Today the vacant but majestic Provident Mutual Life Insurance Building has one inhabitant – a hawk living in the tower. But soon enough the Philadelphia Police Department could join the hawk’s watch over the city from 46th and Market.
In his budget address Thursday morning, Mayor Nutter announced long-rumored plans to reuse the Provident Mutual Life property as a new command center for the Philadelphia Police Department. The renovation of 4601 Market would also include a new headquarters for the Philadelphia Health Department, now located at Broad and Lombard, and the city morgue.
“This is a smart consolidation which will allow us to sell existing assets, create new opportunities for development at those sites, and revitalize part of West Philadelphia much in need of investment,” Mayor Nutter said in his speech.
The Mayor’s budget asks for $9 million from Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority to develop a design for the Provident Mutual Life property that will meet the needs of the different departments.
Why 4601 Market Street? In a way, the Police have the Barnes to thank for their possible new home.
When the city moved the Youth Study Center from the Parkway to 48th and Haverford, making way for the Barnes, the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development (PAID) acquired the neighboring Provident Mutual property from the Urban Education Development Research and Retreat Center.
To figure out what to do with the 13-acre parcel, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) hired Ewing Cole to undertake a Building Assessment and Reuse Study. And now the city appears ready to take on 4601 Market as a major capital project.
The reuse of 4601 Market has been a long-term concern for Philadelphia’s preservation community. The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has twice listed the Provident Mutual building on its Endangered Properties List (2004 and 2010). Although the property is not listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, the Provident Mutual building is certainly historic and many of the building’s original features remain surprisingly intact.
The main building was constructed in 1926 for the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Company, which left Center City in favor of a campus setting that would allow the company grow and provide recreational amenities for its employees. Originally there was a baseball diamond and an indoor pool, making the place look a bit more like a country club than an office park. In addition to the 325,000 square-foot limestone office building, the campus also has a separate auditorium building; both were designed by Cram and Ferguson and built by Turner Construction.
Last year I asked permission from PIDC to look around the property and it is phenomenal. The main building’s lobby and public spaces are clad in marble and topped with beautifully painted decorative plaster and woodwork, as well as grand bronze fixtures (radiator grilles, doors, hardware and lighting). Many of the secondary spaces are bland office areas with drop ceilings and nasty carpet. There have been alterations and there is water damage from leaks, but to my eye the enormous building is in pretty good shape. But it needs a new use. If the city manages the restoration of the main building and its original features, particularly in the public areas on lower floors, it could be a truly spectacular place. Of course, the devil is in the details.
Outside the main building the auditorium building still stands, as does a mid-19th century pump house, predating Provident’s ownership, that was built to draw water from Mill Creek.
When I spoke with the Preservation Alliance’s Advocacy Director Ben Leech earlier today, he said the mayor’s announcement was news to him, but that the Alliance is supportive of an appropriate reuse plan for 4601 Market. Like the rest of us, Leech said the Alliance will be interested to learn more about the design details as they emerge.
For now, here’s a slideshow with photos from my walkabout last year: