Brickstone Realty’s transformation-in-progress of the 1100 block of Chestnut Street reads big and bold, a multimillion dollar project infusing new life to the block at the expense of a Louis Kahn-Oscar Stonorov collaboration. Over on Market Street, the same developers have rebranded the Mellon Independence Center with the new, historically sensitive title ‘Lits Building,’ while making Historical Commission-approved plans to build a 30-story tower from its Filbert Street side. And this evening, they’ll flip the switch to brand new digital signage along Seventh and Market Streets, which—believe it or not—is itself historically sensitive.
While digital billboards have understandably drawn the ire of Scenic Philadelphia, community and motorist groups, and nearby residents, this one hearkens the very history of the building. The 700 block of Market Street as we know it was completed in 1918, a combination of buildings with a common interior begun in 1859 with a mostly uniform Renaissance Revival façade by Collins & Autenrieth. Even before the final segment was completed, on the corner of Seventh, the Lits building featured a wraparound sign from mid-block on Eighth to the east side of Market.
As pictured in the two photos above, signage is nothing new to the Lits complex. Its earliest incarnation announced Lits’ specialties, millinery and cloaks. After the block was built out to Seventh, and to play up to a city whose other options on Market Street alone included Wanamaker’s, Gimbels’, and Snellenburg’s, they modified the sign to read “A Great Store in a Great City,” with accent lighting at night. That sign remained until 1984, when it was deemed unsafe and the building was threatened with demolition.
Fortunately, a rally to save Lits won out, and Growth Properties bought and restored it for Mellon Bank’s regional headquarters (until the Mellon Bank Center opened in 1990). Then known as Mellon Independence Center, the building won a National Award for Historic Preservation. Brickstone purchased the complex in 1995, and a decade later considered re-adding the sign to the roof. When the economy sank, the idea was shelved.
But it revived in 2011 with the new Market East advertising district, an economic development proposal from then-Councilman Frank DiCicco. The bill promised developers the opportunity to install digital billboards (often compared to those in Times Square—both by those against and in support of them) if they promised to invest $10 million in their property, not including the signage. The ordinance passed in July of that year.
In Brickstone’s case, the real estate company has already begun a streetscape project to be completed this fall, as well as renovations to the office and retail space in the six-story building (five above ground and one below, with connections to the Gallery, SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line, and PATCO).
Starting tonight, the sign is back. Sort of. While the plan calls for “twin” digital signs—80 feet along both Seventh and Eighth Streets, and 160 feet along Market, with the two signs connected by a consistent (and unlit) bracketing through the center of the block—only the Seventh Street side is ready. The project is expected to be complete by the end of February.
The sign itself is 14 feet tall, roughly the height of an added story on the building, and it follows the contours of the building’s façade, including the octagonal towers on the corners. Designed by A2aMEDIA of Boston, the sign is made of a material called “mediamesh,” which uses less energy than traditional LED screens.
The doors have opened at Century 21 in the former Strawbridge’s flagship the Inquirer and Daily News have already called home for two years, and just up the street, Girard Square is quickly coming down to make way for East Market. Starting tonight, the new look of Market Street takes its cues from its own past with the lighting of the Lits Building’s new billboard. With Market8 now officially dead, here’s hoping the sign will shine down some new ideas for the Disney Hole.