The Uncanny Valley

Notes on art, culture and preservation

Art Notes: Dilworth Plaza rising, First Friday expanding

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Today is First Friday (already!), but here’s something new to try rolling off the tongue: First Weekend. Turns out that the Old City galleries have been such a success despite the economic downturn (cynical translation: are so desperate for sales precisely because of the economic downturn) that they will offer educational programs and restaurant partnerships for Sunday brunches along with their usual extended Friday night viewing hours. Will sidewalk artists expand their encampments accordingly? All legends start somewhere.


rendering of Pulse (image: Knight Arts)

Speaking of encampments: you know how the City started wrecking the old Dilworth Plaza outside of City Hall as an excuse to evict the Occupiers? Here’s some evidence that it was more than just a really good excuse: structural steel improvements to the concourse connecting the Market-Frankford station to the plaza have been successfully completed. Next step, now that your commute will become a little less hellish: the plaza makeover will become visible at the surface level by the summertime. Part of the makeover will be visibly enhanced by the installation of Pulse, a sculpture by Janet Echelman, made possible by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. We’re not sure if the sculpture consists of the reflecting pool or the curvy flares that slice through it, but whatever it is, it looks cool — and Philadelphia’s homeless (and Occupiers…but I repeat myself…kidding!) will probably be deterred from camping out around it when the plaza reopens in 2014.

Otherwise, it’s one of those can’t-go-wrong weekends. Groundhog Day? Super Bowl party? Puppy Bowl party??? Get with it, man. Opportunity knocks.


Written by cwmote

February 1, 2013 at 1:36 pm

More infill coming to South Street, this time (we hope) minus the heated neighborhood drama

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With the recently publicized neighbor/developer feud escalating over the vacant lot at 1701 South Street — now visually enhanced by fresh graffiti at the site (above) — you’re likely to think one of two things: “Dear Lord, developers are trampling over residents and ruining their home values,” or “For Pete’s sake, at this rate South Street will never get filled in.” If it’s the latter that’s gnawing your brain, think positive about all the other projects that are slated to break ground. South Star Lofts, at the site of the former community garden on Broad Street, is expected to commence any week now, while 1612-16 South should get started in March, according to Ori Feibush of OCF Realty.


Will 1701’s graffiti wall eventually match this?

And now yet another empty parcel is about to enter the fray. The owners of 1110-1112 South St., currently a gravel parking lot, will present their plans to the Zoning Board of Adjustment to build eight residential units on the site. Presumably, these will be condominiums that resemble the units on the north side of the block, only a fair bit taller — 41 feet, in fact. The site is currently zoned for first-floor commercial, but the zoning notice makes no mention of mixed residential/retail use. The notice also refers to a rear yard space, without addressing on-site parking.

We’re not sure how the neighbors behind the site have responded to the proposed height and density — hopefully, someone at Hawthorne Empowerment Coalition can fill us in. We’ll know for certain come Wednesday, February 20, when the ZBA hearing is set to be held.

Written by cwmote

January 31, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Architect’s Dictionary: what’s a quoin?

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This architectural feature is easy to overlook, but quite a charming element of certain buildings once you learn how to spot it. A quoin (pronounced like “coin”) refers to the use of masonry to reinforce the corner of a structure, usually with an alternating pattern of long and short bricks. Specifically, quoins are those corner bricks that add fortification to facades made from weaker materials, as with First Baptist Church (pictured above), although they can be defined broadly as any such brick pattern that contrasts visually with the building’s facade.

Here’s but a sampling from the Uncanny Valley photo archives of quoins in Philadelphia:

A little quoin-age in Washington Square West

A little quoin-age in Washington Square West

The extraordinary John Charles Memorial Church (now Refuge Temple of Jesus Christ) in Grays Ferry

The extraordinary John Charles Memorial Church (now Refuge Temple of Jesus Christ) in Grays Ferry

row houses in Point Breeze

row houses in Point Breeze


Building 1, Naval Shipyard. Yes, that’s what it’s called — they never “quoined” a better name for it. (Pun not unintended. See what I did there?)

Spot any more fancy quoins? Please share!

Demolition is painless…when it comes to the Pain Center

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DSC01679Demolition signs and fencing are up around the former rehabilitative medicine office at the corner of 12th and Lombard Streets, so this may be your last chance to witness the Pain Center’s slanted roofs, slotted windows and fuzzy brutalism in action. We imagine few Washington Square West residents (or even modernism enthusiasts) will regret watching this 1969 monolith go. Even those who do miss it can only fault the building’s former occupants for endangering their practice by committing insurance fraud. We just wonder how the townhouses that replace it will fit in at a former commercial corner. The six new homes, proposed by Virgil Procaccio, will be four stories and 45 feet tall with three bedrooms, roof decks and rear parking for two cars each.

Not exactly dense by Center City standards, but we imagine they won’t be too out of place considering the homes next door…


three-story townhomes on Lombard, east of the Pain Center

Written by cwmote

January 31, 2013 at 6:09 pm

Is American sprawl helping the terrorists win?

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Before the 20th century, obviously

On the surface, it’s an absurd correlation. And yet, as Patrick Doherty writes (and Emily Badger further analyzes), the history of real estate development over the 20th century was closely linked to pressing concerns of national defense.

The federal government paved highways across the United States in part for security purposes. Besides keeping nuclear facilities accessible while out of harm’s way, they ushered in an era of suburban housing and consumption that de-centered the nation’s urban economy and yielded the financial muscle required to hold its own against Soviet Russia.

That was then. The key to addressing today’s foreign policy threats? Walkable communities. Badger writes:

Doherty’s basic idea is that pent-up demand for such communities could help power a new American economic engine in the same way that suburban housing (and all of the consumption that came with it) made America economically and globally powerful in the Cold War era.

This idea may change how you look at the mixed-use condo on your street corner (it’s helping to make America strong again!). But it also changes how you may think about the history of suburban development.

And this is where the correlation between sustainability and defense becomes obvious. Greater walkability means less need for oil, which means, one hopes, fewer international conflicts springing from demand for the earth’s resources.

Interesting read throughout. Try suggesting that as an argument for more density and fewer parking spots in the city…just anticipate some icy stares from neighbors at the next zoning meeting.

“Walkable Urbanism as Foreign Policy” [The Atlantic Cities]

“A New U.S. Grand Strategy” [Foreign Policy]

Written by cwmote

January 31, 2013 at 2:55 pm

Germantown YWCA: hope for restoration?

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Germantown thrills and frustrates in equal measures. Few neighborhoods in Philadelphia (few in the U.S., at that) can boast such a wealth of historic properties, yet fewer have had to struggle so much to keep their history from falling into ruin.

The dissolution of the Germantown Settlement Community Development Corporation, whose massive landholdings led to its falling into a black hole of debt, has been heralded as a new opportunity for a renaissance. Renovations of once-sagging Victorians indeed seem to be happening left and right. Yet Germantown Settlement still casts a dark shadow, as the City’s Redevelopment Authority (PRA) fails in its attempts to seize the CDC’s remaining properties.

DSC01409A story in NewsWorks looked at the YWCA Administration Building at 5820-24 Germantown Avenue, which once again had its sheriff’s sale postponed. For three years now, the PRA has been trying to get it sold off; its efforts have been hindered mostly by the fact that Germantown Settlement, which owns it, technically no longer exists as an organization. (Philly face palm, natch.) Over that time, a series of fires have seriously compromised the integrity of the building — police have ruled them to be either arson or intentional, but haven’t nabbed any perps (to the best of my knowledge).

Legal fudging aside, there’s now the question of whether the YWCA building, which dates from the 1910s, will be demolished. The NewsWorks story cites developer Ken Weinstein as an interested buyer. The fire damage, he claims, would leave him no choice but to tear it down and start anew — assuming he ever gets the opportunity to buy it, of course.

Weinstein, who recently announced plans to convert an old warehouse on the edge of Germantown into lofts, explained in the comments section below the article (we imagine it’s not a Weinstein imposter) his rationale for demolition:

“After three fires, the building is structurally unsound, especially the 3rd and 4th floors. The asbestos that was in the ceiling is now all over the place. After 20+ years in real estate development, I have never demolished a building so I don’t make this recommendation lightly. We should only demolish a building when it is absolutely necessary and that is the case here.”

Sad to think that Germantown Avenue could lose another one of its landmarks. If Weinstein does acquire the Y building, he will have to make his case for demo before the Historical Commission as the property is listed on the Historic Register. Recent history suggests he won’t have much trouble persuading them. Alas, as if the building itself weren’t enough, the colorful mural on the property is also endangered.

The most positive thing to note here is that Weinstein does have the wherewithal to build something new over the site — and that the rest of Germantown (the western section, at least) is showing strong enough signs of a comeback, despite the shadows of the past, that realtors are once again paying it heed.

“Germantown YWCA sheriff’s sale delayed after building’s owner couldn’t be found” [NewsWorks, Jan. 9, 2013]

Frank Furness, master of railroads, subject of yet another can’t-miss exhibit

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Philadelphia-broadst-138288pv-bisThere are those who assert that every day is Frank Furness Day in Philadelphia. Still, after the year-long celebration of the centenary of his death, it’s easy to get withdrawal symptoms and pine for the festivities of yesteryear. Fear not: the Library Company of Philadelphia has one more exhibit to help you manage your Furnessian architectu-romance. Frank Furness: Working on the Railroads is a tribute to the days when rail stations were temples of American industry. No cathedral, indeed, was grander than Furness’ Broad Street Station (pictured), of which you’ll find a handsome terra cotta model in the exhibit room, Chinese wall included, along with a mini-documentary cataloguing its rise and all-but-inevitable fall. Furness also designed scores of smaller stations for competing rail companies, a handful of which luckily survive. Featuring relics salvaged from Broad Street Station and artistic renderings for masterworks never built (among them an ambitious re-imagining of BSS), it’s an exhibit certain to enlighten as another invaluable lens to Furness’ work. Railroads haven’t been this fun since you trounced your friends at Ticket to Ride.

Frank Furness: Working on the Railroads at the Library Company of Philadelphia (1314 Locust St.), free admission, through April 19

Written by cwmote

January 31, 2013 at 5:55 am