It takes all kinds of architecture to make a city as full of history and diversity as Philadelphia. This city is rich with iconic buildings, Neoclassical, Victorian, Beaux Arts, Revival, and Art Deco. No matter the style, the character and features of these buildings expresses the political, social, and economic aspirations of Philadelphia’s residents through the vision of planners and designers over time. Some are harder to love than others, but there is no denying the civic pride we feel for many of these icons.
However, Mid-Century Modern architecture divides and confounds us. The Fairmount Park Welcome Center is an example at the heart of this debate. Whether you appreciate the design of the recent past, or think it is impractical at best, I urge you to consider the Fairmount Park Welcome Center as an icon of its time, a symbol of the promise and optimism of post-war development worthy of preservation. As PennPraxis, Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, and the Fairmount Park Conservancy give Philadelphia one final chance for public input about the redesign of Love Park, speak up for this quirky flying saucer-shaped building with a remarkable pedigree.
The building was designed by Harbeson, Hough, Livingston and Larson (H2L2) and constructed 1959-1961 as the Philadelphia Hospitality Center, a hub for tourism and a gateway to Fairmount Park. As an urban design element, the building relates both to the City Beautiful movement of the early 20th century and the Penn Center redevelopment effort of the 1950s. The building was intended to capitalize on its location near City Hall to connect business-oriented Center City to the cultural resources on the Parkway.
The space-age design of the Welcome Center recalls a new era of civic architecture representing renewed values of progress and innovation. It is an example of inventive design that rejected historical influences in an attempt to disrupt perceived urban problems. The round form is representative of a trend of visitor center designs used by the National Park Service as it implemented Mission 66. Constructed of concrete and steel, with plate glass walls showing off a radiant neon lighting scheme, the minimal design mimicked modern retail storefronts, welcoming in pedestrian traffic. The surrounding site was later designed as JFK Plaza in 1965, and as that public space, also known as Love Park, has grown and changed, the building has shifted out of focus.
The preservation and reuse of this Mid-Century Modern icon is an opportunity to demonstrate the civic, environmental, and economic values of preservation. Simply the social interaction of this community engagement process and advocacy for a place we love increases the quality of life in Philadelphia. If the educational and social motivations for saving this building are not enough, the environmental benefits of building reuse over demolition and new construction are convincing in a city that prides itself on sustainable practices. In addition, the reuse of historic buildings stimulates the economy by creating investment and jobs. While Love Park is the spotlight, the City of Philadelphia should preserve the Fairmount Park Welcome center as an example for future development.
The Fairmount Park Welcome Center is the obvious solution to the requirement of a structure in the Love Park redesign Request for Proposals. Designers should take advantage of the distinctive appeal of the round building for a commercial use to benefit the public and provide revenue for park maintenance. There is a wide range of possibilities to reuse the Fairmount Park Welcome Center to provide services and access to the community in the design for Love Park. Which public services and amenities in Center City do you wish for? Don’t just tell the Department of Parks and Recreation to Save the Saucer; give them your ideas for its reuse. Mine? A hub for trolleys and bike share for transportation to sites up the Parkway and beyond.
LOVE Park is being redesigned. Share your thoughts about what JFK Plaza/LOVE Park should become by participating in a input session hosted by our colleagues at PennPraxis along with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and Fairmount Park Conservancy at the Free Library (1901 Vine St) on Wednesday, December 10. 5:30pm. Pre-reigster here.