Architecture Committee of Historical Commission looks at Suburban Station, Reading Terminal Market projects

Projects concerning two of Philadelphia’s signature public terminuses — Suburban Station and Reading Terminal Market — came under review before the Architecture Committee of the Historical Commission during its May meeting on Tuesday.

The Committee also discussed a variety of projects, from additions to windows to signs, planned for residential and other buildings.   The Suburban Station plan involves replacing 2,300 windows in the 1930 tower with larger, more energy-efficient ones. Committee members sought clarity on the materials to be used (not yet determined), the methods by which larger windows could be installed without removing masonry (by removing panning), and whether the windows needed to be removed at all (debatable).

In recommending denial of the application, Committee members agreed with the sentiments of one, John Cluver, who said that such an extensive project requires more due diligence. Cluver added that “there are many ways for us to approve this project. Let’s find a way to make it work.” One way, he suggested, was to consider installing storm windows.

(Another approach — which no one mentioned — might be to consider the strategy recently employed by the Empire State Building. The project at that Art Deco skyscraper work involved removing each of its 6,500 windows and inserting a heat-shrunk film of insulation, bolstered by a gaseous mixture, to more effectively seal its windows. Not only is this cheaper, says the building management, but it allows 96% of the original window fabric to stay in place.)

The project at Reading Terminal Market this time around concerned the  plans of Iovine Brothers Produce to create a full-service gastropub in the space now occupied by The Beer Garden. The plan is coming before the Commission, which has jurisdiction over the Market’s interior, because it will encroach on a part of the public aisle and because the covenant governing the Commission’s right to review such projects requires that the Market’s grid be adhered to.

Paul Steinke, the Market’s general manager spoke in support of the project, adding that although it is not policy to allow aisle incursions, this one and two others are pre-exisiting, and “we’re comfortable with that.” The Committee recommended approval of the encroachment.

The Committee dealt with two other large projects relatively speedily. It  recommended approval for the positioning of rooftop HVAC structures atop the Hotel Monaco on Independence Square. But it denied the installation of temporary vinyl signs which would present teasers about the coming hotel. The Committee recommended that the hotel instead consider attaching the advertising banners to scaffolding.

Concerning alterations to the 1900 Armory Building necessary in the aftermath of a fire this January, the Committee recommended approval of a plan to replace 30 or so damaged windows and to demolish and reconstruct an elevator shaft.

Members also engaged in lengthy discussions about several less visible projects. One, an attempt to meld two 1860s-era buildings near Rittenhouse Square, centered on a plan to alter one building’s 1960s interventions with a new storefront and windows so that they better match those of the more intact building.

As they have in the past, some members balked at evoking any “false sense of history,” but the Committee recommended approval, with staff to review details.

When it came to an owner’s plan to replace metal windows on a contributing home in the Spring Garden Historic District with better quality aluminum ones, members debated whether, given the extensive renovations made on the 1859 building through the years, less strict standards governing rehabilitation (rather than restoration) should apply. “We approve metal windows all the time [in cases like these],” Shawn Evans said. Chair Dominique Hawkins countered, “When the original windows are metal.”

The Committee cannot approve anything but wood windows at the front elevations for buildings that at any point had had them, she reiterated. Despite Evans’ objections, the Committee recommended denial.

A historically-designated wood home from 1810 also divided the group, although more evenly. Presented with a substantially scaled-down plan for an expansion that had come before the Committee last month, Evans said, “I’m okay with it, it will stll be a rare house.” Cluver agreed, emphasizing that “these houses don’t need to be frozen in time.” Others disagreed, with John Gallery of the Preservation Alliance adding a public comment. “Even with these improvements,” he said, [the plan] is inappropriate for the house.”

A vote resulted in deadlock, and so instead of a recommendation, a summation of the discussion will be presented to the Commission when it meets in June.

The morning’s biggest discussion was reserved for an application to legalize two new plastic faces on existing permanently illuminated signs attached to a designated building on the corner of 15th and Locust. Staffer Jorge Danta outlined its checkered history, which includes approval of a temporary vinyl wrap carrying the logo of a new tenant (a daycare) over the box until November. For now, however, only plain white wraps obscure the previous Nova Bank signage.

“This is a prime example of why these kinds of installations [plastic box signs] should be rejected after they’ve been installed illegally,” said Evans. “Because we’re going to be dealing with this till kingdom come.”

Using a familiar insult made popular by Prince Charles, he later called the boxes “carbuncles” on the 1928 building’s “beautiful entrance.” Summing up the Committee’s understanding that at this point the boxes had been grandfathered in, Hawkins drove the Committee to come up with a solution. After members batted around several motions, a final, pithy denial boiled down to a rejection of any plastic signs on the 15th and Locust street sides, with the applicants to return with a wrap that features a design more in keeping with the building’s architecture.

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