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.
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.
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.
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.