Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New street furniture coming to Philadelphia

By the end of the year, the City of Philadelphia will put out its request for proposals (RFP) for a 20-year street furniture contract to replace its current one. Though the exact elements of the contract have yet to be decided, it will very likely include new bus shelters, bike racks, newsstand corrals, and information kiosks. This presents a major opportunity for Nutter's City Hall and Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler. Street furniture is an essential part of a city's appearance at street level, and the most successful cities understand the vital role that well-designed, distinctive street furniture can have in shaping the perceptions of visitors and residents alike.

The idea is generally well understood by European cities. Paris is perhaps the best example of a city that has reinforced the high quality of its public spaces through well-designed street furniture such as the bus shelter pictured above. Brussels' unique transit shelters pay homage to the city's Art Nouveau heritage. These two examples have been pictured above.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia has been stuck with some of the most underwhelming, nondescript street furniture of any major American city. Our current bus shelters are installed and maintained (just barely) by CBS Outdoor, an outdoor advertising firm which apparently has absolutely no appreciation for quality public design. Representative Richard Ament summed it up quite recently at the Academy of Natural Sciences when he explained, "We're not a design company." No kidding. For more examples of the junk that they offer, their site displays them quite proudly in a photo gallery (sort Media Type by Street Furniture).

Most fortunately, it looks like we will be able to do much better this time around. Also present at the Academy of Natural Sciences forum on Monday were representatives from Cemusa, JCDecaux and Clear Channel Adshel. Cemusa installed the very sleek bus shelters, automated toilets, and newspaper boxes that came to New York two years ago. Pioneering mega-firm JCDecaux operates Paris' street furniture, and claims to have invented the bus shelter. Likewise, Clear Channel Adshel has extensive experience in European cities. So there will be no lack of quality options. And best of all, since installation and capital costs are paid by the company, none of this will put a drain on the city's coffers. Let's just pray that they don't pick CBS Outdoor.

Lastly, the city is running a public opinion online survey. Please do tell City Hall what you think. This will shape the streets of Philadelphia for years to come.

Academy of Natural Sciences street furniture forum [PlanPhilly]

Monday, October 26, 2009

Then and Now: West side of 8th Street north of Bainbridge Street, Philadelphia


Though most of South Philadelphia avoided the rampant destruction and abandonment that plagued other parts of the city, its historic building stock nonetheless suffered from its fair share of neglect and insensitive facade alterations. Built in the early 1880s, the Church of the Crucifixion has had its original Gothic Revival facade marred by the replacement of its arched windows with horizontal windows quite out of character with its design. Its neighbors on the northwest corner of 8th and Bainbridge Streets lost much of their elegance along with their storefronts.

Remnants of a bygone time, two of 8th Street's former trolley wire poles still stand at the intersection, currently serving as particularly tall signposts.

Source: Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
Original photo: "Historic Commission-12159-15." 1969. Philadelphia City Archives. PhillyHistory.org. Philadelphia Department of Records. 9 Sep. 2009. http://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/MediaStream.ashx?mediaId=144357.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Then and Now: Southeast corner of 9th and Market Streets, Philadelphia

c. 1900 - 2009

Perhaps no episode in the sad decline of Market East is as scarring as the disintegration of the Gimbel Brothers Department Store. Though not a home-grown institution like its many competitors (Strawbridge's, Wanamaker's, Lit Brothers, etc.) the store became a dominant landmark along Market Street. At its height, the Gimbels empire occupied the entire block of Market Street between 8th and 9th Streets, as well as a 12-story office and warehouse building on Chestnut Street. The building at the corner of 9th Street was designed by Addison Hutton in 1896 and originally built for Cooper & Conard, but quickly taken over by Gimbels. Its distinctive curved corner and arched facade are hauntingly memorable, adding to the surreal, ghostly quality of the original image.

In the 1970s, Gimbels became involved in plans for The Gallery at Market East as one of its main prospective tenants. Upon the completion of The Gallery I in 1977, Gimbels relocated its downtown flagship store to a plain concrete box at 10th and Market, abandoning its original complex one block to the east. Its former home was demolished shortly afterwards with the exception of its office tower at 833 Chestnut Street by Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White, though this is little consolation.

Barely a decade after the move, the Gimbels chain collapsed and its properties were sold. Its location in the Gallery is now occupied by a KMart store. The 800 block of Market Street, three decades after its demolition, remains an enormous vacant lot with little development prospect.

1. Philadelphia Architects and Buildings
2. Fischer, John. "Gone but not forgotte - Gimbel's, Lit Brothers, Strawbridge & Clothier, and Wanamaker's Department Stores." About.com. 12 Oct. 2009. http://philadelphia.about.com/od/history/a/strawbridges.htm.
Original photo: "Department of City Transit-41118-0." Philadelphia City Archives. PhillyHistory.org. Philadelphia Department of Records. 12 Oct. 2009. http://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/MediaStream.ashx?mediaId=52491.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Then and Now: 5 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore

Date unknown-2009

Oddly enough, the squat stucco building at the corner of Lancaster and Anderson Avenues is in fact one of downtown Ardmore's oldest commercial buildings. The Merion Title & Trust Company built its first Ardmore office in 1897 before relocating in 1917 to a new classical revival edifice built adjacent to its former home. The original structure at the heart of town also housed a variety of tenants over the years, including a Post Office, library, and Western Union station. In 1977, all but the bottom two floors of the building were tragically destroyed in a fire, and were subsequently remodeled in a coat of stucco. Would it still merit preservation at this point? Perhaps the question will come up someday, if the logic of suburban development once again turns its eye to Ardmore's main street.

Source: Lower Merion Township: Searchable HR Database. Lower Merion Township Historical Commission. 30 Sep. 2009.
Original photo: "Ardmore Post Office Building." Lower Merion Historical Society Archives. Lowermerionhistory.org. Lower Merion Historical Society. 28 Sep. 2009.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Then and Now: 16th and Sansom Streets looking west, Philadelphia


The 1600 block was not spared the gradual 20th century conversion of Sansom Street to a de facto service street dominated by parking garages and loading areas. This handsome commercial row on the 1601 block managed to survive until 2000, when it fell victim to one of the greatest crimes against historic preservation in Philadelphia's recent history, senselessly cleared to make way for a 12-story parking garage which never materialized. To make matters bitterly ironic, the developer, Wayne Spilove, was also serving as chairman of the Historical Commission at the time.

Original photo: "Department of City Transit-39825-0." 1969. Philadelphia City Archives. PhillyHistory.org. Philadelphia Department of Records. 2 Oct. 2009. http://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/MediaStream.ashx?mediaId=52405

Friday, October 2, 2009

Then and Now: 16th and Sansom Streets looking east, Philadelphia


Hemmed in by towers and skyscrapers, the south side of the 1500 block of Sansom Street contains a row of narrow 2- and 3-story buildings housing a motley crew of small locally-owned shops, bars, and restaurants that feel far removed from their surrouding streets. By and large, these businesses would be unsuitable for the larger floor spaces or higher rents on Chestnut Street or Walnut Street, dominated for the most part by national and international retail chains. Sansom Street's shops add an invaluable contribution to the Rittenhouse area's retail mix and hence to its liveliness. It's Jane Jacobs' theory of diversity in action: a variety of building types and ages are a natural generator of activity.

Original photo: "Historic Commission-12827-37." 1969. Philadelphia City Archives. PhillyHistory.org. Philadelphia Department of Records. 21 Sep. 2009. http://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/MediaStream.ashx?mediaId=152807