Humanity’s sloppy march toward progress is undoubtedly twisty. Every once in a while it hits a glorious and unimpeded sprint. But mostly, it winds serpentine around wars and famines, gets pulled backward by plagues of both body and soul.
So what do a couple of straight lines on a mid-century modern building in South Philadelphia have to do about all that? Well, everything, say those who appreciate it. William Whitaker, curator of the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design, is one of those people. In addition to his day job, Whitaker is the president of the Philadelphia Chapter of Docomomo, an international organization dedicated to promoting and preserving modern architecture. It is from that perch that Whitaker spots potential encroachments on the city’s noteworthy collection of modernist buildings big and small. The latest in the spotlight: the former Sons of Italy headquarters at 1200 S. Broad Street, built in 1954, but most commonly known as the home of the nonprofit Programs Employing People (PEP), as well as the PEP Bowl bowling alley.
Over the past year, the building’s new owner, Spring Hill Services, has proposed a significant renovation of the structure, which would add 53 units of living space on two floors above the existing two-story facade. While it is natural that the proposal hasn’t drawn the same level of public attention as, say, building a penthouse atop the hat of City Hall’s William Penn statue would, Whitaker and other historians of Philadelphia’s architecture wonder if perhaps the city’s modern buildings are being unfairly shortchanged.
“Many modern structures were built within people’s lifetimes, and often that is an impediment to people seeing it as heritage,” Whitaker said. “And it takes a while for people to maybe recognize that there are deeper values that are embedded within the fabric and the history of these places.”
Paul Steinke, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, agrees. The form of many modern buildings is instantly recognizable: straight lines, smooth monotone facades, large boxy windows. But hidden behind the form is a powerful message, Steinke said, one that grew out of the brutal wars and rapid technological changes of the early 20th century.
“In the wake of World War II, where cultures were really clashing with each other and destroying each other, there was a desire to kind of create an architecture that was free of the constraints of the past,” explained Steinke. “To create an architecture that did not look to a troubled past and all the negative things it implies.”
In that way, the lack of ornamentation in modern buildings can be seen as a sort of intentionally blank slate for humanity. Yet, the sparse design can also draw the scorn of people who love their buildings weird and decorative. When added to the relative recency of modern structures, there are powerful motivations for both the public and some preservationists to overlook the form, Steinke admited. “It’s human nature to kind of get bored with what you grew up with and seek something more exciting,” he said.
The issue came to a head about a decade ago with the demolition of the Sidney Hillman Medical Center at 2116 Chestnut Street, a modernist building designed by Louis Magaziner and Herman Ploss that stood for little more than six decades. There was a “spirited effort” to preserve the low-rise building, Steinke said, but it ultimately came down in favor of a high rise.
Illustrating the dichotomy around modern architecture, OCF Realty’s Naked Philly blog applauded the demolition of the building, which it likened to a high school. “Considering its location and our distaste for modernism, we’re not too bummed to lose this building, especially considering the project replacing it,” the writer concluded.
However, Steinke said the building’s demolition organized appreciators of the form, leading to an effort over the next decade to add about 10 other modern buildings to the city’s register of historic places, and into that recent history comes the latest chapter: 1200 South Broad Street.
New Country, New Culture, New Building
Last spring, news broke that Spring Hill Services, a Philadelphia-based development company, had reached a deal with PEP on 1200 S. Broad Street. Spring Hill would purchase the aging building, lease space back to PEP, and allow the revival of PEP Bowl, which has been closed since last year.
Just three months later, preservationists were on the case. In July, the Preservation Alliance nominated the building to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which can help legally protect the exterior of accepted buildings.
The nomination documents the history of the building and its original occupants, the Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA), Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. In 1905, the OSIA formed a national organization in New York City. Seven years later the organization opened its Pennsylvania lodge at 7th and Christian Streets. As South Philadelphia’s Italian population rapidly grew in the early 20th century, so did the lodge’s membership and influence.
“The organization attracted tens of thousands of members in Philadelphia and across the state, helping Italian immigrants adjust to life in America and later becoming a major force in local politics,” the nomination reads.
By the 1950s, the Lodge outgrew its prior confines and sought a new headquarters. Under Grand Venerable Eugene V. Allesandroni, the lodge commissioned the architectural firm of Carroll, Grisdale & Van Alen, which the nomination notes was “among Philadelphia’s best-known and most prolific architects of the mid-century period,” having also done the original designs for the Philadelphia International Airport. The firm then designed the two-story, steel-frame modern building for the OSIA that stands at Broad and Federal Streets today on what had been an empty lot.
Steinke said the choice of modernist architecture was likely intentional by the lodge, following long-running anti-Italian sentiment that reached a crescendo during the throes of World War II. “They turned to this modern architecture, this style that was kind of forward looking and optimistic about the future,” said Steinke. “They didn’t go with Italianate architecture, which had its roots in their home country. They wanted something that expressed their Americanism.”
In addition to housing its offices, OSIA used the building for social gatherings and recreation, making use of a second-story ballroom, the bowling alley, and a large central courtyard accessible through Federal Street.
Just two decades later, in 1976, the nomination states that it appeared demand for such programming had fallen. The OSIA sold the building that year to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which planned to use it as a training center for people with intellectual disabilities. By the 1980s, the nonprofit PEP moved in and has occupied the building ever since, with a mission to “promote social, vocational, educational, rehabilitative, recreational and employment opportunities for people with intellectual and/or physical disabilities,” according to its website.
Some four decades later, that arrangement has reached its twilight. In January 2023, PEP announced its intention to sell the building, with executive director Micahel Tucker telling The Philadelphia Inquirer that a shift in how the organization provides services–moving more toward visiting clients in public spaces or their own homes–left the organization using less than a third of the 35,000-square-feet of space at Broad and Federal Streets. Financial difficulties wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic and costly repairs to the aging building added to the decision, Tucker said.
At that time, Tucker explained that the intention was for PEP to sell the building and relocate. A potential educational buyer had already toured the building. However, in April came word that Spring Hill Services would instead step in and perform a major renovation to add the residential units and lease back space to PEP.
“Although the buyer will be redeveloping a portion of the building as apartments, we will be entering a long-term (50-year) lease on enough space to support our programming, as well as retaining all of PEP Bowl,” read a letter from PEP to its clientele that was obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Yet, nearly a year later the deal is not done yet.
Constructing a Future
At present, the proposed renovations of 1200 S. Broad Street are still being reviewed by the City. In August, Spring Hill Services applied for a permit to demolish a small third-level structure on the building and clear the way for a new two-story addition atop the existing second floor, complete with 53 units, six of them affordable. The plan would keep the bowling alley, spaces for PEP, 11 existing off-street parking spaces, and 18 bicycle spaces. The building’s location is directly across the street from the Ellsworth-Federal stop on the Broad Street line, as well as SEPTA bus stops.
However, according to Steinke, the Philadelphia Historical Commission’s Architectural Committee voted to recommend denying the proposal during a January 23 session.
The exact dynamics at play are a bit hazy. The nomination submitted by the Preservation Alliance last summer has not yet been approved, meaning the building is not currently afforded legal protections against redevelopment. Nevertheless, Steinke said the Architectural Committee recommended denial based on architectural standards.
Brett Feldman, a real estate attorney with the firm of Klehr Harrison Harvey Branzburg, representing Spring Hill Services, also said the committee had voted not to recommend approval. However, in an interview, Feldman said he believed the committee was limited from considering any factors beyond architecture, such as the benefits to PEP and the wider community that a sale and renovation could bring. Significantly, Feldman said sale of the building is contingent upon permit approval. He added that Spring Hill was the only prospective buyer of the property that didn’t plan to demo the original building. With support from PEP and a local registered community organization, Feldman believes the calculus could likely change for the full Historical Commission.
“This project really has the potential to be a great win-win-win for the city,” Feldman said, naming benefits to PEP, the developer, and preservationists.
Steinke and Feldman also emphasized that to this point, their relationship has been friendly. Steinke said that when his organization filed the nomination, Spring Hill Services reached out to let them know that plans for renovation had already been commissioned. But, Spring Hill also extended an invitation for the Preservation Alliance to come tour the building, meet with their staff, and provide feedback on the proposals. Steinke said the Preservation Alliance accepted the invitation and had an additional meeting since.
Feldman confirmed that Spring Hill Services has been responsive. He said his client has volunteered to act as if the building had already been listed on and afforded the protections of the local historic register. Spring Hill has changed designs “three or four times to better preserve the existing building’s character,” Feldman said. That includes setting back the addition of the third and fourth floors to better honor an existing prominent cornice on the original building, changing the color of the new addition to “try and match up” with the color of the existing building, restoring the luster of windows and materials on the first two floors, and “altering the rhythm of the addition to try and be more consistent with the rhythm of the first two floors.”
Steinke noted that even though the most recent offering still didn’t pass muster with the Architectural Committee, Spring Hill has the option to revise the plans try and mollify any concerns of the Historical Commission. Or, ultimately they could appeal an adversarial decision to the Department of Licenses & Inspections Review Board.
Deal or No Deal, Modernism Still an Enigma
The back-and-forth over 1200 S. Broad Street presents a microcosm of the challenges of preserving modernist architecture. Whitaker noted that the value of modernist designs often incorporate much more than just the exterior. Architects sought to carefully consider how to incorporate the natural world outside with the inside environment, making natural lighting an important element. Many modernist buildings also include courtyards, deeply valued as meeting spaces. “They’re about more than just the fact that they have clean lines and are elegant,” Whitaker said. “There’s a lot more depth to them.”
The large courtyard at 1200 S. Broad Street offers a perfect example. Whitaker explained that such designs are intentionally aspirational: a place for humans to gather together in a more natural, open setting. Maintaining such spaces holds particular value as many people, families, and organizations turn inward or into virtual spaces in the 21st century. According to Feldman, the current design calls for a portion of the courtyard to be enclosed in glass, a compromise between gaining interior space he said is essential to make the deal work, but still maintaining some sense of openness. Whether or not such compromises ultimately ensure the integrity of modernist philosophy is unresolved.
Similar challenges can be seen elsewhere in Philadelphia, which Whitaker and Steinke agreed has a rich modernist history, led by famous architects such as Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, and Romaldo Giurgola. Perhaps the most notable example of a contentious development is the 14-story International House near the University of Pennsylvania, where, even afforded protections by the Philadelphia Register, new construction was approved that blocks much of its lower facade and light.
Since the demolition of the Sidney Hillman Medical Center, Steinke said the Preservation Alliance has worked to add other modern buildings to local historic register, such as District Health Center #1 at Broad and Lombard Streets and Robinson Department Store at 10th and Market Streets, which was stripped of its historic register status by the Department of License and Inspections Review Board in 2017. The effort’s track record is decidedly mixed, with fewer successful nominations than other architectural styles, Steinke said.
For Whitaker, who also mourns the recent loss of a Kahn-designed hospital in West Philadelphia, the dynamics feel precarious. “Even at a high level of name recognition in architecture, we are losing buildings, and that’s of concern,” said Whitaker. “There are ways to manage change, in a way that you still have a connection to heritage. But at some point, there’s not much left.”
Update: The Philadelphia Historical Commission approved Spring Hill Services’ proposal for 1200 S. Broad Street at its monthly meeting on February 9.