Historical Commission approves Lit Brothers sign

The Philadelphia Historical Commission granted final approval Friday for the installation of a new sign atop the Lit Brothers building on the 700 block of Market Street, portions of which will include LED messaging.

Applicants contend that their project is in line with new legislation that created the East Market Street Advertising District and is historically appropriate because it closely resembles older signs placed on the building’s roof.

At its September 2012 meeting, the Commission OK’d the application in concept, with final approval contingent on the approval of an in situ mock-up of the rooftop sign and on the approval of the timing of static and moving displays. At its October meeting, the Commission’s Architecture Committee responded to that installation and recommended denial of the sign.

Friday, project architect Arman Chowdhury and building owner John Connors responded to the Committee’s concerns about the density and animation of the sign with new documentation.

Chowdhurry presented an actual mesh sample to Commissioners, and showed a full elevation of the buildings that comprise the Market Street facade of the Lit building. He reminded them that the middle 250-feet of the building’s total 400′ facade would not have LED illumination.

Connors next addressed the concerns about the timing of when the sign would offer advertising and when it would be static and read only with the identifier, Lit Brothers: Great Stores in a Great City. As a concession, he agreed to limit advertising to the hours of 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., down from a prior shut-off point of 2 a.m. And he promised to devote what he said was 12.5% of the advertising to a static Lit Brothers message to mark each quarter of the hour.

Commissioners then posited a few questions concerning the sign’s glare and density, emphasizing that in their personal experience of it those factors appeared more dominant than the applicants’ slides suggested.

Commission Chair Sam Sherman asked if there was any way for the mesh to disappear, a la the video wall at the Comcast Center. Chowdhury said that was indeed possible and was simply a matter of programming.

Inklings that the Commission was leading to a yes vote came fairly early.

Commissioner John Mattioni argued that this new sign should be viewed as a modern intervention that echoed the spirit of the original, while Commissioner Richardson Dilworth III warned against “fetishizing” the Secretary of the Interior standards that guide work done to historical properties. Commissioner Robert Thomas and Dilworth engaged in a meta-debate about what the argument was about: simply the new aspects of this proposed sign or a greater disruption to the historic fabric.

Sherman opened the floor to public comment, and John Gallery of the Preservation Alliance took the microphone. He suggested that the Commission kick back the application for one more round at the Architectural Committee since new drawings had entered into the mix. Further, he said, these drawings were still incomplete and the Committee’s engineers might have more questions about how the sign would be installed and the impact it would have on the building’s architectural features, namely its corner turrets.

Stephanie Kindt, counsel for Scenic Philadelphia, next argued that the sign did not echo in spirit the original one since it could not be viewed as accessory to any one business but as advertising. “This is a game-changer,” she said.

Representatives from the nearby apartment towers St. James and Ayer Building, and from Society Hill Civic Association, also weighed in, reiterating the arguments and oppositions.

Sherman asked for clarification as to whether the Commission’s prior conceptual approval legally bound it to continue to review the motion, and not to table it. Commission Executive Director Jonathan Farnham said that it did not. 

As Commissioners grew visibly weary, rubbing their eyes and propping their hands on their chins, the 90-minute session came to a swift conclusion. After commissioner JoAnn Jones’ motion to table failed, Commissioner Mattioni motioned for an approval, with a second by Dilworth. That motion passed with a vote of seven to three, with Sherman abstaining.

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

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