For over forty years, the Shirt Corner sign at Third and Market Streets has been bold, and not a little tacky, in calling attention to itself. Although the budget clothing store closed up in 2009, for most Philadelphians, the store and the sign are still one and the same.
It’s easy to forget, then, that underneath those layers of red, white and blue paint hide buildings from a much earlier era.
Now, a preservation-minded development and architectural team is asking the Historical Commission for approval to return the corner properties to a level of grandeur that they believe is more reflective of the history of the Old City neighborhood.
The proposal was submitted by the historic restoration firm Powers and Company on behalf of the Alterra Property Group, which is in the process of accumulating the six parcels that constitute the former Shirt Corner plus two adjacent parcels on Market. Their proposal, to be implemented by Coscia Moos Architects, calls for restoring four of the buildings contributing to the district, reconstructing a fifth, and demolishing three properties that are “non-contributing” to the Old City Historic District. Those will be replaced with new structures meant to mimic the 19th century aesthetic of the District.
“This current viable proposal renovates the significant historic buildings and brings new commercial and residential energy to the blighted block,” said Robert Powers, president of Powers and Company, in a letter to the Historical Commission.
Four of the buildings–251, 253, 255 and 257 Market–date from the mid-19th century and have retained their four-story height over that time span. The plan is to restore the brick and masonry features of the original façades, install period windows, and add a molded brick cornice similar to what early photographs show.
The corner property, 259 Market, was reduced from four to two stories at some point after 1960. Commission staff decided that the demolition of 259 Market would not require a hardship application because the plans call for replicating the historic four-story building using period materials. Powers said that the present incarnation of the building is structurally deficient, and L&I is monitoring the 3rd Street wall for bulges and loose bricks.
In keeping with the past, the storefront design of the buildings “makes an effort to reestablish the rhythm of the ground level,” Powers wrote, “slightly distinguishing each building so that the ground level will again read as a row of individual structures and not a single commercial space.”
Additionally, the three non-contributing properties–247 and 249 Market, and 3 North Third Street–would be demolished and replaced with new structures. The buildings would have similar storefronts but be differentiated as new construction.
By all accounts, the proposal represents a more sympathetic approach to preservation compared with what was proposed in 2009, just after owner Marvin Ginsberg closed the Shirt Corner for good. A prospective buyer sought permission to demolish all the buildings and build a historic replica in their place with a national chain as tenant, but was denied by the Commission for failing to demonstrate hardship.
On the other hand, little has changed since then about the prospects for a commercial tenant. Alterra is proposing a national chain, CVS, to lease the first floor of the premises. The upper floors will be turned into residential units.
A CVS at this location would be the first such chain to open in Old City. Such proposals were often stridently opposed by the Old City Civic Association, but that organization is now technically defunct as an RCO due to the high costs of lawsuits from developers. And needless to say, national retailers also present design challenges with their own signage when they rent out historic buildings.
Still, the consensus among some of the stakeholders involved in discussions about the project so far is that a CVS would represent a strong option for a long-term lease at the location, thus making the ambitious restoration plan viable.
The Architectural Committee recommended approval for the proposal at its meeting on Tuesday. The full Commission will give its final vote on the project at its meeting on Friday, September 13.
Icon or Eyesore?
The proposal, of course, has another implication. When the work commences, the first thing to go will be that love-it-or-hate-it logo. In today’s Old City, whose era is it, anyway?
“With old painted signs, they’re not generally restored as the building takes on a new use,” notes Hilary Jay, founder of DesignPhiladelphia and director of the Philadelphia Center for Architecture. Jay doesn’t see any purpose in keeping the sign, but finds beauty in such relics of the city’s commercial past. “There is something charming about them: the patina, the fading,” she says.
The Shirt Corner sign had been around for decades when the Old City Historic District was created in 2003. But since the district’s period of significance predates the sign, it is not considered a historic element of the buildings.
Still, the signage does have its fan base, including those who regard it as a pop-art icon of a grittier, louder, and campier Philadelphia.
“I was hoping this holdout of an intersection would hang on until it became cool again,” laments historian Ken Finkel, a professor of American Studies at Temple University and contributor to the PhillyHistory blog. “Probably no building itself could bring back the feel of the Philadelphia I’m remembering from the third quarter of the 20th century,” he says, an era that David Goodis documented in his hardboiled crime novels, the same era that made Rocky Balboa into a silver-screen personification of the city itself.
“This isn’t about architecture; it’s about texture,” Finkel says. Any nod towards a more historic design would represent “nothing that speaks honestly of the past, or who we really are.”
Asked separately about the sign, both Jay and Finkel make reference to postmodern Philly architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who have stated their admiration for the Shirt Corner graphics. Even Venturi acknowledged that preserving the sign would be impractical just after the store closed four years ago.
“Buildings can’t stand still,” says Jay. “They have to keep moving and evolving. If our environment doesn’t change and grow, we’re going to be stuck in a place we probably don’t want to be.”
The loss of the Shirt Corner sign would leave its counterpart, the similarly painted Suit Pants and Tie Corner (owned by Jerry Ginsberg, Marvin’s brother), at the southwest corner of 3rd and Market, as the last Old City relic of its era. Should that sign one day vanish, Jay says, the memory and documentation of that era will still endure.
“We’ll always have the seventies in our photographs,” she says.