Ongoing series casts light on historic and unique sites that may be at risk of deterioration or demolition. Previous stories: Carnegie Libraries, Church of the Assumption, Lazaretto, Germantown Town Hall, Bouvier Building, Elstowe Manor, Garrett-Dunn House, Girard Warehouses, Boyd Theatre.
By Alan Jaffe
A mid-century structure distinguished by walls built on a diagonal to the street is targeted for demolition by a Chicago developer who wants to replace it with a 32-story apartment building, retail space, café, garage and medical center.
The new building would replace the current Sidney Hillman Medical Center, 2116 Chestnut St., which was designed by the firm of Magaziner & Polss and built in 1950 to provide free medical care to members of the Male Apparel Industry Union.
The developer, the John Buck Company, will appear before the architectural and hardship committees of the Philadelphia Historical Commission on June 12 to present its case.
“This is an interesting case because it’s one of the few Modernist buildings that has been proposed for demolition in the area. Those are buildings that are harder for anyone to evaluate in terms of their historic importance because they are so much closer in time to us,” said John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. “A lot of people would look it and say, ‘Well, it’s not historic and, therefore, what difference does it make?’ “
The preservation of Modernist architecture is an emerging issue, explained Elise Vider, deputy director of the Alliance. “We’re approaching a point where these mid-century buildings are 50 years old, and there’s a lot of interest among preservationists in evaluating these buildings and making sure we don’t lose the ones that are important,” much the way Victorian buildings were lost in the 1940s “because they were considered out of style and ugly.”
The National Trust for Historic Preservation purposely cast a light this year on the threat to Modernist buildings by including two examples on its annual list of the country’s most endangered historic places. The Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles was designed in the mid 1960s by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center. The other Modernist building on the roster is Miami Marine Stadium in Virginia Key, Fla., built in 1963.
The Hillman Medical Center was built by Louis Magaziner, a prominent architect in the early part of the 20th century. He designed the eccentric structure on the diagonal – its principal walls run at an angle, rather than parallel, to Chestnut Street.
In a letter for support of its preservation, David Brownlee, a University of Pennsylvania architectural historian, praised the building for its design, history and innovation and included it on a list of significant Modernist structures in Philadelphia. David G. De Long, a Penn professor emeritus, wrote: “Its angled orientation is unique, contributing mightily to the rich architectural diversity of Philadelphia.” Steve Fraser, a visiting professor of history at New York University and biographer of Sidney Hillman, wrote that the building “embodies a vital piece of the past century’s social heritage.”
Its location also puts it in the Rittenhouse-Fitler Square Historic District, which means any major changes require the approval of the Historical Commission.
The building proposed by the Buck Company also has raised the concerns of the neighboring churches, whose stained-glass windows would be overshadowed by a 32-story structure.
The First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, directly across the street from the Hillman building, is the work of Frank Furness, one of the city’s greatest architects. The front of the church contains a round rose window created in 1891 by renowned artist John La Farge. The placement of the window causes a “Stonehenge effect” – at the winter solstice, the light from the window shines directly into the middle of the sanctuary. That light would be blocked by the proposed apartment building.
A representative of the John Buck Company did not return calls for comment.
Preservation Update: Assumption Church Added to the Register
The Church of the Assumption, 1133 Spring Garden St., has been listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, halting plans for demolition by its owner, the non-profit social services organization Siloam.
The church was added to the Register by the Philadelphia Historical Commission on May 8. Andrew Palewski, a neighborhood resident, has led a battle to preserve the structure, which was built in 1848 by Patrick Charles Keely, a prolific ecclesiastical architect. Palewski gathered the support of the West Poplar and Callowhill communities, and he argued that the church was a neighborhood landmark and “cherished cultural asset.”
Siloam, a wellness center for people living with HIV/AIDS, had purchased the property from the Archdiocese several years ago and had planned to raze the building for parking and other uses.
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