The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Archive for May 2012

The Homes of Willis G. Hale, Philadelphia’s Most Flamboyant Architect

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The 1500 block of North 17th Street

Now up at Hidden City Philadelphia:

Constructed in 1886, the 17th Street homes were one of several projects that Hale designed for the partnership of two Philadelphia business magnates, William Elkins and Peter A.B. Widener. After striking it big investing in streetcars and railways, they turned to North Philly’s rapidly booming real estate market.

“Elkins and Widener were masters of speculative housing,” says Michael J. Lewis, a scholar of Hale’s work who teaches art history at Williams College. “They had the vision to buy eight to ten blocks at a time and lay them out in a way so that mass production made construction cheaper. And there exists a wonderful harmony between that industrial scale and Hale’s personality.”

The 17th Street residences were meant to exude lavishness with their prominent mansard roofs, bold stone foundations and trim, and shared archways over paired entrances. They also include a liberal placement of corbels, one of Hale’s most recognizable signatures–those inverted pyramids supporting windowsills and racing up stepped gables.

Read more: Divine Lorraine Architect’s Forgotten North Philly Rowhouses At A Crossroads


Written by cwmote

May 26, 2012 at 2:02 pm

“The city is not the suburbs”

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If you’ve grown weary of the unmistakable trends of development in your neighborhood — namely, boring McRowhomes with roof decks, cream stuccoed bays, mammoth-sized front steps and street-side parking garages and curb cuts — take some heart from the guys at PostGreen. They’ve been leading the way in constructing aesthetically stimulating houses that are also ecologically efficient. You may not find all of their designs appealing, but you get the sense that they are conscientiously fitting their development within the constraints of the city rather than (as with many quick-buck developers) stretching those constraints to fit their whims.

On the Postgreen Homes blog, the team has put up a valuable essay against the suburbanization of Philadelphia’s core neighborhoods. It’s a call to action against the divorce of residential from commercial zoning on city blocks and the unblinking acceptance of cars and parking just about everywhere. And, of course, it gets to the bottom of why these trends are an environmental disaster:

Cities need to plan. They need to use that plan to zone for mixed uses in their neighborhoods. The need to create incentives for those who don’t own cars. Parking should be hard in a city. Driving should be expensive. But, most of that is pretty unappetizing politically. So, for now, we need at least a few of our developers to understand the value of commercial space and build it into their projects. We need people to mix people and the planet into their plans for profit. Cities should be providing our model for sustainable living with an abundance of shared resources and a reduction of personal impact, but without proper development they could swing all the way over into another model of waste and excess. Our urban neighborhoods could become just another form of suburb where perhaps we have a convenience store or bar, but no one really wants to live next to it.

It’s great that Philly is finally stabilizing its population, and quite possibly showing robust growth for the first time in half a century. Greater density is better economically and easier on the planet. To really achieve density, however, we need to stop defining urban planning in terms of the automobile. Part of the problem is that too many jobs are still out in the suburbs, so new city residents are ill-equipped to getting around without cars. But it’s a problem that goes beyond the profit margins of developers; ultimately it will take efforts at the city level as well to fix the tax code and attract more industry to the city. Without jobs, our growing Center City neighborhoods are just bedroom communities for young professionals.

Well done, guys. And by the way, when’s reNewbold getting started? We’re growing impatient…

Written by cwmote

May 3, 2012 at 1:37 pm