Painfully Ugly, But Does It Matter?

August 8, 2013 | by Nathaniel Popkin


The Home2 Suites Hotel, which opened yesterday | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

The Home2 Suites Hotel, which opened yesterday | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

It’s funny and also sometimes exasperating to watch corporate and government officials go to great lengths–in silly, fear inflected corporate speak–to “control the message.” Our staff writer Christopher Mote’s interview earlier this week with Checkers corporate officials is case in point. Christopher might as well have been granted an interview with the high vice commissioner to the lord sultan of Hamburgler so shrouded was the whole exchange in officialistic and self-important bumbledom. And what he was to discuss with the high vice commissioner was no less subject to the official list of discussable items, inscribed in triplicate, and stamped in ketchup red by the lord sultan himself.

So it goes, I suppose, throughout the carefully tightlipped hospitality industry. I went over this morning to Philadelphia’s newest hotel, the 248 room Home2 Suites at Twelfth and Arch Streets across from the Pennsylvania Convention Center, indeed to try to figure out if it mattered that the hotel was painfully ugly–an architectural dunghill on what might have been a transformative corner. A project like this one is in fact filled with constraints, sometimes conflicting goals, and various stakeholders with various needs. There is sometimes little an architect can do.

Home2 Suites, 12th and Arch | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Home2 Suites, 12th and Arch | Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

The $60 million hotel was propelled forward by more than $10 million in public financing; its construction had to allow for union wages, Hilton Home2 Suites long scroll of corporate brand requirements and specifications, a fairly tight parcel on a busy corner, and the post-industrial, post-gritty context of the old tenderloin. Some of the public funding stipulated that it had to be “green,” and as such it was given a green roof and furniture made of old Coke bottles and such.

Wisely, City officials insisted the hotel also had to be mixed use–that is, it would have a legitimate retail component, a wide and inviting sidewalk for tables, and large street-facing windows.

So I went inside. I had my camera on me and I began to take a photo of the large historic city map in the faux sophisticated lobby. No sorry, you can’t take photos in here, said a security guard (not obviously a concierge or a bell-hop). There was only one other person in the lobby–another security guard. Unless you’re press, he said. OK, I said, I am press, but I forgot to bring my card with me. Sorry, you’ll have to speak to the manager, we can’t just let anyone in here taking photographs.

But this is a hotel, said I. (Lot’s of people take photos in hotels.)

Have you heard we’re living in the age of terrorism, said he.

What does that have to–

Wait a minute, isn’t this a hotel? A welcoming place? You’ll have to speak with the general manager. We only take press through if it’s been arranged in advanced–the owners want to control what’s written.

Yes, I’m certain they do.

Now quite sure fear was abounding in the new hotel, I went back to the street (well, I was tossed back to the street, despite the plentiful seating in the lobby).

And I returned to my earlier question. Is the urban design good enough to make up for the suburban parking lot format? For the stucco panels? For the insistent dun?

Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

Photo: Nathaniel Popkin

No, because the urbanism is terrible. The corner of Twelfth and Arch is given over a massive white windowless monolithic wall. A wall of defense and fear. The hotel’s entrance is too small, the glass windows of the stores–among them suburban zenith Panera Bread–are dark and foreboding.

And all this makes the architecture seem even cheaper, even uglier than I imagined it would. (Stucco is a peasant material–it has no place on this corner.)

I’m sorry the owner of the hotel Jake Wurzak hasn’t called me as I was told he would. He would have described the stylish interior meant to pander to the tastes of the sexy, cosmopolitan weekenders the hotel says it wants to attract. Perhaps he would have invited me in–a new hotel, go figure–to show off the rooms with their automatic switches that turn of the lights when no one is there. I’d have to tell him I’ve already seen enough.


About the Author

Nathaniel Popkin Hidden City Daily co-founder Nathaniel Popkin’s latest book is To Reach the Spring: From Complicity to Consciousness in the Age of Eco-Crisis.


  1. HighStrungLoner says:

    Compared to the grotesque Marriott on Market street it\’s the goddam Taj Mahal.

  2. Terry Callahan says:

    I would like to hear if there is any other more positive opinion. I think this review seems spot on. Looking at the photo I would never know there was retail space at street level. And cheap stucco panels do not look good on a hotel adrift in a see of parking lot, but wholly inappropriate for a prominent Center City location.

    1. Dominic Mercier says:

      Terry, at this point, none of the retail space is occupied. That might be why it’s hard to tell.

      1. The retail feels prominent enough, and that’s why I legitimately asked the question I asked. And Dominic, I think there seems to be one retail in use–or maybe it’s part of the hotel? A cafe, looks like.

        1. Dominic Mercier says:

          Next to the lobby on 12th? I think that\’s actually the hotel bar.

  3. Joseph says:

    Depressing. Philadelphia treats its tourist areas like it almost *wants* people to think the city is horrible. God forbid we do something that would leave a positive lasting impression with someone not from here. Instead, we tell them to visit a market in a fairly nice building bookended by a suburban motel and scary parking garage, itself neighbors to a depressing bus depot. Who\’s in charge of this city\’s well-being, exactly?

  4. Davis says:

    Painful is right. Disgraceful perhaps…

  5. Krowface says:

    How big of a flash-mob of photographers can one get at short notice?

    1. Scott says:

      I like the way you think.

  6. mpdl3280a says:

    What\’s worse, the original renderings showed continuous glass panes, not a stucco wall, on the corner of 12th and Arch.

  7. JC says:

    The retail leases have been signed, but the tenants haven\’t started building out yet. They\’ll open by the end of the year. They both will have awnings, trade dress and outdoor seating that will activate the corner.

  8. Martin Kelley says:

    ve worked next door to the new hotel off and on for about fifteen years now and so remember the charming-but-rundown row of nineteenth century storefronts that stood there before being bulldozed for a street-level parking lot. Wide sidewalks will help me ignore the innate ugliness of the building.

    But Panera Bread, really, that\’s what they\’re putting in?? Don\’t get me wrong, I like it when I see its sign in some God-awful cookie-cutter suburban \”town centre\” mall. There it means I\’ll be able to navigate my towhead kids through an orderly line and end up with muffins, cookies, coffee, and bagels. But across the street from the Reading Terminal Market? It\’s as bad as Maggiano\’s, the Chicago chain restaurant on the next corner. Philly knows how to make good bread and Italian food. Why not just site the Convention Center in Cherry Hill if this is the crap that they\’re putting into these publicly-financed construction projects?

    But really, why complain? They ripped down a whole shopping district to put a six block mall in the middle of the city back in the 80s and the Convention Center entailed the demolition of some classic tenderloin hotels, if the old photos are any indication. And I guess it was the 70s when another neighborhood was ripped to make a mile-long park around the Liberty Bell. The suburbanization of Center City has been a long-term city project.

  9. duchampian says:

    I disagree with the \”painfully ugly\” assessment–the building lacks sufficient character to merit it. It\’s a big lump of mashed potatoes. intentionally bland and anonymous. The tragedy lies in what could have been built here, and the elimination of any source of beauty or interest from this location for decades to come. But it does mesh nicely with the parking garage down the street.

  10. Ed Ryder says:

    Not allowing you to shoot some photos inside a brand new hotel was silly. It\’s not like it is the Federal Reserve Building or something like that, or that there were celebrities in the lobby they were trying to shield.

    I work at one of Center City\’s hotels. We\’re not going to be party poopers and tell people no photos. If it\’s commercial photography, wedding photography, this must be arranged. But for everyone else, as long as the subject matter isn\’t one of our guests, our attitude is \”shoot away.\” I volunteer to shoot the photos all the time. We want people to have good photos of the hotel – including themselves at the hotel – so they can share them with their social networks, and so that they will remember the positive experiences they had while staying with us.

    The treatment you received is not a good sign. At a hotel, it\’s about creating memories, going the extra mile, being as courteous as possible. You\’re supposed to make people feel good about visiting your business. This was a misstep by them. And of course… look who they dissed – the wrong guy! A guy with a meaningful following and influence.

    If they have any brains, the top manager will invite you back, treat you with the utmost courtesy, give a complete facility tour, and explain the vision of the project.


    I haven\’t been by this building recently, but what I see is PROGRESS!

    Perhaps it is not a grand slam architecturally, but it does strengthen the city\’s tourism infrastructure. If they can fill that hotel, it means commerce. It means more local businesses selling things, more people eating in the restaurants, more people discovering the resurgence that is underway in this city. And that leads to more people talking about Philadelphia. That word-of-mouth buzz can draw in more tourists.

    All these visitors generate tax revenue for the city and state. The extra tax revenue could go towards things like new park creation, which makes the city more attractive to visitors and to people who are thinking of living here.

    One new hotel can set-off all kinds of domino effects.

    If more people are visiting, it opens up gaps of opportunity in the marketplace that entrepreneurs can seize upon. And the ripples continue outward.

    Imagine if this hotel is successful, it\’s going to get the attention of other entrepreneurs that focus on hotel creation. People are watching these sorts of projects, seeing what happens, analyzing, contemplating plans.

    Before, that was an empty lot going to waste. Now, it\’s another gear in the city\’s strengthening tourism engine.

    Brand new hotel! Brand new rooms!

    I\’m excited to see progress. Stuff is happening.

    And when they get the outdoor-cafe-thing going on there, that is going to be a nice thing.

    They made a big investment. Real big. It\’s there. It\’s too late to sling tomatoes. I say let\’s support it. Hopefully their director of sales will rock it and bring in all kinds of new visitors that we may not have otherwise had.

    They are also well-positioned if the Market8 Casino plan is chosen, (which I happen to think is a long-shot).


    The new hotel coming to the old Family Court Building along the Parkway – that could really be exciting! I am eagerly awaiting news of what is entering the pipeline with that project. There is so much exciting stuff going on in Philadelphia…

  11. dddff says:

    The Marriott on Market Street is even uglier. The city is so desperate for business that they are willing to just accept anything. How much more would good design cost!

  12. roberta says:

    \”an architectural dunghill on what might have been a transformative corner.\” What a great think piece! The whole thing feels like we\’ve been had. Poor Fabric Workshop next door. What a plug ugly neighbor they now have. Give me a surface lot any day.

  13. JB says:

    At the Kimmel Center they are now punching big openings in its fortress-like masonry facade, attempting to rectify the building\’s total lack of urban scale.

    Though I must acknowledge and sincerely appreciate the surprising, glass-half-full perspective of Mr. Ryder on the \”Painfully Ugly\” Home2, is there no sophisticated, reliable way to elevate building design criteria in Philadelphia? An urban planner colleague for the city of Seattle facilitates intensive, public design reviews for each project of significance in that city.

    Will we see the next \”Yellow Marshmallow\” (Home2) coming to Philadelphia before it is too late?

  14. Jason Rackawack says:

    Articles like this are exactly why I love this site, a real \”No B.S. tell it like it is\” look at the city, I\’m glad to see the writers & photographers who I used to follow on other sites have joined forces on here.

    Also thanks for not bombing me with e-junk & spam when I signed up here as a member….it means alot to me and it shows a responsible attitude towards others.

    Best of Luck to all of Hidden City

  15. Tony says:

    Not every hotel has to be a Hotel Monaco or the Ritz. Plain fact is this was a surface lot and now it is a hotel that will generate tax dollars and bring tourists into the area. While everyone would like something more stunning this is a business interested in turning a profit and extra costs might be prohibitive.

    I saw it last week when I went to Reading and while it wasn\’t anything super, it looked like a nice, clean, new hotel. I consider this a good thing and will add foot traffic and some vibrancy to a rather run down area.

    And lets not forget that you go down Arch a couple blocks and you have the horrible covered road and a WaWa surrounded by homeless people and other interesting characters.

  16. Peter says:

    Some claim this project received over $40,000,000.00 (40 million) in cash grants and tax breaks. Public monies. That said, it seems to me one could murmur claims of a potential “abuse of public trust”. Assuming there was a (public?) design review process, where did the process break down?
    Collectively residents and representatives of Philadelphia need to ask themselves an important question, could this happen on a prominent site within New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago, etc.? Can we speak of Philadelphia in the same sentence as the former or must we (sigh) consider Philadelphia a second rate city? Why should outside commercial interests take the fabric of Philadelphia seriously?
    Architects do have a choice. It\’s a free country, no? They choose when or if to submit to the terms of the project. They are the enabler. It appears that making a buck seems to be all that matters to some and is the sad reality of this… memorial to the bottom line. But hey cheer up – on the bright side it’s “green” – right?

  17. NickFromGermantown says:

    I love how the necessary evil of corporate professionalism and brand management here is characterized as \”self-important\” by the author. Is there anything more ironic than an architecture critic complaining about self-importance? This sounds like the temper tantrum of someone who didn\’t get the information for the narrative that they wanted to publish.

    Furthermore, the angry tone of this article seems to have been exacerbated by the fact that the hotel didn\’t let Hidden City get the pictures for this article that they wanted. While I think that any business turning down free publicity is probably being short-sighted in most cases, in this case, why would Home2Suites want to assist more lambasting from the architectural community? Believe it or not, Home2Suites doesn\’t owe Hidden City anything. Especially when it seems like the story Hidden City wants to tell is already written.

    (Note: I do love this website, but good grief the tone of this article is ridiculous.)

  18. Mike says:

    \”Not every hotel has to be a Hotel Monaco or the Ritz. Plain fact is this was a surface lot and now it is a hotel that will generate tax dollars and bring tourists into the area. While everyone would like something more stunning this is a business interested in turning a profit and extra costs might be prohibitive.\”

    Tony, your comment aligns perfectly with the general sentiment of Philadelphia – low expectations. I work a block away and, yes, I\’m glad it\’s no longer a surface lot. However, this corner represented an opportunity to take an enormous step forward in one of the city\’s most important tourist areas. You have the iconic RTM, the renovated PA Convention Center, and now a stucco turd.

    If you don\’t expect or demand greatness, you will always end up with less. It won\’t happen by chance.

  19. Tony says:

    You have a clean, new building that will bring in tax dollars, employ people and help the area. Market St is a disaster for blocks on end and people complain about infill because it isn\’t something fancy.

    You\’re right though. This explains typical Philly. Always bitching and moaning. Thank god I am not a native.

  20. Curator of Shit says:

    Wake up people, ugly is not sustainable! Green? That’s just what they say to justify how revolting the façade is… Give it 20 years and this sustainable building will need to be replaced by a much “greener” one. Why don\’t the Vulgarians who run this city\’s government get that? In fact, why doesn’t the general population get it? Its like when they said the South Broad Street Armory was structurally unsound, give me a break, without its roof it’s a solid load bearing brick wall!

    Meanwhile, let\’s demolish it, then an early 20th century hat factory, and maybe ten churches starting with one 1800. Philadelphia is distinct, why? Old architecture? Yes. Art? Yes. Culture? Yes. History? Yes. Where were these considerations when this façade was designed? Give me a million flush brick facades that stand as Philadelphia over this tasteless shrine to all that is grotesque and ugly in this world. A historic map inside… Must they insult the map?

    And while my reaction may seem extreme, I find the government’s $10 million infusion of this turd to be absolutely sickening. This is proof that all these endless codes have done nothing but create an ugly context of misery holes. Give them a little bit of time, I’m sure they’ll parge the whole thing anyway.

    On the upside, I think this building might be eligible for more than a green building distinction. Do I hear a second to my nomination of this building for the National Register of Architectural Turds of America?

  21. Davis says:

    I still haven\’t gotten over the demolition of the excellent early 19th c building that stood on that corner before the surface lot. Sure it wasn\’t unique, but it\’s type will soon be entirely gone from the city. A similar structure also on Arch at 9th street has now been altered beyond recognition and Chinatown has been particularly unkind to their late Federal buildings with virtually nothing left.

    But if we have to suffer the continued demolition of our history – let it at least be because it is being replaced with decent architecture.

  22. Jenna B says:

    the continued \”commercialization\” of main street 😉

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