Editor’s Note: In 1956, the historian and architecture critic Lewis Mumford visited Philadelphia to witness first-hand what he called “one of the largest contemporary efforts to rebuild the central business area of a vast city,” the redevelopment of the Broad Street Station site and Chinese Wall into Penn Center.
Apparently underwhelmed by what he found, Mumford discovered another new Philadelphia project which excited him much more: a small building at 1021 Chestnut Street recently built for the Mercantile Library to replace its nineteenth-century building razed for a parking garage. (What is a mercantile library? A literary library underwritten by merchants and bankers. Philadelphia’s, which opened in 1821, was the 3rd oldest in the US. Its collection was folded into the Free Library in 1989.)
Devoting three pages of his regular New Yorker column to the library, built in 1952 by local architects Martin, Stewart & Noble, Mumford praised the “small, open, almost nude, disarmingly transparent and inviting” building of glass and steel as a near-perfect expression of a modern civic institution. “The glass front…reveals the whole library at a glance,” he wrote in the magazine’s May 26, 1956 issue. “It turns the building into an eloquent piece of self-identification that says, more plainly than words, ‘Come in and do what everyone else is doing.’”
Mumford was not alone in his praise for the building. It was awarded the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architect’s Gold Medal in 1954, and in 1990 it became the first mid-century modern building in the city to be listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. But the building is virtually forgotten today, sitting fallow since the library closed in 1989. It now languishes behind a ramshackle curtain of plywood that says, more plainly than words, “Move along, nothing to see here.”
Enter architect Michael Ryan and his wife and design partner Randee Spelkoman. The couple purchased the property in December with plans for a full restoration of the space into offices for their firm, Michael Ryan Architects.
We asked Hidden City Daily contributor Ben Leech, the advocacy director for the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia (whose campaign to preserve mid-century buildings can be found HERE), to sit down with Ryan and Spelkoman to discuss their attraction to a building most people have likely never noticed, the challenge of preserving mid-century architecture, the evolution of Chestnut Street, and architectural synchronicity.
Ben Leech: Do you remember the first time you saw the building?
Michael Ryan: I would say it was the early nineties, and I think the library had just recently closed. We had been meeting an out-of-town client in the city, we just had dinner and were walking down Chestnut Street when this little building seemed to come out of nowhere. It really struck us and our clients as this great little example of modern architecture. And we remarked about how at some point it would make a great art gallery.
BL: You are planning to fully restore the building to something very close to its original design, which for a mid-century modern building in Philadelphia, is still a pretty rare undertaking. To what extent do you think there is still a bias against modernist architecture in the city, at least among the general public?
Randee Spelkoman: I think there’s a new appreciation for mid-century modern, that even ten years ago, people were shy to say they liked. Within the last ten or so years, its become very acceptable to like mid-century modern, its become very popular. So I think we’re lucky from that point of view.
MR: I find that the original design of the library was so strong, and so neutral, I actually enjoy the fact that I don’t feel any need to imprint something on top of that. I don’t feel bound by what’s there. You kind of feel liberated by the fact that its more of a technical fix. In a sense, building technology has caught up with modernism. With new glazing technologies, these buildings are now a lot more feasible to keep that they used to be. I think twenty or twenty-five years ago, it was much harder, because the argument was that they were inefficient. I think that’s changed, and consequently, people’s attitudes have changed. There’s also this sense that people are finally recovering from the trauma of Penn Station (New York), Broad Street Station, all these buildings that were lost in the 1950s and 1960. People tend to demonize the new buildings that replaced them, and blame them for the loss of the old buildings. But it wasn’t the buildings’ fault. It was the fault of bad policies, bad planning. The buildings themselves weren’t responsible.
RS: And some of the new buildings were actually really nice. I think people are slowly coming around.
BL: I really enjoyed the Mumford piece in the New Yorker, not only for his great description of the building, but for the larger context it provides. Not only the article, but the magazine ads really capture the spirit of the era. His column runs alongside advertisements for hi-fi entertainment consoles, for canned French onion soup, for European cruises on the new S.S. United States. Tell me about the advertisement you noticed on page 128.
MR: This is such a strange coincidence. Right next to Mumford’s description of the Mercantile Library there’s an ad for Loveladies Harbor, a development on Long Beach Island that started being built up around 1950. Its developer had been exposed to modern architecture in California in the late 1930s and wanted to create something similar on the Jersey Shore, where everyone else was building your standard Cape Cods. The sales office for Loveladies Harbor was this Meisian glass box designed by an architect named Sidney Shelov in 1954, who drove all the way from Easton with his station wagon full of extra-tall panes of glass because he couldn’t find any local supplier with glass that long. But here’s the freaky part. We founded our office in that building in 1989. We purchased it in 1994 and still use it as a summer office and as an art gallery. It was completely overgrown with ivy when we first moved in—most people didn’t even know it existed.
RS: In Yiddish it would conjure up the word bashert, which means fated.
BL: So the Mercantile Library won’t be your first midcentury rescue mission.
MR: No, now we’re doing the urban version. That one was covered in ivy, this one’s covered in plywood.
BL: But you discovered the New Yorker coincidence long after you bought the library. What else drew you to the property?
MR: A major aspect of our practice is designing furniture for our clients, which we have been doing since we started the firm. Something we’ve been talking about for a while is how to make that visible to a broader range of people, in more of a “mercantile” way. And exploring different options for that goal, an idea was to have a space that with a storefront so that people could see what we do.
RS: To make us transparent.
MR: Exactly. So in looking to purchase a building, it was important for us that it had that aspect to it. And I think this fits us in such a nice way. Also because of the split level arrangement, it allows us to have that kind of exposure on one level, and yet still have the office on a slightly different level, along with the opportunity to sublet space on the lower level. We see this as staking a claim and creating visibility for the practice beyond private recognition. Bringing us to the street, essentially.
BL: One thing that strikes me is just how nicely your needs match the original intent of the building’s architects, who designed the building to highlight the library’s offerings and the activity of its users from the perspective of passers-by. Buildings of this era are so often written off as obsolete, but yet here’s a contemporary program that perfectly matches a building that is basically just waiting for you. You could almost call it a “hermit crab” model of urbanism, that the city is full of these perfect shells out there waiting for the right user to come along.
MR: I agree. I’ve always had that in mind. On a certain level, I think the best buildings have a generic quality to them that enables habitation and use to change over time. I think it’s something you see in old cities. You go to Florence, and there’s an auto repair shop in a building that during the Renaissance, might have been a leather tannery. I think there’s that quality to urban architecture when its successful, and I think modernism actually lends itself to that in a really good way.
BL: I also think that so much of what’s happening in contemporary design is still very rooted in the vocabulary and materials that originated in this period. Like every time I walk by the Apple store now, I think of the Mercantile Library.
MR: And that’s a perfect example of how technology is really making these old buildings viable again, too. Twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t build the Apple store, and twenty-five years ago, you couldn’t restore the Mercantile Library.
BL: Are there other buildings in the city that you think are ripe for rediscovery?
MR: I think that the entire stretch of Chestnut Street between 11th and Broad is really fascinating. I find that places become really interesting in that moment when they are just starting to change, places with a smattering of old and new. It’s that in-between state that really excites me. You have the Louis Kahn shoe store at 1118 Chestnut sitting vacant. It’s in many ways a twin to the Mercantile Library.
RS: The credit union at 1206 Chestnut is a wonderful building. Luckily it seems to be well-used. I just love its arching canopy. And the gas company building across the street. There is so much character left on so many of these buildings when you stop and look at it. So much potential.
Contemporary photos by Peter Woodall
Original color rendering: Earl Oakes Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania