Electric!

The Edison Building has always been a favorite of mine. This monster was once a famous Philadelphia landmark and tourist attraction, suffered through decades of obscurity, and is now starting to get noticed again.

The only thing empty lots are good for--getting pictures of a building. Photo: GroJLart

In the 1920s, the Philadelphia Electric Company was doing VERY well. Their 1880s headquarters, in its time considered far bigger than would ever be needed, had become exceedingly overcrowded. With 7,000 employees, PECO had offices spilling into adjacent buildings. So leadership decided to build a massive new super high-tech headquarters–never to be outgrown–that would be the tallest building east of Broad Street.

In the mid 1920s, PECO approached John Torrey Windrim, son of Beaux-Arts champion John Hamilton Windrim. This guy knew what a cool-looking building was supposed to look like. He had witnessed and understood the change in architectural styles between the late 19th and early 20th centuries like no other. Windrim was an architect whose work just got better and better as his career progressed, and this building was designed toward the end of that career…needless to say, this thing was gonna kick some ass.

Image: Philadelphia Architects and Buildings Project.

Early rendering showing how the building would tower over the area.

Windrim designed a 23 story, 325 foot tall Art Deco mega-tower that would be able to serve PECO’s needs for generations. It would have beautiful facade details from near and far… but that wasn’t all. PECO wanted the building to really stand out. Being the tallest building in the neighborhood wasn’t enough. At the time, Illuminated Architecture–basically lighting the crap out of a building at night–was a new and exciting technology. Studies done during the time showed that 11.8 percent of passersby would stop to look at a building flooded in moving colored lights, as opposed to 3.4 percent for a building that was just flooded with stationary white lights.

PECO decided that the Edison Building should be the best example of Illuminated Architecture in the world. They got the father of the technology, Arthur A. Brainerd, to design a lighting scheme: multi-colored lights moving about the building, each individually dimming and fading at regular intervals. As if that wasn’t enough, a small tower with a spotlight on top rotated on the roof.

Construction began in 1926 and was completed by the fall of 1927 right next door to the old headquarters, which was also called the Edison Building. On its opening night, the lighting scheme was activated by telegraph by an 80-year-old Thomas Alva Edison. Nine watts per square foot illuminated the building, refracted all through the surrounding streets, and was visible 10 miles away.

Postcard, 1920s

The electricity needed to power the lights cost $8,000 a year (about $100,000 in today’s dollars), considered quite a bargain since advertising the company in newspapers and magazines would cost much more.

Once complete, the project was considered a massive success. The Edison Building became a well-known Philadelphia landmark and Brainerd would be contracted to light up other structures, most notably the then-new Delaware River Bridge (now Ben Franklin Bridge). The fame, however, would be short-lived. By the mid-1930’s, taller buildings were built east of Broad near City Hall (one of which was also designed by Windrim), and Illuminated Architecture had become old news. The building was re-lit with a more conventional lighting scheme in 1938.

Later on, one of the worst things that can happen to an awesome-looking high-rise occurred. The original Edison Building, demolished in the mid-1940s, was replaced with a power plant by the Philadelphia Thermal Corporation. A massive smokestack was attached to the side of the Edison Building in the late 1950s and still stands there to this day… sometimes you can catch smoke billowing out of it. This was the point at which people stopped calling it the Edison Building and started referring to it as “The Building With the Smokestack.”

Decades passed and by the end of the 1960s, PECO had begun to outgrow the aging building. Jefferson University purchased the tower in 1973 and has held it ever since. In May 2009, as part of their plan to modernize the look of their campus, Jefferson installed massive lit-up signs bearing their name on both the north and south sides of the building… restoring the building’s role as a lit-up beacon at night.

In the same year, plans for an addition to the building were publicized… the original plan called for a 21-story attachment.

In 2011, construction of the addition began, but as a much shorter 11-story design. Its full name is the Health Professions Academic Building Jefferson Clinical Research Center, but a few months ago on PhilaPhilia I renamed it the Waka Flocka Flame Center.

Perpendicular Jefferson signs. Photo: GroJLart

Jefferson has done a pretty good job taking care of the Edison Building. They cleaned the blackened facade and upgraded much of the interior. Jeff seems to hate the smokestack as much as I do… every master plan rendering they’ve illustrated for the last 40 years has it removed…hopefully that will be possible one day.

The next time you find yourself at 9th and Sansom, make sure to look up and enjoy the beautiful tower that was the tallest building in Wash West for 77 years (until the St. James was built). You’ll never believe that this is actually considered one of Windrim’s lesser works.

Image: Philadelphia Architects and Buildings Project

The building when it was new. You can see the first Edison Building to the left. Hey, wait a minute! This is the same picture as the one in the postcard!!

About the author

GroJLart is the anonymous foulmouthed blogger of Philaphilia, where he critiques Philadelphia architecture, history, and design. He resides in Washington Square West. GroJLart has contributed to Naked Philly, the Philadelphia City Paper's Naked City Blog, and Philadelphia Magazine's Property Blog.

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2 Comments


  1. A favorite of mine as well, but I’ve always harbored a secret crush on the smokestack. The modern steam plant that it emerges from is also quite nice. As nice as Edison? No, of course not. Surprisingly, this remarkable building is not on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

  2. the smokestack gives it character

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