Over the next few months the Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) will be fully installed in its new home at 400 N. Broad Street. Establishing a new headquarters has been a long time in the making. In 2014, having long outgrown the Police Administration Building (aka the Roundhouse) at 7th and Race Streets, former Mayor Michael Nutter made plans to move the PPD headquarters to the former Provident Mutual Insurance Company at 46th and Market Streets, a Classical Revival building built in 1927 and situated on a 20-acre campus.
With new administrations come new plans and, in 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney announced that the PPD would move to the former home of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News at Broad and Callowhill Streets. According to a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, the administration felt the new site enabled the City to consolidate more operations in one location. It concluded that the Broad Street building was more accessible to the public and more efficient for coordinating with other criminal justice partners.
In 2019, the City sold the Provident Mutual site to a developer who, in partnership with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Public Health Maintenance Corporation, among others, transformed it into a medical campus. The Community College of Philadelphia’s West Regional Center is also there. Now, with the PPD’s move finally a reality, the City faces the million-dollar question of what to do with the Roundhouse.
Philadelphians, especially those who live in areas undergoing rampant development, know the frustration of watching excavations or attending fait accompli zoning committee meetings and question why there is often little neighborhood engagement before demolition and construction projects begin. As the City considers the future of this iconic building, officials says they want to try to be more inclusive from the outset. Last week, the Department of Planning and Development announced that it would seek a consultant to engage community input on the future of the Roundhouse.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time we’ve done community engagement before the development Request for Proposals (RFP),” said Eleanor Sharpe, executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. Officials has identified two primary goals for the project. First, “The City will require a return on investment for the site,” noted Sharpe. “All options will be considered, whether it’s adaptive reuse, preservation, or demolition.” Secondly, “2020 was a year of racial reckoning,” she continued. “We don’t want to ignore that since this is dealing with the police. We’re looking for a creative response on how to deal with that and, at the same time, respect that this is a real estate venture.”
Issues surrounding police misconduct in Philadelphia go much further back than the protests and civil unrest of 2020. Within the memory of tens of thousands of city residents, the period when Frank Rizzo served as police commissioner (1967-71) and mayor (1972-80) were the absolute worst. During this time the PPD was notorious for its use of intimidation, flagrant, physical abuse, and civil rights violations, particularly against African Americans.
Philadelphia’s long history of police misconduct is one that will continue to stain the department’s reputation, especially after its brutal handling of protesters following the murder of George Floyd in 2o20. But to fully understand the history of the Roundhouse, essentially an office building with a few holding cells, one must recall the environment in which it was planned and constructed.
An Emblem of Optimism
Under Philadelphia’s 1951’s Home Rule Charter, Democrats regained control of City government for the first time in 70 years, beginning with the administrations of Joseph Clark and then Richardson Dilworth. “They were young progressives, and they wanted to clean house,” said Robert Louis Geddes, the architect of the Roundhouse. In particular, Dilworth wanted to reform the police department, both in terms of their practices and their image because, at the time, like the later Rizzo years, it was known for graft and abuses. “Dilworth had high hopes, but, on the other hand, I don’t know if he was fully aware of the corruption in the police department,” said Geddes.
The mayor’s plan was to move the PPD to a more visible location in the city and improve their offices. “Dilworth was determined to give the police its own place,” recalled Geddes. “They had terrible quarters in City Hall. The Black Mariah trucks would unload prisoners right in the courtyard.”
“It was all part of his positive view of the city,” he continued, which included the revitalization of Society Hill and Old City by city planner Edmund Bacon and the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. “The Roundhouse is the first example in Philadelphia of architecture that was as adventurous as what was going on in planning in the city at the time.”
Geddes, a native Philadelphian, co-founded the architecture firm Geddes Brecher Qualls Cunningham (GBQC) during this period. Prior to the Roundhouse, the firm had completed only one project in the city, the Pender Labs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Moore School of Electrical Engineering in 1958.
“The City was required to keep a list of architects,” Geddes recalled. “They had already given the contract for the Municipal Services Building to Vincent Kling and Associates, one of the biggest firms in Philadelphia, so they interviewed the others on the list. We seemed unlikely because we were small and hadn’t done anything like that.” GBQC had been the runner-up in the international design competition in 1955 to build the Sydney Opera House, offering a design with a curvilinear, fluid feel. “When we got the Roundhouse job, the Opera House was still on our minds, so we stayed with that approach,” said Geddes. “The building could either fit into the fabric of the city or stand out,” he continued. “I knew that Dilworth wanted it to stand out. I knew it should have a major front that, when the public sees it, they know they’re welcome to come inside.”
“The round forms gave a more inviting feel,” said Jack Pyburn, a historic preservation architect and scholar who has studied the Roundhouse extensively for decades.
“It’s a profoundly sculptural building of the 1950s and 1960s that walked away from the glass tower style.” remarked David Brownlee, professor emeritus of the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania.
“A curvilinear building stands out in your mind and memory,” Geddes said, comparing it to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York City that was completed in 1959, three years prior to the Roundhouse.
In addition to its distinctive style, the building is architecturally significant in terms of its construction. “It’s a very important example of 20th century concrete architecture,” said Pyburn. “To this day, it remains one of the most complicated precast concrete buildings in the United States. It’s a pivotal building, designed pre-computer. They manually designed it to a level you didn’t see at the time.”
The Roundhouse marked a transition in concrete construction methods, built with Schokbeton, pre-cast, pre-stressed concrete panels produced by a unique method that had been invented by the Dutch company of the same name. “In terms of architectural history, Schokbeton concrete should be seen alongside Louis Kahn’s use of Vierendeel trusses,” explained Brownlee, referring to a support structure that allowed for large, unobstructed expanses for windows and doors. He noted that the Roundhouse also “represents the Philadelphia School style that carries its structural system on the outside. Like the Arts and Crafts movement in Philadelphia, you see what buildings are made of.”
A persistent, urban legend of unknown origins has been bandied about concerning the Roundhouse’s appearance, claiming that the building was designed to look like a pair of handcuffs. “That’s silly,” scoffed Geddes. “If it were true, that might have kept me from doing the building.” In actuality, he explained, “the two rounded wings reflect the functioning of the building. It needed three elevators, whereas a building of this size would normally have two. One would be used by the public and detectives in the center of the building. The other two, at either end, would be used only by detectives and suspects. When you place the elevators and wrap the building around them, you get that shape.” So, the Roundhouse was not designed to resemble handcuffs. Cased close.
How to Remove a Stain
“The Municipal Services Building and the Roundhouse are emblematic of the aspirations of that era,” said Brownlee, “People should consider that. What created it and what it actually looks like could overcome the image that came later.”
“Rizzo and his administration didn’t realize the vision that the building was meant to do,” said Pyburn.
“Rizzo hated the building, so he closed off the entrance on Race Street,” Geddes added. Today, entry into the building is through the original back door.
As a result, the Roundhouse now has the feel of a fortress, in opposition to the planned intent. “The ordinary impression is defined by the blank walls facing the sidewalk, which were a later addition,” observed Brownlee. “From a preservation point of view, that makes them removable. Taking down those blank walls is essential to making it seem inviting.”
As the future of the building is pondered, “Rizzo casts a shadow over this whole situation,” Geddes laments. “The question is, how do you get rid of the Rizzo history? That’s a problem for urban psychologists to solve.” Pyburn agrees. “Tearing it down doesn’t advance anything. You should deal with it, not avoid it.” The answer could lay in the future plans for the building.
Advocates for the building see many options, pointing out that, at a mere 60 years old, the Roundhouse is in excellent condition. “It’s a very flexible, modern office building,” said Geddes. “It has no interior columns or partitions. Any city should be able to find a developer to buy it and reuse it.”
Brownlee noted that, pre-pandemic, there was a trend towards open office plans, which makes the Roundhouse seem prescient. Geddes added, “It’s only an office building. There are holding cells below ground to process suspects, but then they’re transported out. It was never a prison.” Brownlee believes adaptive reuse is eminently possible, comparing it to Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK Airport in New York City, which is now the lobby of a hotel.
Pyburn supports this idea from the vantage point of having used the Roundhouse in his teaching at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in a collaboration with students from Penn’s Design school. “Some of them explored how to use the building for amenities like a grocery store, a fitness facility, and so forth, and then building housing at the back on some of the parking lot. There’s potential to capture some of the value on the back part of the lot as a backdrop to the building.”
Pursuing that approach with affordable housing could speak to the needs of another group of stakeholders. “It’s a Chinatown issue as well,” noted Brownlee. He explained how the construction of the Vine Street Expressway thwarted that neighborhood’s northward expansion in the 1980s, while the building of the Pennsylvania Convention Center also hindered growth. As the residential population in Chinatown grew, these developments have created enormous housing pressures.
Sharpe said the Planning Commission hopes its community engagement process will let all constituents be heard. “We’re interested in a solid approach to engagement. We want to insure that all issues are considered.” But, she cautioned, “To be clear, the visioning engagement will not be the final determination of what will be done. It’s one factor to be considered.”
The project and selection process will be overseen by a Roundhouse Engagement Team comprised of staff from the Department of Planning and Development, the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation, the Department of Public Property, the Commerce Department, and other relevant City agencies. After a mid-March deadline for receipt of proposals, the City expects to make a selection by the end of the month.