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Backwoods Architecture Reclaimed by Nature

Sagged –   This house was originally at grade, but has sunk on settled foundations

Sagged – This house was originally at grade, but has sunk on settled foundations

Words and photos by Sam Katovitch

Every summer leading up to my permanent move to Philadelphia, my family would spend a week or more in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.  We always took the same route every year, stayed at the same lodge, sang the same songs on the five-hour road trip, but climbed different mountains, kayaked different lakes, and walked different paths from the years before.  Ordinarily we would all go together on these adventures, but starting in 2016 I would drive myself since I had my own car – a beat-up old tank of a Subaru named Roz.  One day during the week we spent there in 2016, my family decided to spend the day recuperating from the hike we had taken the day before, but I was feeling antsy and decided to strike out on my own.  My fascination with abandoned buildings had also begun that year so my dad suggested I check out the old mining town at Tahawus.  Few photos of this can be found online, though some conservation is underway, mainly at the ironworks there.  I agreed it was a cool idea and set out with my film camera and hiking boots.

The nearest town to the abandoned mine was Newcomb, and then from there the road turned off into the wilderness and meandered another fifteen miles or so up into the High Peaks region – the road doubled as a trailhead for several High Peaks climbs, including Mt. Marcy.  After twisting through the woods for a few miles, I encountered the old railroad leading from the mines down to Raquette Lake, the nearest rail hub.  The road crossed the tracks twice as it wound its way through the woods.  It was clear that the tracks weren’t in service anymore, not since the mine’s closure in the 60s – the ties were rotted and the rails were rusty.  There was even a rusted barricade welded to one rail to stop stray train cars.  It was a strange feeling, being able to stop my car in the middle of the crossing and not worry about a train coming out of nowhere, and it made my hair stand up, just a little. 

Another mile or so down the road, I encountered a washout.  A stream had burst its banks further up the mountain to the left of the road and washed away the macadam entirely.  The other end of the break wasn’t visible.  I assessed the way forward and decided to try it.  My stubborn old Subaru and I battled through the washout for nearly a mile before the slide cleared and the road resumed.  I was tired and the wagon was spattered with mud but I pushed on.

Gleam –   The blast furnace was capped with Plexiglas for preservation

Gleam – The blast furnace was capped with Plexiglas for preservation

After some signs indicating the last trailhead, I saw the blast furnace, the only actively conserved part of the abandoned village.  It was a pillar of cut stone with a huge cavern in the base, and it was still soot-darkened even after years in the elements.  I regret that I didn’t take more pictures of the furnace but I was saving my energy and film, hoping for more luck at the ghost town further on. 

The ghost town itself was so much more than I could have expected.  I was anticipating a handful of buildings, all in varying states of disrepair.  Instead, I found a dozen intact buildings that had been opened by the elements, exposing their interiors to the outside, as well as the foundations and masonry from the old mill and waterwheel at the creek.  The rushing stream was full from the rain, but the piers of the mill still stood there, a dozen feet from the bank, and connected by a few crumbly arches of stone.  The creek bed was littered with fallen stones from masonry that had already perished. 

Demolition –   The plaster was mostly gone, exposing the lath and studs beneath

Demolition – The plaster was mostly gone, exposing the lath and studs beneath

The houses were mostly built between the 1940s and 60s, and the cheerful pinks and turquoises of the midcentury wallpaper and tiles were incongruous among the green of the forest, even as they were softened at the edges by the relentless work of the elements.  I didn’t go into any buildings for fear of falling through a floor and breaking my neck, but I used several rolls of film and took dozens of photos with my phone.  There is no conservation effort being made on the village itself, and the Park Service seems content to let the buildings fall into elegant – and photogenic – disrepair, ultimately being reclaimed by the forest. No doubt going back now, even only three years later, would yield a very different experience.  Seeing those old buildings as intact as they were was special, but being able to see the interiors from the exterior wasn’t promising of their overall integrity and life expectancy.  Nobody knows how many more harsh Adirondack winters the houses will survive until they’re nothing but foundation stones.

Tilt –   This house was on the verge of falling over into the road

Tilt – This house was on the verge of falling over into the road

I spent hours wandering around the old houses and offices, imagining what the lives that once occupied them must have been like.  Even now in this age of connectivity this place was basically off the edge of the map, so I could only imagine the isolation the miners must have experienced back in the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Eventually though, I made my way back to my car and returned the way I’d come.  Only when I got back across the washout ten miles later and received a dozen text messages all at once did I realize that I had had no cell service ever since passing the train tracks on the way in.              

Pipes I –   Shattered steam pipes near the foot of the blast furnace

Pipes I – Shattered steam pipes near the foot of the blast furnace

Pipes II –   Bellows pipes for pushing air into the blast furnace

Pipes II – Bellows pipes for pushing air into the blast furnace

Pipes III –   More bellows pipes

Pipes III – More bellows pipes

Stack –   The blast furnace as seen from the overlook above it, Cliff Mtn. and Redfield Mtn. beyond.

Stack – The blast furnace as seen from the overlook above it, Cliff Mtn. and Redfield Mtn. beyond.

Calamity –   The stream which powered the old waterwheels is called Calamity Brook.

Calamity – The stream which powered the old waterwheels is called Calamity Brook.

Order Up –   This was the part of the mess hall of the mining camp, order window and all.

Order Up – This was the part of the mess hall of the mining camp, order window and all.

Collapse –   Nobody knows how much longer these houses will stay standing.

Collapse – Nobody knows how much longer these houses will stay standing.

Sam is our resident film-camera expert. The images in this article were taken on film—yes, real film!



Brussels vs. Philadelphia

by David Fisher

A little over a year ago, I traveled to Belgium with my freshman-year roommate from Drexel University and his mother.  We stayed in Brussels and spent most of our time visiting local relatives of my friend and traveling around the country.  As the capital of Belgium and the seat of the European Union, Brussels is a city full of grand European architecture.  What piqued my interest, however, was the chaotic juxtaposition of architectural styles that are found all over the city.

The typical Brussels residential street contains a surprising diversity of housing styles that butt-up against one another quite literally.  Brussels is famous for Art-Nouveau and Art-Deco architecture that embodies the principles of Gesamtkunstwerk (A German word meaning: a complete work of art) found in many European houses from the early 20th Century.  Art-Nouveau architecture makes use of iron and woodwork in sinuous details on building facades and throughout interior fixtures and decor.  Details in these houses are often nature-inspired and contain imagery of plants and greenery as an incorporated form of art into the houses’ structure and expression.  Brussels is the birthplace of Art-Nouveau architecture and has a number of famous examples of the style scattered throughout the city.  Sadly, Art-Nouveau fell out of fashion in Europe and new forms of architecture replaced many existing Art-Nouveau structures.

Because of the ever-changing taste in architecture, Brussels has many streets with houses of all shapes, styles, and sizes all packed into rows.  As I walked or drove through the city, I could see a four-story Modern apartment building neighboring a very traditional three-story European townhouse, followed by a historic or recreated version of an Art-Nouveau house.  Rooflines constantly changed along the roads and almost no coherence between buildings could be seen most of the time.  It certainly creates a unique aesthetic to the city of Brussels, but it is not one that particularly appeals to me.

Art Nouveau architecture of Brussels

Art Nouveau architecture of Brussels

Apartments in Mantua

Apartments in Mantua

Having spent the past two years in Philadelphia, I have begun to notice some similarities between Brussels and the City of Brotherly Love.  Both cities have quite a rich history respectively, and contain vibrant city centers with large administrative buildings and sleek modern towers.  In the residential areas in both of the cities, various kinds of architectural styles can be found between neighboring houses in a row.  While Brussels has a bit more extreme of a difference between neighboring houses, I have found many interesting design decisions in Philadelphia on streets with traditional row house designs.  Mantua alone has a growing diversity in rowhouse styles and house types.  With Drexel University continuing to grow and influence the North end of West Philadelphia, many vacant lots are being used for new construction to house students.  New apartment buildings can be found scattered throughout the neighborhood now and the atmosphere of the neighborhood, architecturally, can be quite disorienting.  As you walk north from Drexel’s campus, dormitories become re-purposed manors, then rowhouses from a particular time period, then renovated or new buildings, and then the same or a different traditional style of rowhouse.  For the most part, streets remain architecturally consistent as you move east and west with a couple of variations between blocks, but much of Mantua has a mixed identity of what type of house you will see.

Building styles juxtaposed.

Building styles juxtaposed.

In the time that I’ve traveled to South Philadelphia to work here at Toner Architects, I have noticed that much of the city is experiencing this same recreation of streets into interesting combinations of rowhouse styles.  All around the city there are new breaks in the grid of the city and the rooflines of houses.  Almost every house in the city seems to have its own identity that either subtly changes the order of the street, or makes a noticeable statement of breaking away from the surrounding architectural context.  It would seem that the easiest way to observe the changes happening in the city, is to observe the decisions people make regarding the forms and styles of houses they occupy.

David is a a co-op student, attending Drexel University and working full-time as an architectural designer.



Brewerytown – First Impressions

by Bart Bajda

I’d like to begin this by saying thank you to the City of Brotherly Love for the warm welcome it has given me since moving here and I mean that literally; the weather has been too hot for comfort.  Nonetheless, this is a tale of my venture to Philadelphia and my first impressions of the neighborhood I now call home. 

One of the first steps in moving to a new city is finding a place to hang your hat.  Everyone has their specific list of must-haves and deal breakers but unlike most, my criteria was pretty relaxed.  What can I say…I’m a simple man.  Some sort of backyard, storage space, and of course a low budget were my only requirements.  Not too familiar with the city, I set out on an apartment tour across many neighborhoods curated by a rental agent.  What I quickly found was that my neighborhood options were limited based on what I needed and what I was willing to pay.  Hence, I landed in Brewerytown…oh sweet B-town.  I’m told the entire area was completely populated with breweries before Prohibition killed the majority of the business.  I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in a neighborhood so gracefully named?  Right?  Apparently not.  When I began telling everyone the great news, to my surprise, not many knew where this even was.  Somehow this seemed to be uncharted territory, even for a few native Philadelphians.  Now as soon as I mentioned the new Aldi grocery store…the light bulb went off.  Nonetheless, I began having my doubts on whether this was a good decision. 

Fast forward a few months and the doubts have all quickly evaporated into thin air and I am overwhelmingly proud to call Brewerytown my home.  This neighborhood has thus far preserved a sense of grittiness and natural urban feel, not yet overtaken by the privileged (see definition of gentrification).  Just take a walk down Girard Avenue and you’ll see Rybrew, the sister sandwich shop to Rybread with an unbelievable beer selection, coexisting with the Girard Veterinary Clinic and Cycle Brewerytown on the same block.  Across the street, Spot Burger dishes out some of the finest patties between 2 buns that you’ll find in the city.  Within a 5 minute walk you’ll find other incredible businesses like Chez Novaks, Karma Pizza (formerly Uncle Nicks), Pizza Dads, Young’s Sneaker City, Electric Temple, Brewerytown Bicycles, Otto’s, 2637 Brew, Monkey and the Elephant, Era, Brewerytown Beats, and Crime and Punishment Brewing Co., triumphantly putting the “brewery” back in Brewerytown.  The list goes on and on and I haven’t even mentioned the quintessential corner stores (or as I like to call them…bodegas) that populate almost every other street corner. 

Green Eggs Cafe—coming soon.

Green Eggs Cafe—coming soon.

If you ask me, I’d say leave it the way it is, but for better or for worse there is a tremendous amount of new construction of all scales happening as I write this.  Almost every property on 31st street from Girard to Oxford St is currently under construction or has been within the last 3 years claiming the newly minted title of 31st Street Corridor.  For Pete’s sake, there’s a Green Eggs Café opening soon on Girard Ave.  Is it an ominous cloud of doom and development that hovers above Brewerytown, or is it the necessary next step that leads to success?  Only time will tell, but for now, I will enjoy my stay, listening to the charming rumble of the #15 trolley. 

Brewerytown 1.JPG

Bart Bajda an architect and lover of cold weather.



Things We Do: Historical Commission Approvals

Philadelphia is an old city, whose plan was first laid out by William Penn in 1683. One of the main agencies in charge of protecting our architectural history is the Philadelphia Historical Commission (PHC). Philadelphia has a combination of historic properties (individual buildings that are protected) and historic districts (whole areas of the city that are protected). The PHC has a process in place to review any work on protected buildings and within protected districts.

Proposed Facade Restoration Drawing, 1629 Wallace Street

Proposed Facade Restoration Drawing, 1629 Wallace Street

The Commission's protections cover the exterior shape and materials of a building. The goal is to preserve existing history, and--when new development is planned--to protect the character of historic buildings and neighborhoods.

Everything is reviewed--from the materials to be used, to the restoration of existing cornices, to the shape of the roofline. We've worked with several clients to get through this process. There are several steps involved.

At the beginning of design, we will confirm that the client's property is protected. Our experience with past projects helps to inform us as to what the PHC is likely to approve, and we will try to steer our work in that direction. After putting together some preliminary drawings and taking existing-conditions photographs, we will meet with PHC staff at their office to discuss the project. They will often be able to give us a deeper historical perspective on the building, using their extensive collection of historical photographs.

1600 Block of Wallace Street, 1963 ( )

1600 Block of Wallace Street, 1963 (

Once preliminary design is complete, we assemble an application package for the PHC Architectural Committee. This committee is made up of architects and preservationists, and their purpose is to provide guidance to us regarding the specifics of our building. We will meet with the committee to discuss the particulars of our building, and our proposed solutions. They will ultimately make a recommendation to the Historical Commission, either in favor of or in opposition to the project.

Existing Conditions at 1629 Wallace Street

Existing Conditions at 1629 Wallace Street

A few weeks later, we meet with the Historical Commission, which is the group that will make the final decision on the project. The Commission is made up of architects, preservationists, historians, and representatives from the community and real-estate development interests. We present the project to them, and they ask questions. At the end of the hearing, they will take a vote either approving or denying the project.

But wait--there's more! Assuming the project is approved, it's time for us to start on construction drawings. This involves more detailed drawings, as well as material samples. For a typical project, this might include "shop drawings" from a custom window manufacturer, brick and mortar samples, and metal finish samples. Once the construction drawings are complete and the details and material samples are assembled, we make one last trip to the PHC office to get everything reviewed. The review is just to make sure that we haven't changed anything since our Commission approval. After review, the PHC staff will stamp the drawings, and then they are ready to go to Licenses and Inspections for building permit review.

If you have a property that's listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, we can help!


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Another Reason to Love the City

Last week was Halloween, which of course means trick-or-treating. It was a great night to be out, whether you were with kids (like I was) or if you were handing out candy. The weather was mild here in Philly, which meant that the crowds were better than last year. I took this photo at 6:30 in the evening.

Say what you will about South Philly (I know I do), but when it comes to kids, the neighborhood really turns out. People love to compliment kids and exclaim how beautiful they are, and are always forthcoming with a hearty "Ga-bless" (short for "God bless you, you wonderful child"). This spirit is really on display during Halloween.

I grew up in a small town, with large houses on big lots. You really had to put in some effort if you were going to get around to enough houses to fill your bag. Long front walks (NEVER walk across someone's lawn to take a shortcut) and separated houses really separated candy collection points, and on top of that you had to ring the doorbell and wait for the person to answer it.

Not so in Philly. Here, the houses are only sixteen feet (or less) wide, and everyone's out on their stoop. You do more of a candy drive-by,  just holding out the bag and getting your bounty. Easy on the kids, plus lots of people on the street makes for a fun environment. In about an hour, my kids had their bags full and were ready to go home.

There's a lot of talk out there about walkability in cities, as one of the may key things that make them successful. Community events like trick-or-treating really showcase a neighborhood's strengths. Ours shone brightly this year, and it's part of why I'm  proud to be a Philadelphian*.

*I would be remiss if I didn't mention that you're not technically a Philadelphian if you weren't born and raised here. Just ask anyone at your neighborhood deli.

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The End of the Suburbs?

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Leigh Gallagher, author of the new book The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving. The event was hosted by the Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance and was held at a restaurant on Passyunk Avenue, which is featured in the book as an example of one type of neighborhood that people are choosing over suburbia.

About one hundred or so people were in attendance, including neighborhood leaders, real estate brokers and developers, designers, and even our City Councilman. On stage were Ms. Gallagher and Inga Saffron, a journalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer who covers architecture, design, and planning. Prompted by questions from Ms. Saffron, Gallagher gave a brief synopsis of the book and then took questions from the audience.

The two main points of the book, extremely briefly:

  • The suburbs--with open space, cars, and single-family home ownership--defined the "American Dream" for a period of nearly 70 years. This definition of success was directly opposite from the image of city life.
  • In recent years, the housing crisis exposed problems with the suburban style of development, exacerbating long-running economic, societal, and demographic issues. The nuclear family is no longer the dominant social structure, rising oil prices and long commutes have turned the younger generation away from cars, and cities are experiencing a renaissance that has led to the smoothing over of their rough edges.

Gallagher does not argue that the suburbs are going away, but she does make the point that recent data show a change is happening. Cities are getting healthier. People are tired of commuting for work and play.

Of course, it's not all roses in the city. In particular, the issues surrounding public education are overwhelming, and Gallagher acknowledges that a lack of quality public education might be the biggest thing holding most cities back. There may be a "sweet spot" in the middle--older "streetcar suburbs" with their own downtowns (for example, Media, PA, where Gallagher is from) offer many of the benefits of both the city and the suburbs.

Some questions I thought about during and after the presentation:

  • If the more affluent leave their suburban homes and move back to the city, improving (gentrifying?) neighborhoods and raising property values, where do the poor, who were originally left behind in dying cities, going to go? Those with limited financial means are the least equipped to re-populate the suburbs, with their dependence on cars, large plots (=higher taxes per home), and lack of adequate social services.
  • If the suburbs are left abandoned, what happens to the homes and infrastructure that's left behind?
  • How will cities react to increased population? What vestiges of their old suburban lives will those new transplants bring with them? Will they be able to make themselves comfortable with less space, less stuff, and fewer cars? Or will the city begin to take on some aspects of suburban culture?

Do you have a story about moving from suburbia to the city, or vice versa? What was your experience?



A Week of Service

Last week was a busy one here.  Lots of projects to work on, permits received, construction continuing. At the same time, I was able to make some time for a few community organizations I'm involved with.

First, our local elementary school, Southwark, is contemplating some playground improvements. When I say "playground", I'm referring to this:

As you can see, there's a lot of room for improvement. Currently, the only equipment out there are two backboardless basketball hoops bolted to the side of the building.

I got involved with the school through my neighborhood association's education committee. The committee began working on this idea with the principal about a year ago, and things are now moving forward. I was able to provide them with a site plan to begin preliminary discussions. I will likely not have a large design role in this project--that will hopefully be handled by OLIN, one of the world's leading landscape architecture firms (I'm not kidding--check out their website), who has an employee living in the neighborhood. Hopefully I'll have more good news to report on this project in the next few months.

On a related note, I also serve on my neighborhood association's zoning committee. Each month we hold public meetings with interested neighbors to find out about projects in our area that have applied for zoning variances. The project team--which may include the owner, architect, and/or lawyer--present their project and make a case for why it will be a benefit to the neighborhood. Afterwards, the neighbors take a vote, and we, the committee members, use that vote to help inform our own vote. Our September meeting is tonight, which means that last week I distributed flyers to about 150 addresses within close proximity to this month's project.

Next on the list is the Penn Jersey Roller Derby League. I began working with the league on a pro bono basis back in January. The have space in a warehouse at 19th and Indiana in North Philadelphia. To call their building "nondescript" would be an understatement:

I've put an arrow where their front door is. It has a small stencil with their logo on it, and that's it. So, we're going to work on their street presence, as well as their restroom, locker room, and concessions situations. Ultimately, they'd like to be able to host events there and sell tickets to support the league.

Finally, I attended a board meeting at the Tolentine Community Center, right down the street from the office. I'd been asked by the board's president to consider joining the board, along with a few other people from the neighborhood. It was an interesting meeting, and I learned a lot about where the Center is headed in the next few years. I've decided to join, and am looking forward to making a positive impact on the community.

As you can see, your friendly neighborhood architect is up to a lot. I'll keep you posted on future developments.



What to do With the Parkway?

Image from the report "More Park, Less Way" by PennPraxis and the Department of Parks and Recreation

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.  For those of you who don't know, the parkway runs diagonally from Love Park (near City Hall) northwest to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (location of Rocky's famous celebration).  It serves as the city's cultural corridor, and thus connects Center City with Fairmount Park.

The article addresses some of the issues with the Parkway's current design, including traffic and lots of underutilized open space.  While the walk is beautiful in some ways, it can be intimidating.  The road is very wide, and contains many lanes of traffic, all moving chaotically through two traffic circles, an island parking lot, and a highway connection.  While the city has recently delineated bike lanes and clearer pedestrian crossings, the whole thing still feels too car-oriented.

Can I get some people with those cars? Photo from

This summer, the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation created The Oval, a large beach-themed park in the middle of the Parkway.  It serves to highlight the area, offer a place for neighborhood residents to escape the summer heat, and show one possibility for how to re-imagine the area.

Food trucks wait along the edge of the new, temporary park in Eakins Oval. Photo from

This is a great design and a wonderful asset to the city, even if it's temporary.  But that's the problem: we need a long-term solution here.  It will require a combination of urban design, landscape, and architecture.  

Urban designers need to re-imagine how we use the Parkway, and how we should use it.  How much car traffic should be directed through?  How much sidewalk is enough?  How often should the two-mile stretch be broken by a point of interest?  

Landscape architects will need to continue focusing on the opportunities to tie the large, set-back buildings into the pedestrian experience.  We shouldn't just admire these buildings from afar--we should feel invited in.  Where smaller pieces of land sit empty, we should consider whether more constructed parks, such as Sister Cities Park, are appropriate.  Larger areas can be dedicated to athletic fields or event spaces.  

Architects can be called on to help infill some of these larger spaces as well--not everything on the Parkway needs to be a large museum or hotel.  The cafe at Sister Cities Park is a perfect example.  Why not offer more opportunities to sit and enjoy a snack or drink as visitors make their way from museum to museum?

Obviously, all this takes time and money.  It also takes effort and cooperation.  The city can't do it alone--donors will need to step up financially, designers will need to work together, and the public will need to make its needs known.  

So what do you think--any ideas?


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Philly Has a Trash Problem

I took this picture a few weeks ago.  It was trash and recycling day and right at the end of the flowering-tree season.  I was pretty taken with the combination of this delicate pink snow mixed in with the filthy street trash.  It was all swirling around in the wind, mixing together.  A perfect metaphor for Philadelphia (and reminiscent of the plastic bag scene from American Beauty).

Where does all this trash come from?  In part, it's cultural.  There's just a lot of littering here.  There's the blatant kind, where a person stops at a light, opens their car door, and kicks out several bags of fast-food trash (I've witnessed this).  There are the subtle, and for some reason acceptable, cigarette butts.  But there's also the more sinister--tossing bags of trash over a fence into an empty lot, where the bags decompose in the sun and release all of their contents.  Knocking over a street trash can.  Tearing open bags on trash day to pull out something useful, leaving the rest to blow in the wind.  And of course, there's the everyday--dropping the used cup, the candy-bar wrapper, the cheesesteak paper.

We also have a large population of stray cats, squirrels, rats, and raccoons, all looking for an easy meal.  And don't get me started on the dog poop.

But there's another reason for the vast amounts of trash on our streets, and it's more institutional.  Our recycling goes out in blue bins.  These bins have no lids:

From Grid Magazine:

Now imagine what happens when those bins go out on a windy evening.  Those aluminum cans, plastic bottles, and newspapers go flying.  They have all night to get out, helped by the army of can collectors, junk recyclers, and others who rummage through looking for treasure.

The next morning it gets worse, as the city trash collectors roll through the neighborhoods.  They're under pressure to cover a large area in a single workday, and they have to move the trash and recycling from the curb to the truck, over a line of parked cars.  The fastest and easiest way to do this, apparently, is to throw the bags over the cars and into the truck.  Sometimes one misses and hits the ground, bursting open.  Sometimes people don't tie their bags well, and they open up mid-flight.  The result is lots of trash blowing around, with no one cleaning it up.

The man in the first photo had just come outside to clean up the front walk.  After a few swipes of his broom, though, he gave up in disgust and went back inside.  Who can blame him, when it feels so useless?

In my neighborhood, there are signs up informing us of when street cleaning will take place.  The signs warn us to move our cars on those days.  Unfortunately, the street cleaning machines haven't been here in years.  The reason?  A combination of budget cuts, plus neighbors complaining to our city councilperson about the lack of parking spots on Wednesdays.

My next-door neighbor is a lifetime resident of the neighborhood.  She says that when she was a kid, people used to open fire hydrants at the end of the block, and everyone would come out and scrub down the sidewalk and gutter in front of their houses.  I'm not asking for sterile here, but can we all agree to pick up the trash in front of our houses?  It would really help a lot.

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Project Update: 1620 Reed Street

exterior views: from the northeast (left) and south (right)

I've been working on a project for a new building at the corner of Reed and Bancroft Streets in the Newbold section of South Philadelphia.  The lot is zoned for a single-family dwelling, but the clients would like to build a two-unit building instead, which will require a variance.  This variance will benefit the neighborhood for several reasons:

  • The lot is currently empty.
  • The clients want to build a quality building, which they will continue to own and maintain over the long term.
  • The value will go up for this property, meaning more tax money for the City that will (mostly) go towards our schools.
  • The value of surrounding properties will go up, meaning higher resale values for the neighbors.
  • The building will house new residents, giving the neighborhood a few more votes in local elections.
  • Because the building will be new, the rents will be market-rate or higher, which means it's unlikely to be used by people who are up to no good and are looking for a cheap place to do it.
  • And finally, of course the building will be well-designed.

The first part of the variance process is to file appeal paperwork.  I've spent some time surveying the neighborhood building stock, and have put together this map showing current land uses around the site:

The argument that we'll be making, aside from those listed above, is that there are already a lot of multi-family buildings around, especially on Reed Street, where our property (black rectangle in the center of the map) fronts.

I'll be posting updates as this project develops.



Adapting Buildings

I recently went on a long walk and came across this block on South 9th Street. What I find fascinating about this block (and the many other similar blocks in Philadelphia) is that if you look closely you can see that at one time these buildings were all the same.  Over time, however, they have adapted to their owners' preferences and have become individualized.  Below, I have added drawings to the panorama; the first row is drawn as the buildings appear today (awnings not shown, for clarity) and the second row is how they appeared when new:

click to enlarge

The house that most closely resembles its original is #8, though its front door has been replaced and the transom over the door has been removed.  This block is a chronicle of the neighborhood's stylistic past.  Some examples of neighborhood-typical modifications are:

  • Remove and/or cover wood cornice (the decorative woodwork at the top of the building) due to rot, need for repainting, or "modernizing" via vinyl siding.  (removed: houses 1, 2, 11, 12, 17-22.  covered: houses 3-6)
  • Replace brownstone watercourse (the stone base from the bottom of the building up to the first-floor window) with brick or fake stone.  The brownstone often deteriorates due to weather, water, and freezing, and is expensive to repair.  (houses 1, 2, 4-7, 15, 16, 19-21)
  • Completely remove and replace brick front.  Done for any number of reasons including changes in fashion as well as deterioration. (houses 1, 11, 12, 17, 18, 22)
  • Add vinyl/aluminum siding.  Usually there is some insulation board behind the siding.  Added to avoid masonry maintenance and increase insulating value of wall. (houses 2, 5, 19-21)
  • Add stucco over brick.  Done to avoid masonry maintenance. (house 11)
  • Reduce window size.  Done when windows need to be replaced to reduce cost of new windows.  Also done during the energy crisis to reduce window area and save on heating costs. (houses 5, 11, 12, 15-22)
  • Add awnings.  Done to help with summer heat gain. (houses 2, 3, 6, 13, 15, 17, 18, 21, 22)
  • Replace front stoop.  Done when original marble steps become worn, or to convert from straight stair to stair-and-porch design. (houses 1, 2, 4-7, 12, 13, 15-22)

What I find most fascinating about this is that while we often think of buildings as permanent, they also age and adapt along with us.  Each one of these buildings reflects the priorities (and available finances) of its owners, former and current.  Some buildings age and adapt well, and others do not.  Some adaptations are hurtful to the buildings, their inhabitants, and their neighbors (a bad waterproofing choice could cause this, for example).  Others make sense at the time, and then as technology improves, make less sense (making windows smaller made sense before we had insulated double- and triple-pane windows; now we wish we had those big windows back to let in more light and fresh air).

This isn't a new topic; it was most notably covered in Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn (1995).But it's an idea worth reminding ourselves of every once in a while.  How will you adapt to your changing environment?  How will you help your building learn?



Wookiee Houses

Last week, I wrote to you about some strategies for keeping your home warm this winter.  One strategy I did not mention, but is all-too-common in this part of Philadelphia, is wrapping your home in a faux-fur coat.  Who would do such a thing?  Observe:

"My, what a lovely hat you're wearing!"

Now, I don't know who the salesman was who brought this material down on the good people of South Philly, but I wish I had him on my team.  This product is also available for taller houses:

"I'll see your two stories, and raise you one."

Now, what do I have against this material?  My complaints are threefold:

  1. Authenticity.  This is metal siding masquerading as wood shingles.  It's not wood.  It's not shingles.  It's also simulating a mansard roof while not gaining the additional interior space one would typically afford.
  2. Color.  In a neighborhood full of mostly red brick and lots of concrete (and too few trees), why choose yet another dull neutral color?  Having such a large area of dark color makes the building feel oppressive.  (Note: while a few examples of this material do exist in red, the overwhelming majority are this same dark brown.)
  3. Message.  This material is dark and is applied over a large area, giving it enhanced visual weight.  It pushes windows back into deep recesses, reducing their ability to let in natural light.  It hangs over the street, encroaching on the public way.  It is metal, masquerading as something else.  It says "Look at me, I'm an oppressive, fake material that does nothing for either the occupants or observers of this building!"

Finally, don't think that this material is just for corner properties:

"Just leave a little up top."

What I find most frustrating about the mid-block example is the way the original cornice is covered up.  (The house to the left still has its original cornice.  For a hint at what usually happens to these old cornices when they become too much work to maintain, see the house to the right.)  More on South Philly cornice hiding in a future post.

Why do I call these Wookiee houses?  Aside from their furry coats, they have a bad attitude and do a poor job of communicating what's really going on.  Sort of like our old friend:

"I'm Chewbacca, and I approved this message."



LoMo Flea Market Wrap-Up

Thanks to everyone who stopped by the table to talk architecture at the LoMo Flea Market.  I had a lot of fun meeting some neighbors, handing out some free advice, and collecting donations for Habitat For Humanity Philadelphia.  The weather was a bit colder than expected, but the turnout was still great.  If you missed me this time, keep your eyes and ears open for the next one, coming to a flea market near you!



Frank Rizzo returns.

Back in May, those familiar with the large Frank Rizzo mural at 9th and Montrose in the Italian Market were shocked to see that the mural had disappeared.  The wall had been re-stuccoed and was a neutral gray.  A few days later, the South Philly Review mentioned that the mural was to be re-painted by the original artist, Diane Keller, fifteen years after the original.  Sure enough, a few weeks later, the scaffolding went up and the mural began to be re-drawn.

The original had deteriorated due to exposure to the elements.  The new mural re-creates the original: the official mayoral portrait of Frank Rizzo, framed by a background scene of the Italian Market.  Rizzo began his career in Philadelphia in the 1940's as a police officer.  His beat was South Philly, and he was often seen in the Market area.

He served as Police Commissioner from 1967-71.  In 1971, he resigned his position in order to run for Mayor.  He won that year and served two terms, until 1978.  Rizzo was famous for his brash, often brutish statements and vocabulary, both in private and in press conferences.  Knowing this, I wonder whether the artist's choice to paint Rizzo's mouth last was intentional.

The mural is finished now, after about a month of work, and it looks great.  Until it was gone, I didn't realize what an impact it has on its surroundings.



Witold Rybczynski in The Urbanite

The Urbanite is a Baltimore-based "publication dedicated to addressing the issues affecting the relationship between the city and those who live there".  As you might imagine, Baltimore has a lot in common with Philly, due to their proximity and similar ages.  Importantly, the cities share a common building block, the rowhouse.  Older rowhouse-based cities tend to be walkable, with moderately-scaled buildings and a mix of residential and commercial uses throughout.

All this is to say, I think Philadelphia residents could get a lot out of a magazine about urban issues, even if it's based in Baltimore.  Recently, The Urbanite's Marc Steiner interviewed Witold Rybczynski, a professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania.  The interview focused on the idea of city planning.  I think the question and answer below sums it up well:

Do you think that urban planning is a waste of time?

 No. I think cities are fascinating … I’m very strong on development. I think that the private market is what has created American cities from the beginning. [Urban development is] driven by entrepreneurs and risk-takers. But the public government has a role to play. It can make these projects very difficult or expensive, or it can encourage them. The downside of the private market is that the developer is only thinking about his own project. Somebody does have to put the pieces together or link them up when they need to be linked. That is the city itself. Cities are not very good at developing, but they do have that responsibility, and they do have the tools to deal with transportation and infrastructural issues. Only the city can do that. 

Read the full interview here.



This is why I love warm weather.

Philadelphia, like most cities, has a lot of cultural, ethnic, and neighborhood fairs throughout the spring and summer.  In my neighborhood, everyone looks forward to the Italian Market Festival, which was on May 15th and 16th this year.

9th & Annin, 9am. Still setting up.

9th & Annin, 9am. Still setting up.

9th & Annin, 3pm. The crowd stretches for blocks up and down 9th Street.

9th & Annin, 3pm. The crowd stretches for blocks up and down 9th Street.

Roast pork is one of the many food choices. This one was delicious.

Aside from amazing food and drink, there was also a craft area, live music, and lots of other neighborhood specialty shops.  If you want to see one of the great things about Philly, make sure to be here next year.