and colleague Donna Harris invests her time in helping many of those communities to capitalize, literally, on their unique and authentic downtown places.  Local volunteers support historical societies, serve on preservation boards, learn how to capture funding for neighborhood revitalization.  Care.

I’m looking for authenticity.  Let’s hope Pennsylvania – and dare we hope, New Jersey? – opts for some, too.