If you’ve ever stopped to look at the brick-and-wood bunker at 24th and Pine chances are you didn’t like it. The building is squat, paranoid, and defiantly out-of-place among the ornate 19th century row houses that ring around picturesque Fitler Square. For nearly 22 years the property was the studio of mid-century architect Norman Rice. It was acquired by Kippy Stroud, founder of the Fabric Workshop, after Rice died in 1985. The property most recently served as an apartment for visiting artists of the workshop before it was sold in 2016. This summer the current owners plan to raze part of the one-story section and add a two-story addition, an alteration that most neighbors will likely applaud. Although the building is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places as part of the Rittenhouse-Fitler Square Historic District, it has been deemed architecturally non-contributing. Yet, as defensive and inharmonious to the surrounding neighborhood as the exterior of the studio is, the inside is a soothing, minimalist time capsule filled with warm wood paneling and uplifting natural light. The owners plan to salvage what they can, but the cozy Atomic Age interior will soon be demolished for new construction.
Norman Rice isn’t a name that gets thrown around much these days. The revered Philadelphia-born architect was a close, lifelong friend of monumental Modernist Louis Kahn from the time they graduated from Central High School to their undergraduate days at the University of Pennsylvania to when they returned to teach at Penn until Kahn’s death in 1974. Nearly every book written about Kahn includes excerpts from correspondence between the two confidants. And yet Rice was never quite possessed by the fevered, utopian visions that drove and often undermined Kahn, choosing instead to engage with Philly’s architecture community and dig in at home.
Rice studied under Paul Cret as a student at Penn. He was the first American to work in the studio of Le Corbusier in Paris and spent time at the firm of Pierre Jeanneret. While working for Howe & Lescaze in the early 1930s he contributed to the design of the groundbreaking PFSF Building, the country’s first International Style skyscraper. Rice opened his independent practice at 29 and spent an industrious career working on commissions for the City and residential projects in the surrounding suburbs. He redesigned Fitler Square in 1954, steered the helm of the Philadelphia chapter of the AIA in the 1960s as director and president, lead the Pennsylvania Society of Architects, and taught at Penn from 1963 to 1977. He was also rumored to be an adversary of Frank Lloyd Wright.
Similar to his studio at 2400 Pine Street, most of Rice’s designs are restrictive and self-contained, but radiate from the inside with light. One of his better-known commissions, the Dr. and Mrs. Jacoby T. Rothner Residence at 3419-23 W. School House Lane, is a one-story cinder block rancher that looks like it belongs on an Army base in the Mojave Desert. Built in 1952, the low-slung home is wrapped in ribbon windows interrupted by a large pane of glass that looks out into the backyard and the Wissahickon Valley below. The house was nominated and listed on the local register of historic places by its current owners in 2010.
Other commissions, like Temple Beth Hillel in Wynnewood, District Health Centers #10 next to Northeast Regional Library on Cottman Avenue, and Rice’s Grover Cleveland Elementary School addition are equally detached from the outside world. Although the style was indicative of the times, this theme of protection and isolation is reoccurring in Rice’s body of work. Even the concrete bleachers he designed for Whitehall Commons Playground are asocial and uptight. Yet, as Rice’s buildings clam up and stiffen their backs, inside skylights and clerestories brighten their interiors with an unexpected sensation of warmth, welcome, and calm.
Inside the studio of architect Norman Rice. Photographs by Michael Bixler.