Docomomo PHL To Host “Wake” For Modernist Store

 

Robinson Department Store’s windowless wave of Modernism on Market Street. | Photo: Michael Bixler

On Thursday, June 28 the Philadelphia chapter of Docomomo International, a non-profit organization dedicated to documenting and conserving Modernist architecture, will hold a public demonstration to advocate for saving Robinson Department Store at 1020 Market Street. The building’s facade, a cresting wave of purple glass tiles, was designed by the father of the American shopping mall, architect Victor Gruen, and his wife, the designer Elsie Krummeck. The facade was constructed in 1948 on the exterior of a five-story building that dates back to the 1880s. It is one of the last of 11 Gruen-designed Grayson-Robinson stores still standing. The distinctive department store was granted legal protection from demolition by the City in 2016 after it was nominated by historic preservationist Ben Leech and the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and placed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. However, the building’s historic status was reversed and removed by the Department of License and Inspections Review Board on November 22, 2017 after the group voted 5-0 in support of an appeal filed by the property owners, Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust (PREIT), the same real estate conglomerate redeveloping The Gallery. It has been speculated that PREIT pushed the City to remove the building from the register in anticipation of future development on the site.  

The Preservation Alliance is currently seeking to appeal both Judge Daniel J. Anders’ decision to remand the case to L&I, rather than allow it to remain under the purview of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, and the Board’s decision to remove the building from the local register.

Robinson Department Store’s elegant, cursive signature fills the façade in 1961. | Image courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

Docomomo PHL is hosting a “wake” for the building in anticipation of its eventual demolition. The group aims to raise awareness of Philadelphia’s historic preservation crisis while symbolically mourning the loss of the Modernist department store–a rare, surviving example of Center City’s mid-century commercial hey day. In a press release for the event, Ben Leech, board member of Docomomo PHL, stated, “The rescinding of the Robinson Building’s historic designation is deeply disturbing. Not only could it mean the destruction of this particular landmark; it means the undercutting of the entire process. We don’t know what will happen to the Robinson Building, but we hope to make all of us who live and work in Philadelphia more cognizant of the threats posed to the built environment.”

***

Docomomo PHL will stage their wake for Robinson Department Store at 10th and Market Streets on June 28 at 5:30PM. The group encourages attendees to wear black. The demonstration is part of the organization’s One Building/One Brew series and will conclude over drinks at El Vez. For more information see event details HERE.

About the author

Michael Bixler is a writer, photographer, and managing editor of Hidden City Daily. He is a former arts and entertainment reporter with Mountain Xpress weekly in Asheville, North Carolina and a native of South Carolina. Bixler has a keen interest in adaptive reuse, underappreciated architecture, contemporary literature and art, and forward-thinking dialogue about people and place. Follow him on Instagram



11 Comments


  1. Am I the only one who thinks this historic facade is unsightly? To me it looks like something you’d find in abandoned chernobyl.Maybe if it was cleaned up and had some script letters again, it wouldn’t be so bad…

  2. I won’t mourn its loss. It was misplaced to my view and would have been better located in a strip mall where it would look at home.

  3. The shape of the facade is interesting but impractical for today. Why not replicate the curve in glass?

  4. I always found it to be not only hideous but an ungrateful intrusion in a row of appropriate buildings. How anyone can protest its demolition is an insult to preservation. When you protest the wrong buildings, you diminish your credibility on all other buildings. So here’s an esthetic rule to follow: blank walls of more than one story with no windows or lighting should not be allowed to be visible. And why isn’t anyone protesting the monstrous new building going up at 15th and Chestnut? It promises to be colossally ugly. Again, massive sheets of concrete, apparently shielding a huge parking ramp base.

  5. Alexandra Jones

    Butt ugly. Would not be a loss.

  6. I find this building to be truly unique but not a cause célèbre in Philadelphia. I appreciate the Preservation Alliance and all that they do but in a city where 19th century buildings (and earlier) are routinely torn down by greedy developers, whose lives are ruled by money, there are other areas where their energies are greatly needed. This building restored would look wonderful in LA or Miami but not here. Let’s do all we can to protect our beautiful early architectural gems that are in a constant state of possible destruction.

  7. A building’s value cannot lie entirely in its beauty. This is the kind of building that still makes you stop and look up. It’s one of the first buildings I really noticed after I moved to Philadelphia when I stopped my friend as we walked down Market and said, “Yo, look at the building. It’s so… weird!”

    I think it’s absurd to assume we should only save the “beautiful” buildings. In the 60’s, when they tore down all the “beautiful” Victorian buildings, they did it because they were thought to be old-fashioned and ugly. Preservation based on aesthetic value seems shortsighted to me.

  8. I’m sorry, but this fugly shouldn’t be saved. I never liked it. It’s claustrophobic looking and I always thought that if I had to work in there I’d lose my breath by not being able to see outside. It’s an ugly facade. But, if the building is historic, they should change the look of it without demolishing the building but make it look better. Does anyone remember the bowling alley that used to be on Market Street? Which building was that in?

  9. Can someone tell me something about the building at 19th and Lehigh or Glenwood….it has a fence around it but are there plans to demolish or refurbish it?

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