Historical Commission grants conceptual approval to Lit Brothers building sign

The Philadelphia Historical Commission Friday issued a unanimous conceptual approval for a proposal to light the Lit Brothers building on East Market Street and to top it off with a sign that includes both static and animated advertising components.

In crafting a motion, Commissioners emphasized that for the project to move forward further discussion about how the sign in particular can best conform to national standards governing historic properties would be required.

The heavily-contested sign — representatives from Old City Civic Association, Society Hill Civic Association, and the Hopkinson House condos, all spoke against the proposal, as did John Gallery of the Preservation Alliance, Mary Tracy of Scenic Philadelphia, and, by letter, the National Park Service — is a response to a recently-passed ordinance that encourages animated and lit signs to activate a moribund stretch of Market Street that includes The Gallery. Under the ordinance, historic buildings are exempt, except where it can be shown that they once sported such signage.

The Lit Brothers building  — actually a row of buildings dating back to 1859 and stitched together to form the famed department store — is one such case. In their presentation, applicants showed ilustrations of a previous sign that stood for decades, encircling the roof of the entire store.

That sign consisted of chain link fencing which had yellow/gold lettering adhered. The effect, applicants said, was of hovering lettering against a brilliant blue sky; the chain link virtually disappearing when viewed from the ground or other buildings.

Contending that this proposal substantially echos the intent of the original sign — to create a sense of commercial vigor – owner/developer John Connors of Brickstone Realty said the current discussion was not about historical preservation, but about “animation and content.”

The notion of digital motion might sound scary, he added, but the technology to be used, what he called a “media mesh” was substantially different from LED box signs or wraps. Those ideas “offend us to even think about,” he said.

In his presentation, Connors also brought up a hardship case — indicating that advertising revenues were needed “to keep the building going” and to allow it “to compete with the other buildings in town” — but when Commissioner JoAnn Jones pressed for more details on proposed cost and revenue streams, his numbers suggested that it might take more than ten years to break even.

The applicants also said that advertising would have to be pre-sold before the project even proceeded, and that the proposed architectural lighting of the building — which Commissioners were in favor of — would not go forth unless the signage did.

During the 90-minute discussion, Commissioners raised several questions about the signage. Commissioners Dominique Hawkins and Robert Thomas voiced concern over the density of the sign’s armature, which in samples appears much less airy than chain link. And they pointed out that video images of the proposed sign’s huge animated portion gives the impression of adding essentially a sixth story to the building and succeeds at distraction attention from the other historic five stories.

But Commissioner Chair Sam Sherman, citing the lights and action of London’s Piccadilly Circus which have been around for a century, wondered what would be on top of Lit Brothers were it still in operation “That’s how I’m looking at this,” he added, before inviting a motion.

After some further debate, one came forth.
It granted conceptual approval of the architectural lighting and the signage, with provisions. These require that a mockup of the densest part of the mesh (sans its LED elements) be installed on the rooftop so that it can be viewed in situ and that a detailed discussion of the motion, oscillation and frequency of messaging be undertaken to ensure that the advertising portions do not deviate from preservation standards.

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

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