With A Little Help From Frank Furness, We Evaluate 10 New Projects

June 23, 2017 | by Jason Lempieri

Author’s Note: When it came time to decide on a new system for rating new buildings, we looked to the father of unique Philadelphia architecture for guidance, Frank Furness. And when we did, we couldn’t get past his jowls. Furness was a hipster in his day. One needed big jowls to do his kind of eclectic architecture. We honor his bravery and creativity by applying his jowls here in jocular form. The more jowls, the better the architecture.


Museum of the American Revolution
101 South 3rd Street
Robert A. M. Stern Architects 

Museum of the American Revolution | Old City | Photo: Michael Bixler

If I were living in 1784 I’d tip my tricorner hat to this edifice. But I am not. And neither are you. The American Revolution was a groundbreaking event that ignited self-government in the world. Stern designed a museum that looks like the British won. At least Prince Charles would like it.

FMC Tower at Cira Center South
2929 Walnut Street
Pelli Clarke Pelli

FMC Tower | University City | Photo: Michael Bixler

The building is (F)airily (M)ediocre (C)onsidering its site. Visible from nearly every point in the city, the sequel to the original Cira Center is what most sequels are: more of the same, but less inspiring. Nestled next to train tracks, I-76, and the elevated Walnut Street, Cira Centre South’s entry level has a view to all of that activity. It’s a shame that the building’s dynamism at the ground level couldn’t make its way up. At the top is FMC’s red logo, as poorly proportioned as the IBX logo on the wretched tower at 1901 Market Street.

Perhaps the best use of this multi-use building is shadow caster. Though it blocks the southern view of the more attractive Cira South tower, Evo Philly building, it redeems itself by providing much needed shade to the adjacent elevated park, Cira Green.

One Riverside Drive
225 South 25th Street
Cecil Baker + Partner Architects

One Riverside Drive | Fitler Square | Photo: Michael Bixler

It could have been worse. Given the zoning error of the parcel and developer Dranoff’s penchant for faux historic enclosures, Cecil Baker rescued the project. He did this with surprising restraint: limiting the materials to metal panels, painted concrete, and blue glass (!) and slimming down the massing. That mix should hopefully protect the southern Schuylkill Park gardens from the blazing summer sun. It’s a shame that the air rights over the garden weren’t purchased to make that south-facing facade more compelling. It’s a largely blank wall that, with a vertical garden, would provide visual pleasure and a cooling effect as well. And if balconies extended on that south side, the project might have furthered human interaction.

Developer myopia affects the ground level, which is surprising given Dranoff’s near three-decade knowledge of the area. That bit of landscaping on the north side is a waste. A two-story retail space overlooking the spectacle of the trains and trail would have made a great gateway to and asset for the neighborhood. Where can one get their avocado toast, late night soy milk, and pup cakes around there?

Roberts Center for Pediatric Research, CHOP
2716 South Street
Ballinger, collaborating with Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and Cooper Robertson

Roberts Center for Pediatric Research | Devil’s Pocket | Photo: Michael Bixler

Set back from South Street bridge via a maze of semi-public seating and planters, the Roberts Center for Pediatric Research is finely detailed with a terra cotta rainscreen, metal fins, and blue glass (!). With curved facades offering panoramic views, the form of the building is as if it were drawn by the path of the sun. Those views are available thanks to its unique site on the east side of the Schuylkill River. The related Schuylkill River Trail is accessible on the south side via an off the shelf pedestrian bridge and an over-scaled concrete stair. Its no-frills aesthetic is a physical manifestation of CHOP’s minimal concession to the neighborhood. At least the ample landscape buffer zones are attractive. Given its location tucked along the east side of the building, the limited retail activity gives off the feeling that it is for CHOP researchers only. But access to the site is the main problem. Vehicular traffic on the inadequate South Street bridge is already challenging and the unattractive garage entrance compounds the issue severely. It may be time to cut off the I-76 ramp access and rethink another way in and out of the city.

New College House
University of Pennsylvania
3335 Woodland Walk
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson

New College House | University City | Photo: Michael Bixler

Sprawling nearly the full length of Chestnut Street from 34th to 33rd, the New College House at the University of Pennsylvania sits just north of Eero Saarinen’s Hill College House, built in 1960. Hill House’s textured brick work and fenestration pattern have clearly influenced the New College House’s facade materiality and scale. The building also borrows from the adjacent Law School’s limestone decoration and flemish bond brick work.

But it is massing and detailing that sets this building apart. The stretch of the Chestnut Street facade is carefully articulated with subtle angular changes and pronounced vertical breaks. The Breueresque corner at 33rd and Chestnut suspends a large sculptural limestone panel and serves as an abstract east-facing university gateway.

While the building lacks any commercial activity, student lounges and internal courtyard are alive with student life. Details to delight the eye and surprising views abound. A sloped terrain rises within the courtyard giving students a place for leisure and winter sledding. Let the games begin!

The Alexander AKA Mormon Tower
1601 Vine Street
Robert A. M. Stern Architects and BLT Architects

The Alexander | Art Museum area | 1601 Vine Street | Photo: Michael Bixler

Philadelphia Apartment Tower, serves 32 floors
Historic context that fits your modus operandi
1 large underutilized site with prominence
1 architect that has done this before. Use similar typology (10 Rittenhouse Square)
1 architect of record. Use similar typology (Symphony House)
Mix them together to a saccharine taste
Monitor construction like you would a souffle
Add PG-rated ground floor retail
Build to last for the Second Coming

1213 Walnut Street AKA Fergie Tower
1213 Walnut Street
Design Collective

1213 Walnut Street | Center City | Photo: Michael Bixler

There once was a Tudor pub
That sat alone on its lot like a stub
A tabula rasa site
26 storeys erasing blight
And some live-in drunks added to the club

The tower rises in grid and glass
Black frames to showcase every lad and lass
Amenities abound
Yet not a parking space found
For this is the lot of the new class

The Summit at University City
Drexel University
3400 Lancaster Avenue

The Summit | University City | Photo: Michael Bixler

The strange case of The Summit begins at the corner of 34th and Filbert Streets. Here, a two-and-one-half story crystalline form sits behind a dynamic steel skeleton. Behind it rises a southeast facing, 25 story wall of varied blue glass (!). To the south, the glass merges with a grid of cream-colored panels. To the east, the glass facade allows for an extraordinary view of Center City, a view that will be radically different in 20 years.

Back at ground level, baking hot, dark granite steps rise to an entry podium for the apartment house primarily serving Drexel students. Then, turning the corner and facing north is a lower scaled wall of retail and some housing. This facade meets the existing neighborhood with two colors of brick, beige pre-cast panels and bile yellow accent-framed openings. Looming always beyond is the blue-glazed apartment tower whose west facade is a broken, glass spine within a pre-cast concrete matrix. Is it corporate flair or local pastiche? One never knows which face you will face at the Summit…. Muwahahahaha!

500 Walnut Street
Cecil Baker + Partner Architects

500 Walnut Street | Washington Square West | Photo: Michael Bixler

Sidling up against the east side of Mitchell | Giurgola Architect’s remarkable Penn Mutual building on a narrow lot, 500 Walnut could possibly have the best site for a residence in the city. To the north is Independence Hall, which 500 Walnut’s tower angles toward. To the east is the Delaware River, which is visible after rising 12 floors. That’s prime firework viewing from the sleek terraces. And Philadelphia has firework displays like New Orleans has parades.

500 Walnut borrows from the punched opening grids of its neighbors and then steps that aesthetic back for a curtain wall of blue glass (!) rising 27 floors in total. The tower itself is recessed from Walnut Street, lending light and views back to Penn Mutual and keeping its form secreted from the watery eyes of American tourists visiting the Liberty Bell.

Let’s hope that there’s a ten year tax abatement coupled with a homestead exemption to make the 35 full floor units more marketable (;)).

The Beacon
1533 Walnut Street
DAS Architects

The Beacon | Center City | Photo: Michael Bixler

I have a secret to tell you: there is a 14-story building at the northeast corner of 16th and Walnut. It’s a secret because you’d have no idea standing there unless you step into the street. The original Brown Brothers Harriman building, a six story Renaissance style affair completed 90 years ago, serves as the formal base to the rising new addition.

That addition has a Modernist touch as it rises along the east side of the original building and then gulps up the air rights to the west. Its patterned, two-tone, buff-colored brick contextually riffs on the original edifice’s limestone facades. A carefully recessed zipper of glass demarcates the two structures, while mitred windows declare the addition’s Modernist stance. A terrace for all residents resides where the addition meets the existing 1927 roof. It is a natural choice, but rarely executed well. This property is living up to its full potential and makes one wonder why the rest of Center City does not follow suit.


About the Author

Jason Lempieri A self-described Catalyst, Jason Lempieri investigates subversion, history, and collective memory in his work. He designs from the perspective that form follows meaning. He is the founder of the multi-disciplinary architecture and design studio RethinkTANK llc. Currently, he is raising public funds for Gilded Gates, an artfully designed bike rack at Rittenhouse Square endorsed by the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.


  1. Davis says:

    I’d expect the eminent and extraordinary Mr Furness to view the above with his typically jaundiced eye, but while I disagree with most of his criticisms, I am curious about one in particular – The Alexander AKA Mormon Tower – questions of taste aside, what exactly is wrong with building “to Last for the Second Coming”? Or is all modern architecture to be here for forty years at most? It’s an honest question.

    1. Pamela Waters says:

      The problem is that it is as dull as a box of saltines.

      1. Davis says:

        I didn’t say it was exciting I asked whether building to last is a problem.

  2. Dan says:

    Agreed with Davis. The Alexander is one of the best new buildings in Philadelphia. Just because it isn’t clad in glass or has some current-era obsession with geometric computer-aided design, architects love to hate it. But plenty of Philadelphians I’ve spoke to really like the design. It certainly doesn’t deserve a lower grade than the economically-designed Fergie tower.

    1. Frank says:

      Well, I am a Philadelphian, not related to architecture nor design, and I think it’s awful.

  3. Lussenhop Tom says:

    We are restoring an actual Furness building at 40th and’s a crazy act based in faith i the past. May I tell you more….?

  4. Michael Ytterberg says:

    These kinds of articles reveal a lot about the preconceptions of the writer, and not so much about the buildings supposedly being reviewed. It would be helpful to actually look at them with one’s eyes instead of with a closed mind. I suppose we are meant to find the misplaced attitude amusing.
    And Tom, I would love to know more.

  5. Dane Wells says:

    I love the idea of a tribute to Furness, and other architects who dare to be bold and bodacious! As for the jowls, I am reminded of Louis Sullivan’s comments on Frank Furness: “[. . . from his face depended fan-like a marvelous red beard, beautiful in tone with each hair delicately crinkled from beginning to end. . . . he of the glorious beard, with something scraggy on his face that might have been a smile.”

    Perhaps the idea needs some fine tuning, but it is a great topic and off to a good start.

  6. red dog says:

    fun read. I disagree more often then not, but that’s ok. Its good to try to see through another’s eyes for a few minutes. Way to go with the rating system! But is it all just completely subjective, why 6 Furnesses for one place and 7 for the next? Just because you liked it more?

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