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Sugarhouse design: Not quite outside the box

Monday, September 20th, 2010



The casino's red doors

The casino welcomes gamblers through these red doors

Philadelphia’s first casino opens its doors this week.  In the long debate over construction of Sugarhouse, anti-gambling activists weren’t the only detractors. Many design buffs warned of a windowless box on the Delaware.

So how did it turn out?

Ever heard that line about the eye of the beholder?

Speaking first, for the defense, is Sugarhouse’s architect.   Ian Cope is pretty familiar with what other casino buildings look like.

“We’ve done other casinos in the area,” Cope said, “the Borgata, The Water Club, a major expansion at Caesar’s, Dover Downs, Pompano in Florida.”

Standing inside the new gambling house on the Delaware River, amid rows of flashing, humming slot machines, Cope says he worked hard to make sure the outside of this building doesn’t look like casinos elsewhere:

“We were after something that was kind of, we’ll call it edgy and industrial chic, if you will.  That picked up on the industrial heritage of the waterfront.”

Call it edgy, call it modern – but, Cope says, don’t call it a boring box.

The SugarHouse Casino opens this week. There is still debate over its design and its place in the city.

” The outside of the building is primarily aluminum panels of various textures and colors and we’ve done things to break up the planes of what otherwise could be a box,” he says. ” So we didn’t want it to look like a retail establishment and we also didn’t want it to be too boxy at all. You’ll see that all the entrances and the main port-cochere are pretty clearly articulated with different forms.  Simple forms, but forms that break up the box.”

Cope hasn’t convinced everyone.  Speaking by phone while eyeing the building from his car, architect Harris Steinberg doesn’t shy away from the “b” word:

“The building itself is broken down into a couple of volumes by the way the architect kind of treated the facade,” Steinberg concedes. ”So it’s a little more interesting than a windowless box. But it still is a big box without really any windows and the most difficult part of it, I think, is that it is set back behind a ocean of surface parking.  Which doesn’t make the building pedestrian friendly on Delaware Avenue.”

Steinberg is head of Penn Praxis, a design program at the University of Pennsylvania, and he led the civic process that underlies the city’s master plan for the riverfront.  He says he’s happy with Sugarhouse’s public, landscaped path that runs along the river.  On the downside, he says, it all doesn’t connect back very well to the city, because of that big parking lot:

“Without question, the riverwalk is spot on.  They did a really beautiful job with that piece of the project.  The rest of it, at this point it is much more of a suburban big box department store like a Target or a Walmart, albeit a bit nicer in terms of the materials than usual, but it is not a kind of part of the dense urban fabric of Philadelphia that we envisioned for this area.”

Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron is mildly relieved that Sugarhouse isn’t glitzier:

“It doesn’t have all that neon pasted on it so it doesn’t call as much attention to itself as it might if it had, like Harrah’s in Chester has a big huge neon facade of a slot machine.  Really, really enormous.  So this building has none of that – more like driving up to a small airport.”

Saffron says the casino’s size helps.

Patrons will be able watch the river while they dine and gamble

“It’s really little.  And that is one of its charms, I think.  It doesn’t overwhelm you. But there are plans to enlarge it with a garage that will probably triple it.  Then it will be a very different animal.”

Saffron says she likes the windows that look out over the river, and she too appreciates the riverwalk, given how rare safe access to the Delaware has become.

The casino opens for business on Thursday.


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