Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Then and Now: The Mercantile Library, 1021 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia


In 1954, ten years after joining Philadelphia's Free Library system, the Mercantile Library moved to Chestnut Street into a new building designed by local firm Martin, Stewart & Noble. The building immediately won widespread praise among the city's architectural community; Martin, Stewart & Noble were awarded 1954's Gold Medal from the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Their design was acclaimed for having fulfilled the library's needs within a compact, storefront-sized space, and for its innovative adaptation of commercial design elements. The clean lines of its steel mullions, smooth glass facade, and distinctive signage make it a particularly elegant specimen of postwar Modernism in Philadelphia.

Sadly, after decades of shrinking tax revenues, the City of Philadelphia gradually became incapable of maintaining many of its facilities, including this one. The Mercantile Library shut its doors in 1989 due to a crumbling asbestos problem, and its collections were transferred to the Free Library's main branch on the Parkway. Due to daunting projected repair costs and an enormous maintenance backlog, the city ultimately chose to indefinitely close the library. Though the building was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1990, it has only continued to deteriorate, and substantial plant overgrowth is visible on its roof.

In 2004, the lot was transferred by the city to the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, which subsequently sold it to a private developer. However, the Mercantile Library's fate remains in limbo. There do not seem to be any current plans for its redevelopment, nor any substantial push for its preservation.

1. "Fourth Annual Endangered Properties List."
Preservation Matters. Dec. 2007. http://www.preservationalliance.com/files/news/Winter2007.pdf.
2. Wiegand, Ginny. "Library could be put on shelf."
Philadelphia Inquirer. 4 Aug. 1990.
3. Maryniak, Paul. "City's building cup runneth over." Philadelphia Daily News. 26 Feb. 1991.
Original image: Carollo, R. "Historic Commission-49797-0." 1962. Philadelphia City Archives. PhillyHistory.org. Philadelphia Department of Records. 14 Dec. 2009. http://www.phillyhistory.org/PhotoArchive/MediaStream.ashx?mediaId=108087.


thesestreets said...

this won an award?

Brian Hsu said...

Well, yes. The exterior design is fairly unassuming. However, from photographs and renderings of the interior, I'm led to believe that it was indeed a very well-designed space.

BRLNDO said...

Brian, do you know where I could find interior renderings and photos of this project? I'd be very interested to see some. Thanks.

BRLNDO said...

Brian, do you know where I could find interior renderings and photos of this project? I'd be very interested to see some. Thanks.