Preservation

Op-Ed: Save the Roundhouse!

November 12, 2021 | by Jack Pyburn

The Police Administration Building (aka the Roundhouse) at 750 Race Street was completed in 1962 and designed by Geddes, Brecher, Qualls and Cunningham. | Photo: Peter Woodall

Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Fall 2021 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

When it opened in 1962, the Philadelphia Police Administration Headquarters on Race Street, aka “the Roundhouse,” marked a new collaborative relationship between architectural design, engineering, and building technology that transformed how buildings are designed and constructed to this day. Philadelphia Planning Director Edmund Bacon’s mid-century plans for the area around Independence Mall called for a new police headquarters with an engaging community presence. Prominent Philadelphia School architectural firm Geddes, Brecher, Qualls and Cunningham (GBQC), and the preeminent structural engineer, Dr. August Komendant, fresh from their second-place finish in the Sydney Opera House competition, received the commission. The Roundhouse’s circular precast design descended directly from their proposed Sydney Opera House design (which, for a time, stood in first place), and was one of the first buildings constructed in the United States to use Schokbeton, the highly mechanized Dutch system for producing quality architectural precast concrete. An unprecedented 90 percent of the Roundhouse’s structure and finishes, inside and out, is composed of precast concrete.

The revolutionary contributions the Roundhouse made to architecture and construction are reason enough for this significant mid-century modern structure to be celebrated and preserved. But as is often the case, other important considerations invariably shape preservation outcomes. The first is practical, concerning its adaptability for future use. The second, and in the case of the Roundhouse, more significant consideration is the social stigma the building carries from its association with the history of policing in the city as symbolized by Frank Rizzo’s tenure as Commissioner of Police and Mayor.

This mid-century rendering by Geddes, Brecher, Qualls and Cunningham shows a more open, public service-oriented entrance to the Police Administration Building. | Image courtesy of Jack Plyburn

On practical terms, the Roundhouse is exceptionally suited to modern reuse. Touted by the architects and City of Philadelphia as being close to 90 percent efficient, 10 percent more than the average commercial or institutional building of its time, the Roundhouse features an extremely adaptable open floor plan. That flexibility and efficiency have been obscured by a rabbit warren of desks and partitions to accommodate overcrowded police operations, but, in a collaborative study, my Georgia Tech architecture students demonstrated how the Roundhouse can be reused for offices, public events, social services such as day care and even an urban grocery in the lower level while preserving the building’s essential architectural qualities. The Georgia Tech/UPenn student team also illustrated how a new building could be constructed on the rear portion of the site to capture the location’s latent real estate value while preserving the historically significant headquarters, creating a model for cultural and environmental sustainability.

But for many Philadelphians, the Roundhouse is a physical manifestation of a persistent, systemic, and brutal history of policing, particularly toward African Americans, Asian Americans and other ethnic groups. Lost in the city’s institutional memory are the Roundhouse’s progressive origins. The Independence Mall location was selected to abate a reportedly unhealthy relationship between politicians and the police, cozy cohabitants in City Hall since 1904. In both location and design, the Roundhouse aimed to create a new positive relationship between the community and a more professional, service-oriented police department. Even the rounded form that gave the new headquarters its nickname was intended to convey a softer police presence, while the generous front entry plaza signaled welcome to the community. Note that the high concrete wall that rings the building today was a later addition.

Ripe for reuse. Although architecturally significant and structurally sound, the Roundhouse’s location and its large parking lot make demolition and redevelopment an unfortunate possibility. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Obviously, those progressive objectives were never fully realized. Any future for the Roundhouse must acknowledge the building’s association with the negative history of policing in Philadelphia. Preservation is the ideal way to come to terms with the painful past. Demolishing the Roundhouse as an act of retribution for the Rizzo years and after will do little or nothing to improve police-community relations or address important, timely human and civil rights issues in the city.

Preserved as a social artifact, however, a re-purposed Roundhouse has much to contribute to local, national, and international conversations around the timely topic of police and community relations. The example of Eastern State Penitentiary, a property, like the Roundhouse, with a troubled past, but designed with humane, progressive aspirations, provides an eminently constructive alternative for the Roundhouse’s future. Eastern State is now preserved to interpret its full history, good and bad, informing current and future generations about the prison’s history while engaging them in contemporary issues surrounding incarceration. Through a reuse dedicated to community-supporting uses, the Roundhouse could finally realize its original aspirational goals.

Rather than bury its past by demolition, let the Roundhouse confront the history of abuse through education, community engagement, and the actions of community service-minded tenants. Let the building’s exceptional, historically significant architecture and engineering represent a qualitative bar to be matched by equally exceptional service to a better Philadelphia.

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About the Author

Jack Pyburn is a historic preservation architect with Lord Aeck Sargent in Atlanta, Georgia and has extensively researched and lectured on mid-century precast architecture. He is currently president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) International Scientific Committee on 20th Century Heritage.

11 Comments:

  1. M Duffy says:

    What can individuals do to help preserve and repurpose this building. I can’t help but think of the crap that would be built in it’s place. (Pessimistic, yes. But probably true.)

    1. Gayle Morrow says:

      Always wondered why researchers who discover really cool things only share it with a small sample of people, usually through peer-reviewed journals and limited audience publications like Hidden City, name being appropriate.
      Do you not think that those who have a negative view of the Roundhouse due to it’s more recent history are too stupid to understand it’s true history?

  2. Jason says:

    It makes sense to me that such an article would be written by someone living in Georgia.

    I get that the roundhouse is architecturally significant and in general I am an ardent supporter of historic preservation and adaptive reuse. However, I wish to live in a city, not a museum.

    This area of Philadelphia is terrible from urban standpoint. It has monstrously large streets where cars go speeding past lots dominated by parking lots and loading bays. Unfortunately the Roundhouse is a large part of the problem. It sits far back from the street and is completely unwelcoming. Efforts could of course be made to have it meet the street better and develop over the parking lot as this is one part of the city where green space is absolutely unneeded and inappropriate. But once you’re altering the building in such a significant way to fix its issues, what are we even preserving at this point?

    Perhaps it would be worth jumping through all of these hurdles if over the past 50 years the building had served as a museum or a school or something at least useful and good. But the fact that it is also a symbol of the immoral and corrupt police force in this city is just all the more reason to tear it down.

    A big reason why I’m for historic preservation is because it is often hard to imagine a historic building would be replaced by something that is actually better. That’s not the case here. It’s very easy for me to imagine something better here, even if the new building would fall short of this one from a purely aesthetic architectural standpoint.

  3. James says:

    If someone buys the roundhouse, he is not going to buy if the Historical commission chooses to preserve it unless the city cuts the asking price. More likeky, buyers will be tech companies wanting to pay less for agreeing to preserve the building.

  4. Perry says:

    Great article. I agree. How can I help preserve it?

  5. Michael Penn says:

    Repurpose it as the new African Art Museum. Give it the Guggenheim treatment.

  6. Mike says:

    If we’re letting PPD move into the Inquirer Building, I think its only fair we offer the Roundhouse to the Inquirer

  7. Miller says:

    I hear people lament disposable products (plastics, the forced obsolescence of appliances/electronics, etc.) due to their environmental harm and what it might signal as a society who values convenience over more sustainable goals. But what about buildings? How can we keep putting buildings made of quality materials that could be reused into the landfill? Whatever is built in place may only have a lifespan of 40-50 years (unlike many older buildings that could last a century or longer). The demolition and construction vehicles to demolish and rebuild plus all the new construction materials don’t make sense on sustainable grounds, but yet it is so often the “go to” first choice.

  8. Karen says:

    The Roundhouse is a terrible reminder of pain and abuse for many Philadelphians. Keeping the amazing architecture but gutting the inside, all reminders of pain, and turning it into a beautiful Community Center or Museum, free to all, to educate people would be most appropriate and needed to erase its history.

  9. Catherine says:

    I can’t disagree more. The Roundhouse looks like a set of handcuffs from above – so progressive!

    The way it is situated and parking lots take away from walkability in what should be the most walkable part of the city. That idealized rendering is cute, but the fact is it’s not like that in person.

    Plus, I have a view of this hideous building from my office. I’m sure the view is great in Georgia but from where I’m sitting we should tear it down, get it out of my sight, and get something better in.

  10. Also Davis says:

    Using the words finest and brutalist in the same sentence is bizarre. This building is nothing more than a parking ramp with windows. Yes, it could be a hotel or apartments, but it has no real esthetic value, precisely because it is brutalist.

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