Posts Tagged ‘historic preservation’

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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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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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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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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.