Wistful For Modern

Inside the Mercantile Library Photo: Peter Woodall

“Even before Chicago, Philadelphia was one of the germinal points in modern architecture, mainly because of the self-confidence and vigor of Frank Furness.” This was Lewis Mumford in 1957, writing in the Highway and the City, a short book on the hottest topics in urban development, in which he dedicated four chapters to Philadelphia.

This we tend to forget. For too long, having ceded power to “the restorationists” (as Mumford called them), we cared only for colonial or early Federal architecture, never mind that the great heft of Philadelphia occurred during the hundred years afterwards. Certainly most of us inhabit that 19th century city. But this too has made us forget the 20th century–that embryonic modern city. I sat one evening this week in deputy mayor Alan Greenberger’s office wistfully imagining the crowded, boisterous avenues–from Baltimore to Erie, Frankford to Ridge, Snyder to Woodland–of the mid-20th century. Is any of that muscularity left? I wondered. No, we both agreed, even in Center City it was mostly gone. (Thus, here at Hidden City we’re a bit obsessed with the ruins of old movie houses , breweries, and even five-and-dimes.)

Mumford, who we often imagine in opposition to the fervid, lustful, chaotic urbanism Jane Jacobs, was himself deeply ambivalent about modernism, and in 1956, the year of the passage of the Interstate Highway Act, prescient in his warnings about the impact of the car on the city (why–why in this stunningly mild winter do our streets seem so empty–and yet our restaurants so full–it is because of the automobile). And he saw danger in the coldness of architectural abstraction, a threat to the “organic richness” of cities (Jacobs and Mumford were truly only shades apart).

But Mumford loved one modern Philadelphia building–the Mercantile Library, on Chestnut Street. So long boarded up we almost forgot its existence. Well, the Mercantile is back–and you’ll read all about the act of resurrecting modern a little later today, in Vantage.

About the author

Hidden City co-editor Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard (The Head and The Hand Press). He is also the author of Song of the City (Four Walls Eight Windows/Basic Books) and The Possible City (Camino Books). He is senior writer and script editor of the Emmy-winning documentary series “Philadelphia: The Great Experiment” and the fiction review editor of Cleaver Magazine. Popkin's literary criticism appears in the Wall Street Journal, Public Books, The Kenyon Review, and The Millions. He is writer-in-residence of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
New Life For An Old Coal Country Outpost In Society Hill

New Life For An Old Coal Country Outpost In Society Hill

March 20, 2017  |  The Shadow Knows

The Shadow takes a stroll down to Society Hill where business is stirring at an old 19th century coal company headquarters after 12 years of vacancy > more

New Exhibition Gives Movement To The Philadelphia School

New Exhibition Gives Movement To The Philadelphia School

March 17, 2017  |  Buzz

Two fans of Modernism re-evaluate architectural history with the exhibition, "What Was the Philadelphia School?" > more

Tracking The Evolution Of Industry At 34th And Grays Ferry

Tracking The Evolution Of Industry At 34th And Grays Ferry

March 16, 2017  |  Vantage

The site of Penn's new riverside research campus has a long, decorated history of industrial enterprise. Contributor Madeline Helmer dives deep into the backstory > more

Emergency Excavation In Old City Reveals Lack Of Oversight

Emergency Excavation In Old City Reveals Lack Of Oversight

March 15, 2017  |  News

The last-minute salvage excavation of First Baptist Church Burial Ground in Old City has the archaeological community up in arms. Is the City or the developer to blame? John Henry Scott reports > more

Ode To Old Philadelphia

Ode To Old Philadelphia

March 10, 2017  |  Buzz

Inspired by photographs from Hidden City's 2016 calendar, aging Philadelphians share their thoughts and memories of the city through poetry. Ann de Forest has the backstory > more

Marked Potential: Graffiti Pier

Marked Potential: Graffiti Pier

March 9, 2017  |  Marked Potential

Shila Griffith is back with a new edition of Marked Potential. In this month's proposal she envisions Graffiti Pier as the city's next great public park > more