A few years back I noticed a large billboard on top of the striking industrial Whitman’s Chocolates building at the northeast corner of 5th and Race Streets. An architectural mockup on the billboard reimagined the mid-century production facility as a renovated symphony of structural concrete, red brick, and Argus glass blocks, giving new life to its chaste Modern design and adding more architectural gusto with a shapely glass tower blooming out of its center. Whose idea it was I cannot recall, but the rendering was a creative vision for the redevelopment of the site and, by incorporating the old Whitman’s building, a slice of Philadelphia’s commercial and industrial history would be saved. The smart rendering meant that the building was, as the English say, “safe as houses,” or so I thought. The billboard is now long gone and so is the proposed reuse design. In just a few weeks the last Whitman’s Chocolates building in Philadelphia will be demolished for an architecturally uninspired condominium complex at the eastern entrance to the city or perhaps soon representing a gateway to the suburbs.
Whitman’s is arguably one of the most famous candy companies in American history. The company’s candy-making facility at 401 Race Street was built in two phases. Designed by engineering firm Gravel & Duncan, the first phase of construction appears to have occurred between 1941 and 1942. The second and largest phase was completed in 1946, and a third floor addition was built in 1947.
But is this Modern industrial building architecturally significant? In creating the Old City Historic District in 2003 (added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972), the Philadelphia Historical Commission classified the Whitman’s factory as “non-contributing.” According to Philadelphia’s preservation ordinance, contributing properties that fall within a historically designated district are legally protected from demolition. Non-contributing buildings are not. And like most industrial facilities, representative of Philadelphia’s blue collar history as the “Workshop of the World,” this one was not individually listed in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. In the eyes of the Historical Commission it did not contribute to the historical or architectural quality of the district. Less than three percent of Philadelphia’s buildings are legally protected by the local register. This speaks volumes about our city’s connection to the past and lack of preservation priorities, especially during this current period of land hungry redevelopment. In New York City, the response to increased development has been incredible. Over 2,000 buildings were legally protected in all five boroughs by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 2015. These preservation efforts are not meant to block development, but instead are mechanisms to ensure that historic buildings that make neighborhoods unique continue to exist within the context of a changing city, often with a changing purpose. In stark contrast, there have been fewer than 500 buildings protected in Philadelphia over the last ten years.
Priderock Capital Group and the property owner Christopher Todd began peddling their proposal for the apartment complex (including 40 surface and 144 underground parking spaces) on the Whitman’s site in 2015. Barton Partners Architects’ design for the project was not well received. Last August the Civic Design Review Committee found the proposal underwhelming, with some members describing the project’s design as cheap, unambitious, and too suburban. According to a report by Jared Brey at PlanPhilly, committee member and architect Cecil Baker expressed his distaste when he pounded his fist on a table and said to Christopher Todd, Priderock Capital Partners’ head of real estate development, “You are on the most historic acre in the United States. This is not a place for broken-down architecture.” Similar criticism was echoed by the City Planning Commission, namely because of the building materials chosen, yet they ultimately voted in favor of the project.
The Architectural Committee of the Philadelphia Historical Commission reviewed Priderock Capital Group’s design proposal in October 2015. Like the Civic Design Review Committee, they too were unimpressed by the project’s lifeless proposal and ordered the firm to redesign. Their recommendations included widows with simulated divided lights or no muntins at all, a better use of the brick and metal veneer on the façade, and a more sensitive color and style of fake stone at various sections of the fascia among other precise details. No mention of Whitman’s Chocolates or the history behind the building was made. Only the most recent use of the site by local clothing manufacturer Pincus Brothers was discussed. At the November 2015 meeting of the Historical Commission, members commented on the changes made to the design and offered other minor suggestions. Not a word was spoken about the building being demolished.
One last hope for retaining part if not all of the Whitman’s building was the fact that it is part of the Old City Historic District. If motivated, the Historical Commission could have leveraged a redesign that would have included some elements of the building like its façade. One project, a hotel designed by JKRP Architects, included reuse of the concrete structural system that was clad with glass at the base of a glass tower—an homage to the past while remaining attractively contemporary. Alas, the absence of even a discussion of the value of protecting historic industrial sites is becoming standard procedure in Philadelphia. In no time there will be no built trace of Whitman’s Chocolates or its historic Philadelphia connection left.
The story of Whitman’s Chocolates is one of innovation. Stephen French Whitman, born in Philadelphia in 1823 to Quakers Stephen Whitman and Martha French, opened his first candy store in 1842 just blocks from the Philadelphia waterfront on Market Street when it was a bustling highway of commerce and vibrant with urban life. Whitman established a diverse clientele almost immediately, catering to all manner of Philadelphians, from the upper class to longshoremen. Sailors were also regular customers and helped make his candy well known through their travels along the Eastern Seaboard. The enterprising confectioner augmented his success through marketing his products in newspapers and magazines before the Civil War. By 1866, Whitman had moved his facility to 12th and Market Streets, supplying wholesale products to local merchants. His son Horace F. Whitman took over the company as president in 1869 and improved production methods while developing new products. After a fire in 1880, Whitman’s Candies moved to the 600 block of Cherry Street and, in 1906, to 5th and Race Streets. By the turn of the 20th century Whitman’s Candies were on the shelves of drugstores across the region and beyond. The Whitman’s Sampler–the unmistakable assorted box of chocolates–was debuted in 1910. Five years later it had become America’s best-selling box of chocolates and is still savored by chocolate lovers and Valentine’s Day sweethearts today.
The company maintained its profitability after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and was able to commission a new production addition to their facility in 1941. Relatively few buildings were being constructed by private companies during wartime. But during the Second World War, the company sent more than six million pounds of candy to the front in their newly developed “Land, Sea and Air” tins from the new industrial facility.
Designed specifically by William Gravell of Gravell & Duncan, the industrial building was designed for light candy manufacturing and incorporated modernist architecture and history with a familiar façade of red brick as a tribute to the surrounding neighborhood and the Colonial Revival style. The building’s Modern appearance was enhanced by horizontal bands of windows filled entirely with Argus glass blocks. The bands were interrupted vertically by fluted concrete pilasters finished in white. The building remained a testament to Whitman’s success until 1961 when the company was bought by Pet, Inc. and operations were moved elsewhere. The older buildings at the Old City production site were eventually demolished and the facility was taken over by Pincus Brothers. Here they manufactured and sold Bill Blass suits among other name brands.
Beyond Whitman’s historical significance, the building’s industrial Modern style of architecture was established by the architect Albert Kahn. Such structures are perhaps not the most warm and inviting for contemporary residential conversions, but they have inherent potential for repurposing and adaptive reuse. One of the most innovative examples of such a project, and an important historic preservation project of recent years, is the Hecht Company Warehouse on New York Avenue in Washington, D.C., which was recently converted into a residential building, despite its huge swath of institutional Argus glass blocks. Other great reuse examples of what some might regard as cold industrial architecture exist all across the country, but, in most cases, this requires historic designation of the building and landmark status.
Knowledge of Whitman’s Chocolates’ legacy in Philadelphia is fading. The company’s last remaining facility in the city could easily have been added to the Old City Historic District by the Philadelphia Historical Commission and reuse, in some form, could have been recommended. Instead, the building will be razed without any consideration or dialogue about its historical significance. In its place we will get another underwhelming residential project in one of the most highly visible parts of the city, leaving an historic district evermore devoid of history.
Correction: A staff member of the Philadelphia Historical Commission provided an important clarification after this article was published. The extant building at 1626 Chestnut Street (Men’s Warehouse) is a former candy store of Whitman’s Chocolates. This building is also not listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The information confirms that the subject building at 401 Race Street is likely the last of Whitman’s industrial buildings in Philadelphia.