Supporters of midcentury modern architecture were thrown a curveball by City officials this week when Mayor Michael Nutter and Council President Darrell Clarke announced new plans to pursue redevelopment of John F. Kennedy Plaza, aka Love Park. Though park improvements have long been discussed, the fate of its idiosyncratic, flying-saucer-shaped Visitors Center building once seemed secure; a 2011 redevelopment plan, now abandoned, mandated the preservation of the building.
Monday’s announcement extended no such courtesy, as Nutter and Clarke agreed to a new vision to redevelop the park in blank-slate fashion, allowing that “the existing park structure (visitor center) may or may not be included in the final design.” With preservation advocates already girding for battle over the future of the Police Administration Building, District Health Center #1, the Robinson Building, and other midcentury icons, the opening of yet another front in the culture wars over the future of Philadelphia’s recent architectural past was unwelcome news.
But what is Love Park good for if not a little culture war? For at least the last thirty years, the park has been Ground Zero in an ongoing debate about what public space is and is not, who it should serve and who it should exclude, what it should look like and how it should be paid for. Skateboarders have been evicted, food bans established and lifted, homelessness debated. So it maybe shouldn’t be surprising that the next great Love Park war might be fought over a building that began life as a celebrated icon of civic boosterism, but is now apparently regarded by City officials as an outdated and disposable folly.
Originally commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce as the Philadelphia Hospitality Center, the building was designed by Harbeson, Hough, Livingston & Larsen in 1959 and opened in 1960. The firm inherited Paul Philippe Cret’s practice following the influential architect’s death in 1945; each of the original partners was a former student of Cret’s at the University of Pennsylvania. The firm carries on today as H2L2.
The choice of architect was a natural one; Cret’s Parkway originally terminated at 15th Street, bisecting the block where the park now sits. The building actually predates JFK Plaza itself by about five years and was built adjacent to Cret’s Parkway on an awkward sliver of land at the foot of Vincent Kling’s mammoth Penn Center development. This original triangular site was only later incorporated into Kling and Edward Bacon’s park plan, which broke ground in 1964 and was dedicated in 1967.
Funded jointly by the City and through donations from the local business community, the $300,000 building opened just two years after Edward Durell Stone’s circular United States Pavilion made a big splash at the 1958 International Exposition in Brussels, no doubt influencing the center’s round design. Both buildings celebrated postwar American optimism, in Philadelphia’s case by attracting visitors to the heart of America’s most ambitious experiment in urban renewal, Penn Center.
Beyond its circular design, the building also borrowed heavily from the vocabulary of commercial architecture of the period, with large floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows set under a projecting slab cornice studded with soffit lights. It was architectural eye-candy for the grey flannel suit and pillbox hat set, and featured prominently in period advertisements celebrating Philadelphia’s postwar progress.
Ironically, the same spirit of progress and optimism is fueling the current calls to remake Love Park at the possible expense of visitors center. Much of redevelopment-era Center City has already been scraped clean, from the remodeling of Penn Center to the redevelopment of Dilworth Plaza, with mixed results. Before the new grass has even been planted or the new concession stands even installed at Dilworth across the street, politicians are calling for more of the same at Love Park. Apparently not even public space gets a free ride anymore; the fate of the visitors center seems to hinge on whether it can attract a paying tenant.
Round buildings undoubtedly suffer from the—ahem—cyclical vagaries of public favor. The last few years have seen the loss of Gettysburg’s Cyclorama, JFK’s Pan Am Worldport, and Chicago’s Prentice Hospital. Less conveniently adaptable than their right-angled brethren, they suffer disproportionately from charges of obsolescence. Recent “improvements” to the building have also done it no favors, with its clean lines and transparent façade now cluttered with distracting banners and window decals.
While nobody has publicly called for its demolition yet, the implication of the Nutter-Clarke agreement is clear—the building can go. Caught between Clarke’s push for more concession space and Nutter’s push for more green space, neither sees much value in the current building or its current use. Would it be cheaper to tear it down and build the at-grade restaurant pavilion that is now so de rigueur for a Center City park? Maybe. Is that the best solution for Love Park? Probably not.
Even if its current visitor center use is value-engineered out of the new park’s programmatic vision, the building still presents a wide variety of creative reuse options. Café? Martini bar? Bicycle station? Yoga studio? The City wants to see Love Park transformed into a model 21st Century urban space, but is blind to this major 21st Century preservation opportunity at its doorstep.
The visitors center is one of the best (and last) examples of flamboyant modern architecture in Center City; its preservation could be a model demonstration project. Unfortunately, and all too commonly for idiosyncratic architecture of all shapes and sizes, the path of least resistance is the building’s biggest threat.