Happy Birthday to the Wanamaker Building!

It’s been an especially dreary holiday season in Philadelphia this year — puny wreaths on City Hall, no lights on Walnut or Market streets. But, thankfully, and as usual, we can count on the traditions at the Wanamaker Building, and its traditions, to pick up the slack.

This year — tomorrow, in fact — marks the 100th anniversary of the massive Italianate building.

Along the way, it has played host to a succession of department stores, but through its various incarnations, some things have held true. For sure, the Wanamaker name (it dates from 1861). And, certainly, the iconic Eagle (the 10-foot sculpture hails from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair).

Finally, cutting through the December gloom, there’s the Organ (in place since the opening, also a World’s Fair leftover) and the Light Show (it premiered in 1956). A perennial purveyor of annual cheer, the building, then, operates as a gracious holiday gift to all Philadelphians.

But, really, this centenarian is a treasure any time of the year. A National Historic Landmark, with other elements — the Crystal Tea Room, an eighth-floor conference room, John Wanamaker’s private office (also on the eighth-floor), the infamous organ, and the Eagle — all singled out as worthy of various protections, the building now offers almost a half-million square feet of retail space, and another one million square feet of office space.

According to its owners, it is almost completely leased. And as a Macy’s, the store seems more vibrant than it has in years. But office and retail vitality — while most definitely welcomed! — do not an object of affection make.

“For me, it’s all about its context,” says architect David Hollenberg, who while at John Milner Architects worked on the building’s exterior renovation when it was partially converted for office use twenty years ago. The Daniel Burnham masterpiece is part of a larger composition, points out Hollenberg. “It participates in an interesting assemblage and serves as a counterpoint to what surrounds it.” he says.

This “sober cousin,” as Hollenberg puts it, was just the right thing to build across from the wildly exuberant City Hall. “The building is beautifully composed, with an amazing top, middle, and bottom,” he observes.

Deconstructing the building in that fashion is easy, because even though Louis Sullivan had begun crafting truly vertical buildings in Chicago and Buffalo in the 1890s, and Burnham’s own astonishing high-rise, the Flatiron building, had opened in 1903, the architect here was relying on the dominant palazzo style, which emphasizes horizontal massing. It pairs nicely with the neighboring Widener Building — designed in 1915 by Horace Trumbauer — and, save for their height, the duo wouldn’t be out of place on Genoa’s Via Garibaldi.

At the bottom, the building sports very large store windows, modestly decorated with a Greek key motif. (That symbol is repeated, incidentally, in much more ornate fashion on the vestibule radiator grilles, a favorite element of mine.) The plate glass windows are characteristic of the time, when merchandising — especially in the hands of someone like John Wanamaker — was coming into its own.

In a field where more than a half dozen department stores lined Market Street east of Broad, standing out was critical. (That’s why inside the store was famed not only for its Crystal Dining Room, which seated the most diners in the most ornate fashion in town; but for cramming into its now rather sparse Grand Court, the finest of jewelry, the most luxurious of apothecary, and the largest of bookstores.)

The Wanamaker’s middle section, its largest, rises in orderly fashion, presenting an even front on all four sides. Its regularity makes the building almost imposing, accenting what Hollenberg terms its “masculinity.” Almost staid, the building is confident enough to stand on its own terms, eschewing the ornamentation and mansard-like roofs of of nearby turn-of-the-century edifices like City Hall and the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel.

But, for me, it’s the building’s top that has always been the standout — particularly thanks to the way the protruding cornice has been lit in the last few years. At its roofline, the building assumes its true grandeur, especially as it stands in stately repose on oft-dismal Chestnut Street. And, yes, the building allows itself just a flourish or two way up here.

At a recent ceremony honoring its birthday — the building’s official opening was on December 30, 1911 — representatives from its currents owners, Philadelphia-based Amerimar Enterprises, Inc. and Dallas-based Behringer Harvard, made much of its continuing relevancy on the Center City real estate scene. “It’s as technologically advanced as any building being built today,” offered Stephen Gleason, Amerimar’s executive vice president. In 2009, he points out, the building was awarded the Energy Star label from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“A great building teaches us a great deal about the willingness to adapt to the times,” added Paul Levy of the Center City District, at the same event.

They’re right, it’s true that careful stewardship has allowed the building to stay au courant. But it’s also remained remarkably the same, if not stuck in the past, then redolent of it. And, that, ultimately, is why Philadelphians love it so. “Everyone still calls it Wanamaker’s, right?” asks Hollenberg, rhetorically. “Well, I think that’s a symbol of how the building has embedded itself into the fabric of the city.”

Contact the reporter at jgreco@planphilly.com and follow her on Twitter @joanngreco

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