In a very loud, very public spectacle Sunday, One South Broad both lost a little history and aligned a little closer with history in the removal of the PNB letters atop the building’s crown. The letters have adorned the top of the tower for 58 years, a midcentury addition to the beaux-arts tower which opened in 1932 without any signage. With the surrounding streets in the heart of Center City blocked off, removal of the letters was to have been completed between 6am and noon. But by 2pm, already overtime for the Streets Department and Police crews on hand, only three of the twelve letters had been removed and the job was suspended for a date to be determined.
One South Broad opened in 1932 as the Lincoln-Liberty Building, named for the two buildings it replaced, both of them early examples of Philadelphia skyscrapers. Its design came from John T. Windrim toward the end of a career which also produced the Franklin Institute, PECO’s Richmond, Delaware, and Chester power stations, dozens of buildings for the Bell Telephone Company, and a number of commissions for John Wanamaker, including his Jenkintown home and Lincoln-Liberty, crafted to house offices for Wanamaker’s flagship store a block away.
Philadelphia National Bank (PNB), founded in 1803, had kept offices in the 28-story building since it opened, and in 1952, they purchased it and formally made it the company’s headquarters. Signs for the Lincoln-Liberty Building still remain in the pedestrian concourse along the Broad Street Subway.
In 1956, PNB affixed the familiar letters to all four sides of the bell tower that houses the Founder’s Bell, the 17-ton bell commissioned by Rodman Wanamaker in honor of his father. While they didn’t quite hold the same significance or design component of the neon PSFS atop that building at 12th and Market, the 16-foot letters were a handsome midcentury typeface that contrasted subtly with the beaux-arts skyscraper.
As with so many other midcentury relics before them, the letters will head to the scrapyard and landfill, with no apparent signs to salvage them. Though the City’s Office of Property Assessment web site has not yet reflected the sale, the web site of Aion Partners (a real estate management based in New York) indicates they purchased One South Broad in April 2014. Natalie Kostelni reported the sale of $68 million for the Philadelphia Business Journal in May.
Removal of the letters was first approved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission in 2005, when Wachovia wanted to replace the PNB with branding of its own. (The Founder’s Bell and its belfry are on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, while the building itself is not.) Interestingly, the sign change would have in effect been an in-house corporate makeover, not unlike corporations such as Wendy’s and Walmart replacing their signs when their logo gets a redo. PNB, whose Money Access Center (MAC) innovation in the 1970s set the standard for modern ATMs, began a series of mergers in the 1980s, one of which was with CoreStates Bank of Delaware. CoreStates survived long enough to buy the first naming rights of the new Sixers/Flyers arena to replace the Spectrum, before subsequent buyout by Charlotte, NC’s First Union in 1998 for $16.6 billion, then the largest bank merger in US history. Three years later, First Union bought Wachovia and retained the latter’s identity. In late 2008, amidst the financial crisis, Wells Fargo purchased Wachovia, converting the last of their branches to Wells Fargo’s brand in 2011.
With the sound of the construction helicopter echoing through the skyscraper canyons below mixed with the horns of aggravated drivers backed up, onlookers gawked skyward to watch the crew painstakingly disassemble the tower’s south-facing P first, then B, and finally N before calling it a day. Workers on the street at 15th Street and JFK Boulevard, where the helicopter deposited the letters for transport on a flatbed truck, said that the tower crew encountered difficulty unbolting the steel supports for the letters. The P and B were kept relatively intact, while the Plexiglas face of the N suffered pretty severe damage. Not that it matters considering the fate of the letters.
The same workers, from Thackray Crane Rental and Philadelphia Sign Company, said they heard the job would resume next Sunday, but this has yet to be confirmed. When it does, it will require coordination between the Streets and Police Departments and the Federal Aviation Administration, in addition to the helicopter and construction crews.
When the remaining nine letters have been removed, additional bracketing will need to be removed from the bell tower, returning the building’s crown to its original, circa-1932 look.
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Some additional photos of One South Broad and its PNB sign: