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One of the great things about going to conferences in strange cities is that you get to explore new architecture and have a different urban experience than you may be used to in your own city. I definitely took advantage of this at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society is an example of architectural genius, so I had to see it.

As a resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn I have long admired the Williamsburg Houses, a housing project located where Bushwick Avenue and Grand Street intersect. That’s right, I admire the architecture of the projects. While some would argue that the public housing schemes that were designed as utopian visions in the 1930s-1950s, many by European immigrants, were urban planning disasters, one has to step back, consider their historical context, and admire the concepts and aesthetics of which they were born. William Lescaze, a Scandinavian immigrant and proponent of International Style architecture, was responsible for the design of the Williamsburg Houses. In 2003 here was a NYC Landmark and Preservation Committee hearing concerning these buildings. I’ll quote it below, or you can read the pdf here.

“A collaborative project of the Federal Public Works Administration and the newly established New York City Housing Authority, the Williamsburg Houses are notable as one of the earliest housing developments in the United States to reflect the ideas of the modern movement in architecture. In the 1920s Williamsburg was one of the most densely populated sections of Brooklyn and nearly six hundred, mostly frame, structures were demolished to create the 23.3 acre site. Proposed in 1934, this residential complex was skillfully designed by the Williamsburg Associated Architects during 1935 and most units were occupied by 1938. The partnership included Richmond H. Shreve, of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the architects of the Empire State Building, and William Lescaze, the Swiss-born architect who helped introduce the “International” style on the eastern seaboard. Lescaze was responsible for the design, which includes twenty 4-story structures on four “super” blocks turned at 15 degree angles to the street grid. Oriented to the sun and prevailing winds, this unusual layout produced a series of large and small courts, many of which flow into a large public space at the center of each block. A light-colored palette distinguishes the facades, executed in tan brick and exposed concrete. Among the most prominent features are the entrances, marked by blue tile and projecting stainless steel canopies, and the handsome streamlined storefronts. The complex was widely discussed by contemporary critics and more than 25,000 New Yorkers applied for 1,622 apartments. During the mid-1990s, the buildings underwent an extensive restoration which included the replacement of all exterior materials. Sponsored by the Housing Authority, in consultation with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, these alterations were remarkably sensitive and in the 4th edition of the AIA Guide to New York City the “revivified” complex was called “the best public housing project ever built in New York.”

Lescaze’s townhouse office, also a masterpiece, is in midtown Manhattan and you can visit it.

So naturally I was really excited to see another of Lescaze’s realized projects, the first International Style skyscraper. The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society building is a real Philadelphia landmark; it stands in center city with pride and prominence. My favorite aspect of the PSFS building is actually more of a Functionalist feature. Check this out:

“For the first time, instead of hiding the different functional areas in the building, they were made visible in the exterior form. For each of these functional areas, different materials were used.

The base of the building, which included retail stores, is covered with polish gray granite. The base forms a podium from which a 30-story T-shaped office tower rises. The rear of the building acts as the service core and is covered with glazed and unglazed black brick. It contrasts with the sand colored limestone facade of the offices. The windows form horizontal strips, emphasizing the horizontal layers of office floors. Wilcox objected to this idea, so as a compromise exposed vertical columns were added.”

I wrote a post about participant-driven re-appropriation of library space a little while ago, and I spoke a bit about repurposing, renovating, and re-tasking buildings as a creative practice that is a crucial part of simultaneous individual human development and urban development. I didn’t really address the important issue of preservation and the delicate balance between repurposing architecture to maintain a healthy community versus preserving historically significant buildings as cultural artifacts. Loews Hotel’s stepped in and purchased the building in 1997 after the PSFS parent company went bankrupt. It’s a pretty snazzy hotel now, and a lot of the American Library Association functions associated with the conference were held in their facilities. I was initially distraught when I realized that Lescaze’s building had been renovated and retasked, but it has been a few days now and I’ve had the distance to get a grip and see this as a positive outcome. I had hoped to visit this place and enter a time warp, like the type of time warp you experience when you visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water. Instead I was sitting in this giant conference room with cheap carpet and junky furniture. I was looking at a 1997 reinterpretation of a 1932 space, and much to the dismay of the preservationist in me it totally worked.

This, as often seems to be the case, got me back to thinking about public libraries, specifically old Carnegie era facilities, and how we renovate them to serve as 21st century libraries. I can really only speak of the branches at Brooklyn Public Library with any authority, but I know that it is a real challenge to be burdened with these beautiful, landmarked, aging, costly to maintain facilities that are frequently poorly located and were built to serve as knowledge sharing spaces for different people in a different time. Unfortunately, I have yet to visit any renovated early 20th century style library (let’s say pre-1930), in Brooklyn or otherwise, that I feel is a really exceptional reconsideration of a library space via the needs of 21st century users. Put simply: as of thus far, it appears to me that we need to build entirely new libraries, totally rethink the way library systems function, reconsider the distribution of materials between facilities, and start from the ground up. I want to be wrong, I want this to run parallel to my experience with the Loews Hotel renovation of Lescaze’s building, I want to look back at this post in a few days and find that I am just being something like a crank purist preservationist.  Until then….

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2 Comments

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed being in the PSFS building. Growing up in Center City Philly, that gorgeous building sat closed for years and years and years. All we could do was stare at the sign on top from the street below. When Loews Hotel took it over, it was like the residents of Philadelphia got to reclaim a city landmark for themselves. A hotel is a more public space where events can be hosted there and people are allowed to go in. It’s a thrill for longtime residents to go upstairs to those rooms at the top and enjoy the view of the city. Now visitors get to go in too!

  2. Though larger in scope, your plant and property question is akin of another tripartite question librarians often face when designing a new service or resource: Do we build it, borrow it, or buy it?


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