Historical Commission gives okay to new building in Old City

At today’s Historical Commission meeting, the firm of HarmanDeutsch at last gained final approval for its design of a proposed Old City building.

The firm had twice appeared before the Commission’s Architecture Committee and been denied approval.

The five-story project — slated to rise on an empty lot near the corner of 3rd and Chestnut — comes under Commission jurisdiction because the previous building was listed as “contributing” to the Old City Historic District, which was designated in December 2003. Ironically, that individually-registered, Renaissance Revival building — erected in 1894 and home for 50 years to a beloved “umbrella store” — was demolished just a few weeks later, following a January 2004 blaze that severely damaged it and brought 150 firefighters to the scene.

Since the lot was developed at the time of the District’s designation, the Commission is obliged to consider any proposed replacement for the building. Most especially, it is charged with looking very closely at context.

And so, to receive the green light for the building, HarmanDeutsch had to compromise.

“Let me put it this way,” says partner Rustin Ohler. “It’s always a process — and this time, it was just a little longer than normal.” In the end, he adds, “we did whatever the Committee asked us to do. My client wants to move forward with the building, and now he’s happy.”

The developer intends to create four rental apartments above one retail space, Ohler adds.

The reworked design, while for the most part resembling the original drawing in material and scale, also bears the hallmarks of design by committee when it comes to details.

What once looked like a rather unadorned mid-century-ish vernacular brick-clad building, now seems a more generic adherent to the classic, Philadelphia-style.

Following on the suggestions of the Architectural Committee, the architect has added sills and lintels to the facade’s dozen windows, and end details to a still-modest cornice. As per the Committee’s suggestions, the storefront is now wider, and its door is centered.

Ohler also adjusted the positioning of the apartment windows, both horizontally and vertically, so that they are more evenly spaced.

Most significantly, the architect has totally modified his central design feature, a storefront element that particularly drew the ire of the Committee. Instead of a blocky, flat aluminum surround, scored into three pieces to echo the rows of three windows above, he’s offered a more subdued gray stone band that is narrower and topped by a cornice, in keeping with neighboring buildings.

In his first presentation to the Committee, Ohler gave even more prominence to the white surround. And, incongruously, the building — then just four stories — featured a mansard roof that Committee members said was not typical of Old City.

It all makes for a much cleaner look and the reworked design is in many ways preferable to earlier drawings.

But the process that went into realizing these changes brings to mind a famously hokey scene in the film version of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” It’s the one where architect Howard Roark presents the model of his latest design, and the others in the room start snapping on cornices and porticos.

At last month’s Committee meeting, staffer Randal Baron emphasized that the Commission’s intent was not to “try to get [the project] to be historic” — to which Preservation Alliance director John Gallery promptly retorted something to the effect of “what’s wrong with that?” — but merely to ensure that it fit the scale of its surroundings.

Despite the tinkering, Ohler is sanguine.

“We were going for something more modern and very clean,” he says. “We now have something that’s very traditional.”

In other business today, the Commission upheld the decisions previously made by the Architectural Committee, as detailed at http://planphilly.com/historical-commissions-architecture-committee-hears-about-windows

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

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