Most older buildings in Old City have good bones with an inherent adaptability for new use. But will new buildings like Bridge on Race at 205 Race Street lend themselves to reinterpretation in a century? Once the unique character of an historic neighborhood is gone there’s no getting it back. The pressures of power, economics, environment, and social class are an ever-intensifying, potent stew that sometimes results in a sorry mess. Hailing from their Industrial Age manufacturing, storage, and distribution heyday, Old City’s edifices in brick and granite feature high ceilings and tall windows. A newly formed design coalition, the Philadelphia Design District (PDD), capitalizes on this architectural heritage, though its industrial raison d’etre is long gone, a veneer. Recently established by Eugenie Perret, co-owner of Minima, contemporary furniture design shop, PDD is a consortium of area high-end design vendor businesses and galleries.
While PDD is anchored in Old City, Perret intends a broader vision, design-without-borders, so to speak. Still, will PDD will be an influential force in fostering positive dialogue in the perennial fight between “old versus new?” Old City is a microcosm of a larger societal dilemma: historic preservation facing off with new development with all the related debates about energy efficiency, use of materials, and resistance to change. Maybe we could envision an incubator for testing new ideas, Old City as a preservation and new construction lab where mad designers, merchants, real estate developers, and even average citizens can engage to foster new ideas and growth.
At the moment, 12 founding members of PPD, mainly galleries and showrooms, are emerging from today’s pool of retailers, galleries, and food venues. Exteriors of buildings remain largely the same, but interior spaces have been reimagined. That, coupled with the original streetscaping and impressive architectural scale, affords a vibrant metamorphosis. Moribund buildings can take flight with inventive design as the lifeblood.
The inception of PDD represents an implicit, healthy recognition that the arts and design should be fully integrated into daily life and city infrastructure. Coalitions and collaborations, naturally, facilitate positive business transformations and blossoming creative opportunities.
PDD co-founder Eugenie Perret has high hopes and shares her vision of the future in this interview.
Joseph G. Brin: How and when did Philadelphia Design District begin?
Eugenie Perret: Having a business in the neighborhood for 19 years you get know the residents and the business owners. It was always a discussion with a few of us and after living through the recession where Old City was hit hard. We started to meet and seriously discuss how to protect brick and mortar businesses in the neighborhood and the reputation of Old City. Next, it was 10 business owners with the same vision to start our district as a non profit. In April 2018, we threw a big event at Bridge on Race with the generous support of developer Brown Hill. It was an amazing turn out of 400 people, and we received local, national, and international press.
JGB: What exactly is PDD’s mission?
EP: Since 1776, Philadelphia has been the home of the builders and the craftsmen; the thinkers and the tinkers. It’s where ideas and innovation collided to create the heart of the nation. Born from this spirit, a new heart has risen in Old City–the Philadelphia Design District. From 2nd and 3rd Streets to Market and Race Streets, this eclectic gathering of design showrooms and galleries is a collective community presenting the best in creativity and design in a vibrant and dynamic neighborhood.
And we have a purpose, too. The Philadelphia Design District is where the collaboration of ideas and services have enlivened and transformed this enclave of Old City into a vibrant destination for residents and visitors. It is a place where a Minotti sofa, a Nakashima wooden chair, Contemporary European outdoor furniture, handmade local ceramics, contemporary and vintage Persian rugs, ceramics and sculpture from artists like Kevin Finklea, Roberto Lugo, and Gregory Nangle can all be found in one neighborhood. This is the newest destination for home design and shopping.
The notion of artistry runs deep in the veins of our collective. We value things made by hand, warehouses and industrial buildings, Italian sofas, floral arrangements, carpets, glass vessels, and the like. We value the imagination and the innovation that artisans bring to the raw materials of our planet: flora, fauna, stone, metal, wood. We foster conversations about luxury, home, space, safety, beauty, comfort, and mood in every showroom and gallery in the District.
JGB: Is PDD the equivalent of Avenue of the Arts, specifically, defined with banners, etc.?
EP: If your question is about mapping out a territory, then, yes, we have banners designed by MOD, a branding agency, hanging on 3rd Street that announce PDD. However, we have a broader agenda than simply selling product. We are also building a fresh education model for design professionals and aficionados. That planning is taking place now. Stay tuned.
JGB: Does the success of PDD depend on near 100% area business participation?
EP: Largely. I’ve been part of this neighborhood for a long time. Some business people in this area have been on board, wanting to create a cohesive group for a while. Others do not yet see the possibilities in partnerships, but they will. Sometimes it is difficult to convey your vision to others. PDD has added a category of membership called “Design Partners,” designers and design-oriented businesses from neighborhoods across the city.
JGB: When it comes to architecture, is PDD most concerned about converting interior spaces or does the identity of the district include the preservation of historic exteriors?
EP: We are most concerned about creative businesses staying in the neighborhood as the city is changing very fast and real estate prices in Philly continue to rise with increasing demand. The identity of this neighborhood is tied to our historic architecture. The original urban plan and existing buildings of Old City create a charm and warmth that’s rare to find in the U.S. Preserving the physical neighborhood and the history of America’s democracy and commerce story–including the preservation of Ben Franklin’s home and burial site–is very important for Philly and the nation.
JGB: Will PDD be a force for architectural preservation or is it more about a clearly-defined design and business community. Or both?
EP: PDD is a force for finding new ways to bring in more art and design businesses (i.e. retailers and gallerists) to this neighborhood as well as for prompting more clients to shop here on a regular basis. Where else can you find so many unique, stand alone retailers in such a specific, historic urban plan? In a recent article I stated that Philadelphia Design District will educate, promote, and encourage commitment to design-focused businesses, while preserving this historical neighborhood.
But infill has already taken place and continues at a rapid clip. Parking lots are becoming new modern buildings. At the same time, there’s extraordinary preservation happening. For instance, the job that Materials Conservation did for Linode, the international cloud sharing company, in the old Corn Exchange building is amazing!
I have been in Old City since 1997. I started first by buying and renovating debilitated factory buildings, an historic building at 118 N. 3rd Street, and an old townhouse in Society Hill. After these renovations I decided to open my first design gallery in 1999. I recently renovated 131 N. 3rd Street where we opened our second location. The last five years we have seen a big change with developers in Old City renovating historic buildings and some new developments. I believe all these improvements have brought new businesses, like Linode at the Corn Exchange building, with extensive investment to renovate one of the most beautiful and historic landmarks in Old City. We are as design business owners who have been in Philadelphia for a long time and we care, first and foremost, about the preservation of architecture of our city.
JGB: With your magic wand, what would you like to see happen in Old City?
EP: Partnerships with the tech businesses on “N3RD.” Maybe include Technical.ly Philly so that we all increase cross pollination of ideas and ways of working. We’re beginning to see possibilities for promoting design and tech together. This is also a very livable and lived-in neighborhood so we want to make sure that residents, both the short-term renters and longtime residents, feel good here. It would be nice to see design businesses within one district and exchanging ideas together for this communities.
JGB: What have you seen in other cities that offers ideas or a model for PDD?
EP: In our own city, of course, DesignPhiladelphia has had a tremendous influence of what PDD is doing. As the first American design festival founded 14 years ago, we all learned together how to create experiences that are as entertaining as they are educational. Many PDD members spend time in Europe, shopping and being inspired. Milan Salone, the Venice Biennial, DesignMiami, Design Istanbul, and places like Soho Design District, Miami Design District.