Fleisher Architecture Memorial: Remembering The Woman Who Crafted The Parkway House, 60 Years Later

Fleisher Architecture Memorial: Remembering The Woman Who Crafted The Parkway House, 60 Years Later


A golden glow on the Parkway | Photo: Bradley Maule

A golden glow on the Parkway | Photo: Bradley Maule

As a mammoth modernist apartment building at 22nd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue prepares to turn 60, its celebration seems appropriately opportune. Designed by the partnership of Elizabeth Fleisher and Gabriel Roth, the Parkway House opened in 1953, the first major Philadelphia building to be designed, in part, by a woman.

Thanks to comments made by legendary architect Denise Scott Brown at an Architects Journal luncheon, female architects are a current topic of conversation. Scott Brown, who has had an integral role in the development of post-modernist architecture and theory, stated that she should be retroactively recognized for the Pritzker Prize her husband and partner Robert Venturi won in 1991. This has re-ignited the debate of women’s recognition in the field, even inspiring a petition, supported by former recipients Rem Koolhaas, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, demanding acknowledgment of Scott Brown by the Pritker Prize.

The role of female architects has famously gone overlooked, particularly in Scott Brown’s home city of Philadelphia. Georgina Pope Yeatman was the first female architect to become registered in the state of Pennsylvania in 1930. Anne Tyng, a master of form, was Philadelphia’s first prominent female architect, and was one of the first females to graduate from Harvard’s architecture school. Elizabeth Fleisher, a fellow Philadelphian and predecessor in the profession, was not allowed to attend Harvard, where her husband Horace studied landscape architecture, did not admit women at the time.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Fleisher received her Bachelor of Arts from Wellesley College in 1914 and her Master of Architecture in 1929 from the Cambridge School of Architecture, then associated with Smith College. In 1934, she became the fourth woman in Pennsylvania to obtain an architecture license. She returned to Philadelphia to work at the firm Simon & Simon, where she remained until 1931. After that, Fleisher took on research in building economics and housing, which brought projects under the firm names of Fleisher, Janney & David, Fleisher and Stephens, and Fleisher, Stephens & Fleisher. In 1941 she partnered with Gabriel Roth in forming the firm Roth & Fleisher, where she would remain until her retirement in 1958. With Roth, she worked on theaters, factories, and residential buildings; most notably the Parkway House, for which Fleisher was the design architect.

The quintessential Philadelphia roof deck | Photo: Fátima Olivieri

The quintessential Philadelphia roof deck | Photo: Fátima Olivieri

Finished in 1953, the Parkway House was one of the first postwar luxury apartment buildings in Philadelphia. Located adjacent to the Rodin Museum, Ben Franklin Parkway, and Philadelphia Museum of Art, its communal roof deck has become a prime spot to observe the city’s many festivities. In 2012, the building was a backdrop for the two day Made in America concert and the Open Air light installation.

Although very much a Modernist design, the 14-story brick clad concrete and steel building contains elements of both the Art Deco and International styles. Its ziggurat-like form responds to its context by stepping in at each floor towards the east and west, allowing for private terraces and expansive views towards the city skyline and PMA. The first floor serves as a public plinth on which the residential floors sit. Although most of the first floor has been converted into residences, the original design included both residential and public amenities. Prior to this conversion in 2012, a notary, a pub, and a deli all provided services to the building’s tenants and neighbors. The glass entry fronts a private driveway and a communal terrace that faces recently renovated Von Colln Memorial Field.

Bays above | Photo: Fátima Olivieri

Bays above | Photo: Fátima Olivieri

Fleisher included semi-circular bay windows to decorate the façades along Pennsylvania Avenue and 22nd Street. These windows give depth to an otherwise flat composition and allow large amounts natural daylight into the most desirable spaces. The north façade along Spring Garden Street has a simpler design approach. The stark brick wall is interrupted only by punched openings which grow in height at upper floors, accommodating more generous ceiling heights and northern views. This northern form also jogs in at multiple corners, creating additional corner units with wide sweeping views.

Her research in economics and housing allowed Fleisher to develop a variety of residential unit types. The 231 units range in scale and size from small studio apartments to two story multi-bedroom units with square footage ranging from 350 sq ft to 5,000 sq ft. The communal roof deck, a take on Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture, allows residents that don’t have one of the private terraces to enjoy 360° views of the skyline.

With the Parkway House, Elizabeth Fleisher had an intrinsic hand in the evolving fabric of the Ben Franklin Parkway. In November of 1989 the American Institute of Architects Philadelphia designated the building a Philadelphia Chapter Landmark, recognizing both Roth and Fleisher. The commemorative plaque is visible in the lobby, a testament to the role of women architects in Philadelphia.

About the author

A native of Puerto Rico, Fátima Olivieri is a designer/writer who has called Philadelphia home since early 2011. Prior to moving to the city, Fátima worked at an architecture firm in Charlottesville, VA and taught at the University of Virginia School Of Architecture, where she graduated with her Master of Architecture in 2010. She currently works at an architecture firm in Center City and has been guest critic at various architecture schools in the area.

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  1. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for highlighting this building and its architects. For all the reasons you stated, and more, it is exemplary — one of the most intelligent, thoughtful and responsive buildings we have in Philadelphia. I sing its praises (to myself) whenever I pass by.

  3. Unfortunately, while justly praising how lovely and lively this building is above the third story, this article ignores the most important aspect of urban architecture: how a building performs at street level. And, while maybe in a suburban office park a building like this can afford to ignore its surroundings, in it’s current situation this building fails miserably at even acknowledging that it occupies nearly a full block at two major intersections on one of our city’s busiest avenues.

    What do we get in terms of urban amenities beyond the wonderful setbacks and steps when we turn out eyes to the first floor? A service ramp and a row of dumpsters on 22nd street, a formerly blank wall (now a row of cartoon ground floor apartments) on the spring garden side, and a huge private driveway on the Pennsylvania Avenue side. The only concession to urbanity is the mangy corner store on 22nd and Spring Garden?

    So, in the midst of all this praise of a female architect designing a postwar apartment building that looks great from a distance, we should remember that it contributes nothing but the deadening of an already mostly dead Spring Garden Street where it matters most: where people have to actually interact with what she built.

    • I honestly can’t remember what the building looks like from the back, but from the front, it’s so much higher than street level that you get that fabulous green park as your street-level-view, not the features you disdainfully mention.

      And you need, also, to keep in mind the times and then-current ideologies, sensibilities, city services and capabilities that effected the decisions behind this fabulous buildings creation and design.

      (And let’s face it: If it isn’t hurting anybody and isn’t about to be changed, you may as well try to appreciate it’s better aspects than allow your negativity to create unnecessary bad feelings)

  4. Good point. The article does state, though,…”Although most of the first floor has been converted into residences, the original design included both residential and public amenities.”

    So the potential, if not the will, is there to restore or enhance the street level.

    Instead, my candidate for an egregious example of mute urban presence at street level is the Kimmel Center.

  5. Alas, Parkway House has lost much of its former glory as a glamorous oasis for its residents and surrounding community. Jan Roth, daughter of architect Gabriel Roth and my former neighbor at PH, as well as other long-time Philadelphians, told me that the now converted first floor once housed a popular dinner dance club, and that other upscale business services at the building once catered to a discerning clientele. What this great building still possesses are roomy and sensible original apartment layouts, solid construction and great light on all sides. When PMC Management took over some years ago the building was in bad shape. Since then, almost all the original heavy steel cabinet kitchens have been updated and multi-paned casement windows were replaced with the less esthetically pleasing present-day double-hung windows. The building will continue to evolve over time, yet I hope someday it gets the full restoration it deserves.

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