January 19th, 2016 | No Comments »

He appeared at the church wearing a lily in his velvet lapel.  He would have preferred a sunflower, both blooms having remained his signature brand throughout his American lecture tour, but, the latter not being in season, he had chosen the fragrant white blossom, obvious and redundant though it would be in a church.

Oscar had arrived in Philadelphia the evening before, making his second entrance into the city with a more confident, brisker step, compared to the languid shamble of January.  He had, then as now, alighted from the Pennsylvania at the still-new Broad Street Station.  His four ensuing months in America, thousands of miles of travel, discourse and confrontation with Boston intellectuals, Newport society matrons, Colorado silver miners, Texas Rangers, and San Francisco Aesthetes, had sharpened his wit, enriched his lectures, and helped him to succeed at his primary goal:  to get the Americans to pay attention to him.

And now, with his publisher minding him from a few paces back, he turned the corner on 20th Street and gazed at the brownstone church building, barely 20 years old but already ponderously settled on its site, blackened stone architraves and Romanesque arches looming over the pavement and seeming to further darken the already gloomy, post-thunderstorm May sky.

“My dear cousin Basil,” Oscar remarked to Stoddardt.  “One wonders how he came to be here, so far from Cowley, from Ireland, from the civilization he knew.”

Joseph smiled and repeated the earlier offer, “Father Maturin has invited you to stay with him at the Rectory, Oscar.  I know you are not entirely satisfied with the situation at the Hotel Aldine this time around.”

“Hmm, I rather doubt it,” replied the author.  “It will be an Anglican dormitory, sober and sparse.”

The publisher smiled again, wryly.

They reached the entry porch and stepped inside.  At first, it seemed there was no one in the church.  Rows of empty, dark wood pews stretched off into the distance, glowing sanctuary lamps dimly revealing the altar at the far eastern end.  Diamond shaped panes of unfigured amber and green glass in the tall narrow window openings added to the atmosphere of simplicity; architecturally it was a plain, evangelical, preaching barn kind of place, well-proportioned but with little apparent art or craft in the details, the things that Oscar’s self-described, finely honed aesthetic sensibilities would expect.

Off came the writer’s soft, fawn gloves, the purple scarf, the fur collared, bottle green overcoat so very rich and deeply piled it seemed like a plush carpet that children might want to roll luxuriantly around on, and finally the broad brimmed Stetson he had acquired in Leadville and had taken great delight in wearing to his meeting, his second, earlier that day with his hero Walt Whitman.

Tall and broad shouldered, Wilde’s oval face was framed by long, dark hair parted in the center and falling in waves nearly to his shoulders, his lips full and perpetually animated as words flowed from them in peals of witticism and thoughtful observation.  Everything about him was long, extended:  his slender, long legs wearing mouse-colored trousers, his long and expressive fingers that furled and unfurled with each gesture, his aquiline nose, his long, cool gaze that, when rested on a subject, was observant and absorbing.   His rich, dark plum velvet jacket and waistcoat piped in shiny silk, the puffy cravat, the large gold signet ring on his right hand, were each and all together carefully selected and purposefully worn for aesthetic effect.

The ivory walking stick, also an affectation but an elegant one, with a gold washed head worked into the shape of a ram’s head, laid carelessly in the nearest pew, the visiting celebrity looked about, seemingly casually but with a keen eye for details missed at first glance.  Conveniently, the cloudy skies outside lightened slightly, briefly casting a pale sort of sunshine into the church and revealing a little more of the place.  There, on the altar, were silver candlesticks, surely not normally seen in a simple, evangelical chapel in 1882.  Above the altar, even more surprisingly, the walls of the chancel were stenciled with an exuberant and stylized floral pattern in mint green and pink.  Some of the decorative details seemed not quite finished, the painted pattern shading off into seemingly unpainted plaster walls.

Oscar’s attention had just been focused on a very tall ladder leaning against the side wall of the nave and extending up into the gloom near the very high ceiling, where he had caught a glimpse of a figure teetering high atop it, when a familiar voice from behind quietly spoke.  “My dear Oscar, so good of you to come.  Welcome to Saint Clement’s.”

There stood Father Basil William Maturin, Oscar’s second cousin, the Rector of the notorious American Episcopal Church in which they were meeting now, for the first time in some years.

“I could not have visited Philadelphia again without finally seeing you, cousin,” the writer replied as he shook the priest’s hand warmly, his drooping, deep blue eyes nevertheless sparkling with genuine pleasure.  “You must tell me all about your adventures in America.  I am eager to hear your views on these strange and wonderful Americans now that you’ve been settled here for some time.  Do you yearn for Ireland?”

“Oh, there is much to say.  Our experience here has not been without strangeness, but it has also been rewarding.  And rather blessed, really.”

Oscar glanced back at the ladder, sensing that the figure balanced near the top was unmoving, as if listening to their conversation.  The brief, wan sunlight had already faded, deepening the shadows in the corners of the church, causing the twinkle of the sanctuary candles at the front and their reflection on the silver candlesticks to intensify his attention.

His cousin, dressed in a simple, untidy black cassock, cinched with a braided rope, that was rather too short for his already short stature, and four-cornered black birretta pushed back on his head and partly covering his short-cropped, already greying hair, led the two visitors across the central aisle towards another doorway, opposite the entrance.

The priest could certainly be recognized as related to his younger visitor.  He had the same long, oval face, the same nose, high forehead, and long delicate ears pinned close to the head.  His eyes, hooded and overhung by prominent brows, revealed a maturity, sympathy, and inner reflectiveness that was still often punctuated by flashes of humor and mischief.    His mouth, from which sprang, it was said by the thousands in Philadelphia who had heard him preach, cascades of words that fairly vibrated with his desire to share ideas that had touched his heart, was often smiling.  His mind, like his cousin’s, was quick and overflowing, his face with its cleft chin and strong features more handsome.   Unlike his cousin’s attire, his clergyman’s garments were less than fastidious, the cassock rumpled, the dog collar unbleached, the biretta and its tassel frayed.

“Let’s have some tea,” Maturin offered.  “I understand you are not lecturing again this evening?“

“Let’s do, Willie. Oh, er should I say, Father?”

The priest laughed boyishly.  “No need for such formalities here, Oscar.  I may be Father to my colleagues, brethren, and parishioners, but we could as easily be in Dublin again, together, where I’d be just Willie.”

For a third time Oscar glanced up, trying for another glimpse of the figure on the ladder, steering Willie’s attention in the same direction.  “Brother Maynard, a member of our community here, has many gifts, among them being a decorator and artisan of some talent,” remarked the priest.  “When we came here from England six years ago, this building was quite unadorned.  I am certain you know that the brethren from Cowley lead a humble existence, serving God and preaching the Gospel, but our form of worship celebrates beauty in everything around us and especially at the altar.  Brother Maynard is devoted to illuminating this edifice with color and ornament, as we are all devoted to illuminating our flock with Christ’s truth.”

As the three men lingered among the pews while Oscar and Father Maturin conversed about the writer’s lecture on interior decoration the night before, the publisher reflected on the animated discussion and the cousins who seemed so alike, and yet worlds apart.  Joseph Stoddardt had never been to Saint Clement’s before, but was well aware of its reputation and the recent spiritual influences that the Cowley Fathers had thrust into the mix of Philadelphia’s increasingly diverse population.  The Rector’s powerful sermons had gained widespread notoriety among many of the old Quaker families in the city, and hundreds would pack the church on Sunday evenings to listen to his humorous, sympathetic, and insightful preaching, his sermons sometimes lasting for more than an hour, his texts, presented without notes, both intellectual and moral.   The conservative, evangelical Episcopalians among his growing audiences were especially perplexed by the unfamiliar prospect of four or five celibate Anglican priests, led by Father Rector Maturin orating in his piping, Irish-tinged voice, teaching and preaching sacramental themes of ministry to the poor and needy while conducting worship services infused by ornate ceremonial that testified to Saint Clement’s reputation as the most Anglo-Catholic Anglican church in the land.

The controversies that had consumed the people of Saint Clement’s a decade before, the confrontations with the episcopal authorities over the church’s growing alliance with the Tractarians in England, had not entirely ended.  But when, in 1876, the Fathers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist had been called from Cowley in Oxfordshire to take charge at Saint Clement’s, and especially when Maturin had later been named Rector, the church’s influence in the city had begun to grow.

This humble and learned man, thought Stoddardt, shares Oscar’s love of beauty, of language, and of communication and human intercourse in surprising ways.  They are also, however, so entirely unlike each other: Oscar’s bravado and craving for attention in contrast to his cousin’s unpretentious persuasiveness.  They shared, nevertheless, a strong inclination to hearty and genuine laughter.

“Let me introduce Father Field,” interrupted the clergyman as a youthful man, though in fact a few years Oscar’s senior, in a similarly untidy cassock, rushed into the church as if on some kind of mission that was now to be interrupted by this unexpected presence of the Rector and two strangers, one dignified, the other exotic.

“Father, I am pleased to present Oscar Wilde, my cousin, who is visiting America from England.  And Joseph Stoddart, Oscar’s publisher at Lippincott’s.  Gentlemen, this is Father Charles Field, one of our assisting priests here.”

The author closely examined the young priest as they shook hands and exchanged pleasantries.  Field’s intense gaze, with his dazzling hazel eyes, was as astonishing to Oscar as the fiery aurora borealis had been on the sea during his January Atlantic crossing, and he admired the man’s muscular frame that filled out the rope-belted wool garment rather more like the Texas Rangers he had recently charmed than a parish priest. His high forehead and already thinning, close-cropped blond hair also contributed to an impression of youthful, robust masculinity, a robustness lacking in Willie’s more delicate demeanor.  Earnestly listening to Wilde’s reply to his polite question about the author’s American tour, Field smiled with a bemused look that featured his slightly turned up mouth and full lips.  Oscar was startled by his own strong reaction to this Yorkshireman, whose heavy North of England accent accentuated the impression of a working-man wrapped in an envelope of humble, priestly garb.

“We have been following the descriptions of your lectures in the newspapers,” Father Maturin interjected.  “Your thoughts on art, that it elevates everyone, from the Oxford don to the Cornish – or, where is it?  Colorado? – miner, is entirely in concert with our aims here.  We are determined to make our church a lovely shrine and a place of worship and help to as many as we can reach. “

“I see that Willie – Father,” rejoined Oscar, to the priest’s smile at the repetition of his cousin’s familiarity, his eyes sweeping back around into the renewed gloom of the church.   “You are not only enjoying beautiful things here, but it seems you are creating them as well.” 

“Thank you, cousin.”

“Stoddardt tells me that you have gained a reputation as a brilliant orator and preacher in Philadelphia.  What did the report in the newspaper say?  ‘A mass of seething humanity crowded the corridors and aisles of the church?’  I can’t say that I have attracted anything close to a mass of seething humanity at any of my lectures.  Much though I would like to have.”

“Oh, I can’t say anything about that.  It is Father Field who has brought a missionary energy to us in his short time here.  He works tirelessly among the working men and boys of the district round about, many of them employed at the locomotive factory just up the road, offering them spiritual guidance and devotion to the sacraments. In all, Father Field’s smile has converted more souls than any eloquence of mine.”

As they had been talking, the four men had exited the church, walked a few paces along the pavement and ascended some steps to enter a three-story, red brick rowhouse.  The Saint Clement’s Clergy House, was, as Wilde had predicted, ascetic, if not grim.  Like the priests’ cassocks, it was all a bit tattered and uncared for.

Seated on a frayed armchair, which was the only upholstered item of furniture in the room at the front of the house where they had been ushered, the famous English aesthete turned his attention back to the impressive Father Field while the housekeeper busily served tea.

“In being true to our present duties,” the Yorkshireman was saying, “we mean to maintain this place as a center of Catholic devotion, while also making it a place for those in trouble.  Many of the working-men in the district struggle with intemperance, foul and blasphemous language, and immoral living.  And the young boys, who start work at such an early age, are exposed to the same impure influences.  We are always seeking, by God’s grace, to help them find better ways.”

“I should think an appreciation of beauty in all things would go a long way to help.”

“Aye, Mr. Wilde, indeed it does.  So, too, would healthy outings to the country.”

“I am reminded of my long walks in country lanes with Ruskin at Oxford, where exploration of beauty in nature and beauty in art ruled the day.  I hope you can find ways to walk with these souls, help them realize higher purpose.”

“Father has shared some ideas with me about founding a company of such men and boys,” interjected Maturin, who had bemusedly watched his cousin and his assisting priest as they leaned closer together and talked in evident sympathy about the working men of the parish, their worthy labor, interest in arts both practical and fine, and struggles against unworthy and sinful inclinations.

“I trust your ideas are bold and perilous, Father Field,” said an entirely beguiled Wilde.  “Dangerous ideas are the only worthy ones.”

Field laughed heartily, as did the Rector, who rejoined,  “Our own Brother Maynard may agree with you.  He is the one among us who attended your lecture in January at Horticulture Hall.  He has the highest regard for your love for and knowledge about the decorative arts, which he of course shares, as you now know.  He returned that evening full of notions he avows were kindled as a result of your remarks.  ‘The secret of life is in art,’ indeed.

“We are not likely to confess to such a notion of the secret of life here, Oscar.  But there is exquisite beauty in holiness, nevertheless.  I admire Brother Maynard for his devotion to beauty, as I do yours.”

Wilde reflected on his cousin’s words, lost for a moment in musing about this filial visit and the unforeseen confluence of his own thoughts about a life lived in the highest aesthetic realms with the similar interests of the two priests sitting next to him, who, nevertheless, themselves appeared to live a most ironically ascetic life. He chuckled aloud, startling himself and his companions.

“Cousin, this has been a delightful visit,” he said, cheerily.

The four men had reached the dregs of the teapot, and had not been offered any more.  Stoddart roused himself, having remained entirely silent, but attentive, during the lively conversation amongst the other three, and gently reminded Wilde of his next engagement.  The Rector reiterated his invitation to the author to lodge at the Rectory that night, after Oscar’s evening appointment, to which the latter declined in terms considerably more gentle than he had uttered earlier in the day to his publisher.

“Father Field, I wish you well in your endeavors to bring beauty, learning, and conduct befitting their station to your men.  I am confident that in doing so, you’ll make them laugh, which is, of course, the safest way to tell the truth.”

The priests, smiling, glanced at one another, then shook their visitor’s hand, and Maturin offered a blessing, which his cousin, surprising himself, gratefully accepted.

Emerging from the gloomy Rectory into now brilliant sunshine and a warm spring late afternoon, the quartet strolled back to the church, where Oscar had left his walking stick and overcoat in the pew.  Entering the nave by the same doorway they had left it, they found a small, dark-haired man in a simple black cassock, again cinched with rope, just hopping off of the bottom rung of the tall ladder that Oscar had earlier noted leaning against the wall.  Introduced to Brother Maynard, he attempted general pleasantries with the shy artist, but only succeeded in gaining the latter’s full attention when he thanked him for attending, and enjoying, his January lecture.  Wilde then said his now hasty goodbyes and started to lead Stoddart towards the main doors of the church, when he glanced up again in the now brightly sunlit sanctuary.

At the top of the empty ladder he beheld, stretching for many feet along the upper reaches of the side walls, a row of large, luminous, freshly painted sunflowers, cheerfully nodding towards the empty pews below.   Adjusting his boutonniere, he smiled and strode splendidly away.

 

 

Posted in Fiction
July 29th, 2011 | 1 Comment »

In the news this week:  SEPTA ridership is at a 22-year high.  The price of gasoline and the increasing number of younger people and empty-nesters moving to the center of Philadelphia are probably part of the explanation.  Also, surprisingly but happily, the Gov. Corbett-appointed commission on transportation is recommending increasing state support for SEPTA by boosting taxes on oil companies (about time:  Exxon’s profits are up 40% this year!), raising driver-related fees and dedicating a fraction of sales taxes to mass-transit.

All this is good news for those of us who have given up our cars and live a simpler, greener and cheaper life in Center City.  My husband and I took a deep breath about two years ago and gave up the four-wheeled beast, quickly discovering that we would save more than $6,000 a year in transportation costs, including gas, insurance, parking and registrations.  And that figure was calculated including the cost of transit fares, Philly Car Share rentals when needed and such.

Living car-free in the city is news in lots of other places; a Baltimore news piece is just one of many lately.  Meanwhile, Next American City has done a study on new technologies that can improve transportation experiences, with their first 18 study participants asked to ditch their cars for a week.  Results?  Car deprivation (how addicted ARE we to driving?) made folks think creatively, try new experiences, seek autonomy.  All experiences we had, and ultimately enjoyed, at our house.  Another finding: you may lose a car, but you gain a community.  Our bike-mad friends Juliet & Gavin Riggall from North Street Design have ditched their car entirely, and they certainly know what a rich and interesting biking community they belong to in Philadelphia.

Did we have reservations about jettisoning that carbon-dumping car?  Sure.  But it’s worked out pretty well.  We’re lucky, of course.  We live in the heart of William Penn’s pedestrian-loving grid.  Unlike many of our fellow Philadelphians, we live nowhere near one of the food desert neighborhoods in our city.  And we have a nearby friend who loans us his car when there’s an unplanned, long distance trip called for.

You can do it, too.  Even if, like my husband Marc, you don’t have to bike to work, you’ll appreciate the new bike lanes for slowing down and quieting traffic.  You’ll learn the new skill of SEPTA negotiating.  And be in better shape for all that walking.

 

 

Posted from Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, United States.

Posted in Cities, Sustainability
June 9th, 2011 | No Comments »

I’ve just been to a public forum, presented by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museums Commission (PHMC) and hosted by DVRPC, which sought comments on the draft state Preservation Plan.  Many of the participants were fellow preservation-geeks, but it was great to see Fairmount Park folks, staff from the Philadelphia City Plan Commission, the city Historical Commission, higher ed people and reps from the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (@CreativePHL) as well.

It was a lively and thought-provoking discussion about how to position historic preservation and the agency’s work out in the world for the next five years.  And the findings of a non-scientific, self-selecting online survey that the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) of PHMC undertook formed the basis of the discussion.  Most of the survey results weren’t too surprising:  people who responded are mostly over age 45, and don’t list “historic buildings” as the places that best reflect what they value about their communities.  But if you think about it, the character-defining features of the communities themselves – the neighborhoods, the landscapes, the trails and waterways – that were the top rated selections in the survey actually embody the heritage that we preservationists seek to, well, conserve.

One of the forum-goers even articulated what I’ve been thinking for some time: maybe we should consider a language change, to what our British and Canadian colleagues call “heritage conservation.”  They avoid “historic.” What’s historic, anyway?  The definition gets fuzzier all the time.  And “preservation,” which sounds like we promote encasing cherished architectural artifacts in amber.

It was also good to hear from the City Plan Commission staffers, and to get some context for their decision to create a stand-alone historic preservation category in the newly adopted Philadelphia 2035 Comprehensive Plan. As I have read the plan during the past few months, I’ve had the slightly annoying feeling that perhaps creating a unique preservation section in the Plan suggests that it’s an afterthought.

It’s great to be singled out in positive ways: historic preservation is important and gets its own chapter.  We’ve all arrived!  But shouldn’t conserving the heritage we’ve got be woven in as an integral part of our planning and development goals and strategies?  Is positive, but separate, attention a way of marginalizing?

The PCPC folks agreed that they’d asked themselves the same questions and decided that education of a public that is largely uninformed and at least consciously uninterested in the built heritage of Philadelphia could benefit from a definitive discussion about the issue in a focused section of the Plan.  They’re likely right.

That same kind of education and conversation need to be a compelling part of the Pennsylvania Preservation Plan as well.  We heritage conservators (see, it didn’t hurt) and our partner, the SHPO, will have to make new friends and allies in the environmental, energy conservation and outdoor recreation worlds.  We will have to learn to lobby more aggressively, network more strategically, communicate more broadly and look at what we want to conserve more diversely.  So onward with more work to craft a meaningful and powerful Preservation Plan for the Commonwealth.

 

 

 

Posted from Cheltenham, Pennsylvania, United States.

May 4th, 2011 | No Comments »

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.

March 24th, 2011 | 3 Comments »

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.

February 3rd, 2011 | 2 Comments »

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.