Deco City? One Of The Best

Photos: Laura Kicey

When you think of great Art Deco cities, you think of New York, Los Angeles, Detroit. You think of Miami Beach, maybe Chicago. If you’ve ever been there, you think of Tulsa, Oklahoma. You don’t usually think of Philadelphia. But you probably should. Zig for zag, Philly’s stock of Art Deco buildings measures up with the best of them.

When it comes to Art Deco, most architectural histories are creationist: the name, and the style, sprung whole cloth from the 1925 Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The truth is more interesting, more complicated, and more American.

What we now call the Art Deco style–playful geometric patterns, whimsical ornament, exaggerated massing, flamboyant materials–evolved from a primordial soup of architectural and cultural influences in the early twentieth century. It grew up alongside jazz and Hollywood to form a Holy Trinity of popular American culture in the years between the World Wars. Also like jazz and Hollywood, it was a fertile union of imagination and imitation. It was a style full of tropes and full of originality. Without a school and without rules, it was both classy and crass.

Art Deco also had a sense of humor, before humor was infected with a postmodern strain of irony. It domesticated the exotic and elevated the mundane. Yes, those are golden squirrels on the Perelman Building. Yes, that’s an Eskimo mailman on the Ninth Street Post Office.

Perelman Building (Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Co.), Pennsylvania and Fairmount Avenues | Photo: Laura Kicey

U.S. Post Office Building, 9th and Market Streets | Photo: Peter Woodall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s no shortage of Art Deco in Philadelphia, and there’s no shortage of Philadelphia in Art Deco’s DNA. In fact, the great Philadelphia architect William Lightfoot Price designed what was probably the first Art Deco building ever–the Traymore Hotel in Atlantic City, completed almost a decade before the 1925 Paris Exposition.

After Price’s untimely death in 1917, his office and his style were inherited by Ralph Bencker, whose 1929 N.W. Ayer Building on Washington Square features one of the oddest architectural details in Philadelphia (and that’s saying something): faceless, towering hooded figures representing “Truth in Advertising” crown the limestone highrise. More importantly, Bencker was also the chief architect for Philadelphia-based Horn and Hardart’s Automat empire, whose fusion of luxury and populism might have done more to spread the Art Deco style than the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings combined.

6828 Market Street, Upper Darby | Photo: Laura Kicey

818 Chestnut Street. The facade is still intact.

Another Philadelphia contribution to the Art Deco movement was Paul Cret. While he wasn’t the only architect of his era to steer Beaux Arts design into a more modern, more Deco direction, he was one of the best, and his late-career designs for the Architects Building at 17th and Sansom and the Integrity Trust Building at 15th and Walnut are unjustly overshadowed by his earlier, more classical designs. Next time you pass the Qdoba on Walnut Street, take a moment to appreciate the zinc and bronze doors that still stand in the vestibule. Those are Cret originals, as are the eagle statues looming ominously at the top of the building.

And then there’s Gabriel Roth and Harry Sternfeld’s WCAU Building at 1618 Chestnut, maybe the most underrated Art Deco building in America. It was the first purpose-build radio station headquarters in the country, and one of the most over-the-top Art Deco highrises ever built. It’s still impressive today, even without its original sign tower and sparkling skin of crushed blue glass.

WCAU Building | Photo: Laura Kicey

But the real story of Art Deco, especially in Philadelphia, isn’t one of famous architects and Center City skyscrapers. It’s one of hidden gems and one-hit wonders. It’s the surprise of an Art Deco dreamworld in Upper Darby (which will get its own post at a later date), and of jewel-box storefronts and neighborhood theaters along forgotten commercial strips. It’s the details etched into doorknobs, handrails, and elevator doors that reflect perhaps the last great age of decorative art in everyday architecture. Because sadly, unlike Hollywood and jazz, Art Deco didn’t survive the Depression or the Second World War, and the styles that replaced it have largely abandoned its playful and improvisational touches. But just one glance at Liberty Place or the Mummers Museum reminds us that, even in the afterlife, Art Deco plays on in Philly.

About the author

Ben Leech is the Director of Advocacy at the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and is a proud dual citizen of Philadelphia and Lancaster (a Philancadelphisterian?). He dabbles in illustration, architectural and otherwise. Some of his extracurricular activities are on display at btleech.tumblr.com.

Send a message!



2 Comments


  1. Great stuff – Check out some architecture in Buffalo, NY. Their City Hall is an art deco masterpiece.

  2. Robert Vaux elementary north of Girard College is breathtaking. 2319 on W. Master Street will only beging to give you an idea. And there’s been next to nothing written about it.

Trackbacks

  1. Back To The Future | Hidden City Philadelphia
  2. Oh Boyd | Hidden City Philadelphia
Recent Posts
Wissahickon Valley Park Poised To Expand

Wissahickon Valley Park Poised To Expand

July 7, 2015  |  Morning Blend

A few more acres for Wissahickon Valley Park?, Roxborough civic gives up on Wendy’s fight, philanthropy to support literacy programs in schools, and developments in GHo > more

Parkway Institutions To Take Revenue Hit From Pope Visit

Parkway Institutions To Take Revenue Hit From Pope Visit

July 6, 2015  |  Morning Blend

The financial inconvenience of being part of history, Taller Puertorriqueño to break ground on $11.4 million project in Fairhill this fall, celebrating the half-century fight for LGBT rights in the Gayborhood, and frequent commuter discounts likely to return for Delaware River bridge users > more

The Tastiest Morsel Of Season City

The Tastiest Morsel Of Season City

July 6, 2015  |  The Shadow Knows

On the sleepy 200 block of North 13th Street the former Ballinger Building is steamy with the scent of dim sum and a wide range of former tenants that will send an appetite for adaptive reuse into overdrive. If the building's Renaissance façade doesn't whet the palette, its history of notable 20th century construction companies, sexploitation films, and enterprising architectural firms will. The Shadow dishes out this multicourse meal from the outer edges of Center City > more

Summer Break

Summer Break

June 29, 2015  |  News

The Hidden City Daily team is taking a short summer vacation. We'll be back next Monday, July 6th. Have a great Independence Day! > more

Taking Inventory With The Philadelphia Church Project

Taking Inventory With The Philadelphia Church Project

June 26, 2015  |  Vantage

The fabric of Philadelphia's sacred architecture is slowly disintegrating as religious neighborhood landmarks give way to new construction. The Philadelphia Church Project, a growing online record of the city's historic sancturaries, has been steadily amassing a church database for almost 8 years. Hidden City co-editor Michael Bixler checked in with the founder of the website to discuss church closings and the project in detail > more

More Starchitecture Coming To The Navy Yard

More Starchitecture Coming To The Navy Yard

June 26, 2015  |  Morning Blend

A “landmark event” set for Tuesday, Temple (likely) makes room for new stadium, ROYGBIV in the Gayborhood, and contemplating the future of a South Philly community center > more