At the time of its redevelopment, contemporary design was believed to bring out the best of this historic Philadelphia neighborhood. It’s aged quite well.
Philadelphia’s Society Hill is a delightful, historic neighborhood, containing the largest concentration of 18th and early 19th century structures in the country. Unlike Beacon Hill in Boston or Charleston’s Battery, it also contains a remarkable amount of unapologetic Modernism. This is not the result of an accident but a precise plan, one which produced a result that doesn’t quite exist anywhere else in the United States.
Society Hill is generally advertised as a banner success for preservation amidst an age of fecklessly sweeping urban renewal. For the most part, it was, yet that’s not quite all of the story. Its 1960s redevelopment accomplished a great deal of preservation, but that was enabled by wholesale condemnation and forcible land acquisitions. It also produced a demographic pattern that’s all too familiar: a lower-class and substantially African American neighborhood transformed abruptly into one that was affluent and white.
While it also accomplished a valorous amount of preservation, the neighborhood’s redevelopment contained a vintage 1960s-like amount of demolition, with hundreds of buildings destroyed. Some clearly were nuisance uses best gone, or undistinguished structures, including a wholesale food market, small factories, a lumberyard, and taxi parking lots. Many others, including distinguished buildings by Frank Furness and Wilson Eyre simply had the misfortune of being built after the 1850s.
Destruction has not been at all uncommon in the creation of “historic” settings—the creation of Colonial Williamsburg involved the demolition of over 700 buildings. What’s singularly unusual in Philadelphia was the city’s determination to replace these not with faux-historical structures but only with modern ones. It was a unique melding of two mid-century urges, one to create colonial theme parks and another to build only in modern forms.
There were some who argued for uniform colonial reconstruction, but numerous persons involved in the process, most notably Ed Bacon, Philadelphia’s urban planning director, favored new construction in modern form. In the April 6, 1957 issue of the New Yorker, Lewis Mumford summarized this argument: “Since so much that is historically genuine remains, why should anyone debase its value by minting and scattering about false coin that the innocent will take as real money?”
Modern infill was believed to be a means complementary to historic fabric that would attract affluent residents back to the city—a neighborhood with something for everyone. Documents on the Society Hill Historic District involve somewhat surreal leaps from homes credited to “Lawrence Sink, cabinetmaker” or “Joseph Townsend, house carpenter, and Charles Townsend, watchmaker,” to scions of postwar modernism like I.M. Pei, and almost nothing in between—not because these things didn’t exist, but because they were systematically removed.
Architects were not given license to simply do anything: height limits were strictly enforced (aside from Pei’s Society Hill Towers) to ensure contextual appropriateness. A number of other features were also banned. But otherwise, the answers were up to them.
While occasionally dull or disruptive, the results are often fascinating, managing to complement and accentuate the character of the historic architecture. Most of the architects worked principally in brick, like their predecessors. It’s a great help that the largest scale work was by talents as great as Pei—who designed not only the towers but also two townhouse developments—and the unsung Louis Sauer, an architect whose experiments with rowhouse forms are among the most innovative of the postwar period. Both of their work paid attention to its urban context. Pei’s Bingham Court and St. Joseph’s Way townhouses were designed to engage with both streets and to tie into the neighborhood’s striking greenways.
Sauer’s block of Penn’s Landing Square consists of brick facades that are different on each side and responsive to the existing urban fabric. On one side, facing a historic residential street, Sauer demarcated individual rowhouses with terrace setbacks for each unit. Facing another residential street, he created a solid front, interrupted only by an unusual pattern of doors and windows. On the other two sides, facing a waterfront park and the Society Hill Towers, Sauer created more assertive facades with a third level of continuous brick but large multistory and recessed windows and terraces designed to engage with more open surroundings. The interior of the block is equally ingenious, a warren of units surrounding internal courts arranged in irregular clusters. All of the units provide purposefully differentiated private and public sides, the former often connected to private gardens.
Sauer’s contextual strategy shows an awareness of the surrounding architecture and experiments within its rough frame. As Antonio Saggio writes in Five Masterworks by Louis Sauer:
The federal style facades of the buildings in the neighborhood are clearly based on a three level division - these being the base of the building at street level, an elevation that unites the horizontal floor levels and the windows of equal width, and a cornice right below the roof. Sauer articulately responded to this organization in his projects, exploiting continuity themes by adding dynamic motifs. On the one hand, he accepts that by introducing new architecture into an existing block he has to adhere to the rules. On the other, he modifies the federal architectural division into three subdivisions; accepting only two of the three elements.
Much of the infill in Society Hill is of a smaller stature, either individual units or a few that are connected: most employ these or similar strategies to experiment with the form of a rowhouse, sometimes with significant nods to Georgian or federal form, sometimes slighter ones. A number, including many of Pei’s townhouses (built between 1964 and 1967), contract the number of street-level windows for the sake of privacy while favoring large windows on the alternate face. William Cox’s beetle-browed 304 Delancey Street (built in the early 1970s) features just two slim windows on each floor of the streetfront, recessed and at the edge of the home. Others include much larger windows than their traditional neighbors, such as Sauer’s McClennan Residence (built in the early 1960s), with a bay window volume spanning two floors. The best rearrange things in even more unpredictable ways. Mitchell and Giurgola’s Franklin Roberts House (built in the late 1960s) slides most windows to the left of the unit while also featuring a traditional dormer.
Infill homes often alter the street wall slightly, either with recessed or protruding elements. Sauer’s McClennen Residence includes a bay window volume jutting for two floors into the street. Adolph DeRoy Mark’s 433 Spruce Street (circa 1960) includes a curved turret jutting out. Mark’s 307 Delancey Street (circa 1973) turns in a heavily rusticated direction, with a prominent chimney and successive setbacks looking like a stranded watermill.
This is not the architecture that draws a crowd to the neighborhood, although tours of such buildings do exist. Modern properties occasionally linger on the market longer than their older peers and their preservation status is not as ironclad as the neighborhood’s older stock. Some are landmarked and many are contributing properties for the city’s Society Hill historic district as they’ve become bookended more recently by Neocolonial construction.
A number of modern structures related to the nearby Independence Mall have been demolished, but the stock of modern housing in Society Hill has endured on the whole. Occasionally ungainly, the combination of historical and modern architecture in Society Hill generally works well thanks to new arrivals determined to flatter their older neighbors. While it’s a shotgun marriage brought about by methods that no preservationist would endorse today, it’s a unique partnership that none should want to tear asunder.