Editor’s Note: A version of this story was published in the Winter 2023 issue of Extant, a publication of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.
“What do we do with the Roundhouse?” As the Philadelphia Police Department completed its long-anticipated move from its distinctive curved concrete headquarters at 7th and Race Streets to a repurposed Philadelphia Inquirer tower at 400 North Broad Street, the City turned to that lingering question.
While admirers revere the mid-century modern building’s graceful curves, some Philadelphians think the building’s form evokes the shape of handcuffs, a notion the architect of the building said never factored into the original design. Where historic preservationists see a pioneering use of concrete construction and a model of progressive urban policy, many who spent time inside its walls recall a legacy of police brutality.
And although developers envision how a renovated Roundhouse can accommodate a new office or residential tower, its Chinatown neighbors fear a continuing obstacle to their growth and prosperity. Should it be saved or razed? To gauge the wide range of public feelings about the building and its future, the Philadelphia Department of Planning and Development has been conducting an unprecedented, five-month, multi-layered community engagement project. The results of that process, the City hopes, will help decide the fate of the Roundhouse.
One champion for preservation of the Roundhouse is its architect, Robert Geddes, now 99-years-old. Geddes recalls the 1950s as a period of social and political evolution, reflected in a changing attitude toward urban living in Philadelphia under the leadership of reformist Mayor Richardson Dilworth and city planner Ed Bacon. And Geddes, Louis Kahn, George Howe and other vanguard architects at the University of Pennsylvania, who were collectively known as the Philadelphia School, were on hand to give physical expression to the new ideas. “It was spectacular to observe the rise of Louis Kahn and George Howe, and here was my hometown going through this,” Geddes said.
Geddes joined Penn’s faculty in 1950, and a few years later he established a collaborative practice with Mel Brecher, George Qualls and Warren “Barney” Cunningham, known as GBQC Architects. When Dilworth decided to relocate the police headquarters from the basement of City Hall, GBQC was chosen to design a new building that would offer transparency and accessibility in a part of the city undergoing urban renewal.
The shape of the Police Administration Building “can be seen as Dilworth’s example of a city building that opens its arms out to the public. That’s why,” when it opened in 1962, “its arms reached out” in a welcoming gesture toward Franklin Square and Race Street and to the east and west, Geddes explained.
But the police department almost instantly negated that inviting gesture by adding a concrete perimeter wall, not in the original design, shortly after the building’s completion, Geddes said. 10 years later, when Frank Rizzo, the police commissioner from 1968 until 1971, became mayor, he closed the public entrance on Race Street and placed the main entrance on the south side through the rear parking lot. “He turned the building around and killed it,” said Geddes. “It was intended as a civic monument, and he really hated the building, I think.”
Architects and design critics, however, loved the building and recognized the Roundhouse as an architectural milestone. “One of the things really important about the Roundhouse is that it represents a dramatic example of the transformation in how buildings were designed,” said Jack Pyburn, an Atlanta-based historic preservation architect. The building was one of the first in the United States entirely constructed using an innovative Dutch system called Schokbeton, in which precast units are formed with the optimal mix of water and concrete, resulting in maximum strength, he explains. And it took the collaborative effort of GBQC and engineer August Komendant, who applied the Schokbeton system, “to make it happen. This was a time when collaboration produced star architecture,” he added.
For its design of the 125,000-square-foot, multi-floored police headquarters, GBQC won the AIA’s Gold Medal Award for Best Philadelphia Architecture in 1963. The building was also featured on the cover of the international journal Architectural Forum, which said “the structure by which the curves are achieved takes precast concrete to its ultimate potential in integrating skin, bones, and services.”
History of Abuse
Where Dilworth and Geddes saw those curving concrete arms outstretched to the surrounding communities, others perceived the shape of the Roundhouse as a pair of handcuffs. And for those with direct experience inside police headquarters, the symbolism seemed apt.
“I spent many days and nights at the Roundhouse,” said civil rights attorney David Rudovsky, who came to Philadelphia in 1967 to work for the public defender’s office. Rudovsky recalled “numerous cases where a person was subjected to coercion, physical and psychological. And witnesses were often held for hours or days on end, imprisoned in the Roundhouse until they cooperated. There was a long history of abuse,” said Rudovsky. “Over the years, that building became a symbol to a lot of people of unfair police practices.”
Still, what happened in the Roundhouse doesn’t mean the building should not be preserved, Rudovsky said. “But to the extent there are still strong feelings in Philadelphia about abuses that occurred, that is probably a factor that should be considered before we make it a monument.”
A Dead Zone
The placement of the Roundhouse on the 700 block of Race Street adversely affected potential development in another community: Chinatown.
Andy Toy, who served on the Board of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation for 22 years, said that constructing the Police Administration Building on that particular site created “a dead zone” that stifled the eastward growth of Chinatown. “We are the community most connected” to the building “and the most disconnected because of the city putting the Roundhouse there.”
Toy, now policy director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations, notes the series of developments that have hemmed in Chinatown over the years, including the Gallery (1977), the Vine Street Expressway (1991), the Pennsylvania Convention Center (1993), and continuing into the future with a proposed Center City arena for the 76ers.
To Toy, the Roundhouse site has the “potential to mitigate some negatives” and serve as “a good place to build community.” What the neighborhood needs most, he says, is affordable and mixed- income housing, as well as street-level retail businesses along Race Street that will extend the energy of Chinatown and bring it closer to Franklin Square.
Toy’s vision doesn’t include preservation of the Roundhouse. “It was built for a specific purpose, and that is no longer the purpose,” Toy said. There should be an acknowledgement of what happened at the site–a model of the building or a plaque, he suggests, “but let’s not forget there was a community there, too, that had to deal with that building for many years.”
Framing the Future
Since the former police headquarters elicits such strong opinions, in August the City launched “Framing the Future of the Roundhouse,” a five-month effort to gather a cross section of views about the building, the site and what should happen there next.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a building quite like the Roundhouse before, both with its architecture and its history,” said Ian Litwin, who works in the design division of the City Planning Commission and is project manager of “Framing the Future.”
“When we’re looking to sell city assets, we’ve had communities involved in the selection process,” said Litwin. “But we’ve never had a process where we did the community engagement up front. I think in this case there are so many hurdles involved in redeveloping this property. In doing this process now, I think it’ll make it a little smoother in finding a partner to redevelop the site.”
To coordinate the public engagement process, the City partnered with two organizations, Connect the Dots and Amber Art and Design, which created a series of events–“alternative ways of connecting with people,” in the words of Sylvia Garcia-Garcia, project manager at Connect the Dots–in neighborhoods throughout the city. The various activities–multilingual, multilayered, large and small, in-person and remote, pop-up and planned–continue through December. Early in the engagement effort, the response had already been strong.
An “idea wall” on the project website has generated a wealth of suggestions for repurposing the site: housing for the homeless, an anti-violence center, or a site for health and rehab services. One participant, though, citing the “blatant racism” associated with the Roundhouse, said “Demo it.”
“Everyone’s experience with this particular building is very personal and intimate,” said Keir Johnston of Amber Art and Design. “If you’re coming from a place of trauma, you’re going to have very strong reactions. Some responses are, ‘Just smash it back to where it came from’ because of the pain it brought to the city,” he said.
“But even some people who came through those experiences, they want to see a regenerative response. That’s what people who know the space are looking to achieve,” Johnston said.
Addressing Its Legacy
Patrick Grossi, advocacy director of the Preservation Alliance, cites history among many reasons for preserving the Roundhouse. Not only does it embody excellence in design by one of the nation’s leading architectural firms, but it also represents a turning point in Philadelphia’s urban evolution.
And though its history took a dark turn, Grossi said, “As a preservationist, I would prefer to tackle that legacy head on. That’s what the public engagement process has been trying to do.” The Roundhouse, he acknowledges, is not unlike other controversial monuments, such as the bronze statue of Frank Rizzo, removed from the steps across from City Hall following the protests over the death of George Floyd, except the Roundhouse is “a usable structure,” said Grossi. “There is symbolism in it, yes. But there is an opportunity to reshape what it symbolizes.”
It’s been known to happen. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, has been the site of the National Civil Rights Museum since 1991. More recently, a coalition of nonprofits in Fort Worth, Texas is transforming a former Ku Klux Klan meeting hall into the Fred Rouse Center for Arts and Community Healing, a cultural center named for a Black man lynched by a white mob in 1921.
Roundhouse advocate Jack Pyburn worked on the preservation of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where in 1963 a bomb placed under the steps killed four Black girls aged 11 to 14.
The building, restored except for those steps, “stands as a monument to the girls who died there,” Pyburn said. “The interesting thing I’ve learned about the civil rights work is that it’s important to acknowledge where those events happened as a reminder and lesson of the evil that can happen in the future.”
For reminders and lessons, Philadelphians can look to Eastern State Penitentiary in Fairmount, which draws on its past role in the horrors of solitary confinement to highlight current abuses of mass incarceration. “If there’s such a thing as a national prison museum, it is us,” said Sean Kelley, Eastern State’s senior vice president and director of interpretation.
The imposing, castle-like structure “serves as a museum for some people and for others a kind of memorial,” remarked Kelley, who thinks that could be the case for the Roundhouse as well.
One final argument for preserving the Roundhouse is its structural integrity, which architectural preservationist Pyburn assesses as “extremely high.” Grossi said that the structure was built so solidly, it would be wasteful to demolish it. First, though, says Pyburn, “it ought to get a bath” to remove decades of city soot coating the facade.
Pyburn sees many commercial possibilities for the site. A tower added behind the building could serve as office or residential space, with the former police building housing a restaurant, auditorium, training center, and, perhaps, a fitness area where jail cells once stood.
“My own preference would be that the Roundhouse retained the qualities for which it was originally designed and that was community service,” Pyburn said. “It could be a place of reconciliation and focus on functions that improve people’s lives.”
Robert Geddes agrees. “The future of the building should be in nonprofits and professional groups engaged in social improvement,” he said. The first thing he would do is “tear down the wall”–the mismatched concrete perimeter barrier that never should have been–and restore the Roundhouse to its original intent to serve the public.
Demolition of the Roundhouse “is hardly a solution,” said Geddes. “I think the building should be transformed, not just preserved.”
At the conclusion of the “Framing the Future of the Roundhouse” project a final report will be submitted to the city in early 2023. In addition, a nomination for historic designation of the Roundhouse has been submitted by the Preservation Alliance and Docomomo US/PHL to the Philadelphia Historical Commission for consideration. A request for proposals from developers is expected to be issued by the City in the spring.