In a close call, the Architectural Committee of the Philadelphia Historical Commission recommended approval today of a proposal to light up the Lit Building on the 700 block of Market Street. But they suggested denying a plan to install a rooftop sign made of stainless steel mesh and LED lettering that would include an animated advertising component.
The applicants, Independence Center Realty, LP, are arguing that the lighting and animated sign are allowable under an ordinance, passed last year, that created the Market East Commercial Advertising District. Because similar (albeit low-tech) signage once existed on the roof of the historic department store — in actuality, a conglomeration of buildings which were built between 1859 and 1906 — the proposal is indeed in compliance with the ordinance.
In introducing the project to the Committee, the Commission’s executive director Jonathan Farnham noted that his staff had “struggled” with its own recommendation for what he called a “very unique case . . . with no right or wrong answer.” Ultimately, the staff recommended approval of the exterior enhancement lighting, but could not reach a decision on the signage aspect.
At today’s hearing, Committee Chair Dominique Hawkins pressed for details on the materials, content, and installation methods of the sign.
The applicants described the sign as being roughly the same dimensions of the original sign. The historic sign featured metal lettering that read “Lit Brothers A Great Store in a Great City” and ran the length of the elevation along Market Street as well as wrapped around the corners of 7th and 8th streets. That sign was finally removed after 70 or so years when the building was rehabbed in the 1980s.
The difference in the current proposal, the applicants said, is the fact that the letters would incorporate LED lighting placed within the vertical tubes of the metal “fence”, and that on each corner an animated advertising component would be included to be lit at night. (The remainder of the sign would be static.)
Committee member John Cluver, who seemed most critical of the project, said the proposal left him “trying to find where this falls in the spectrum from fun to tacky.” In taking a look at the metal sample provided, another committee member, Nan Gutterman, noted that the armature of the signage didn’t seem as transparent as the original. Hawkins concurred, adding that she was “extraordinarily troubled by the animation.”
During a public comment period, John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance, cited a video simulation of the proposed lighting. “The video conveys a sense of what’s possible,” he said, “and to me, it’s my greatest fear.” Still, he added, the Alliance as a group remained mixed; and like others in the room, he seemed to feel that some modification might go a long way.
Before moving forward with a motion, the conversation turned briefly to a discussion of the exterior lighting proposal. Cluver indicated a clear preference for option one — lighting of the facade and bays — over others that would highlight the pilasters or upper story of the building. Gallery also asked for assurance that the light would be white not amber as it appeared in images submitted by the applicants, while Hawkins sought assurances that no lighting of any color would be used.
The Committee then formulated a motion to approve the facade lighting and to deny any signage. Cluver, Gutterman, and Hawkins voted yes. Committee members Suzanne Pentz and Rudy D’Alessandro demurred, explaining that they liked the idea of a sign — although not the idea of an animated one. Hawkins and Cluver indicated that they would be amenable to that compromise, while Gutterman remained adamant. “No sign,” she said.
The committee’s recommendation goes to the Historical Commission, which is expected to take up this matter at its Sept. 14 meeting.
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