Tag Archives: Philadelphia

Shadow Boxing

Updating and “contemporary-izing” a 19th-century vernacular rowhouse in a late 1960s style, this home has had its facade transformed by the addition of a modern light brick reface, new windows, wood slats and some paint. An application to the city was made in 1966 to remove the front wall and reconstruct it with cinder block and stucco, then add new window frames and doors. 

The result gives a plain and flat facade some interest using larger, more vertical windows, and, with the attachment of full-width dual brises-soleil acting as spandrels, a dimensionality is created along with some interesting shade patterns on the facade. The slatted wooden structures have the resonance of a picket fence raised off ground level encircling the house. Both vertical and horizontal elements are strong and graphic and are even carried through to the furrowed lines on the front door. So, too, the extra-wide window box at street level increases horizontality, gives the building added dimension and makes it more homey with its narrow container “yard.” All of these elements together cleverly reinvent a deconstructed house reassembled for the latter half of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, sometime toward the end of the first decade in the 21st century the elements that made this house a stand-out disappeared. Its three-dimensional facade with picket fence awnings was denuded and flattened, leaving just a bare-bones version of its neighbors. The shame of it is that it has had a character-ectomy; once hip and hidden, but now just plain. No artful shadows now, merely a shadow of its former self.


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Sometimes there is a generalized bowing to a specific style. This alteration, refaced in 1954 by Pepper Associates, replaced the brick front wall in a joining of two 19th-century rowhouses, now four bays wide. In 1959 this was a two-family residence, but in 1994 it became a single-family with a deck added by the husband-wife design build firm, Foster-Willson.

Dark turquoise paned windows and iron balcony, Japanese-style shoji-screen wooden entry door covered by a copper roof with wooden brackets – this is a quiet design, and modest … and snazzy. The effect is aided by the perfect natural elements: a less than straight tree, a stone slab rendering an entry porch, a cloud-like foundation planting that one might see pictured in an Edo-period scroll painting. It is a simple alteration in a simple style, a kind of “Japonism” applied to urban architecture, embellishing a plain building. It is, also, a perfect enhancement that does not overwhelm the adjacent houses.

New ownership altered the design making a vague gesture toward Georgian-Federal styles: its entry now a simplified pediment and pilasters, new panel door, black painted shutters; sacrificing all the hipness to create a faux standard issue in the cradle of democracy. Lost, too, are the cloud-like shrubs, replaced by black-box window planters. Hard to imagine why. The tree may go next, erasing all the Asian traces. Sayonara.

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City Deni-Zen

This house is so hidden that it can’t be easily photographed. Situated behind the other houses on the street, its front is 70-plus feet back from the sidewalk and blocked by some ominous but design-y gates with slots resembling machine gun emplacements. On second thought, maybe the gates look as if someone rolled flat the alien robot, Gort, from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and made something functional out of him.

The plans were drawn up in 2000 by architect Marc Pinard, and construction began in 2001. The plot plan shows how here, unseen and to the left, there is more outdoor space than indoor – a rarity among city houses, where lots are small. So, the protective stance of this house is all the more meaningful because of the inclusion of exterior living space built into its design.

But, what is really remarkable is how out of place this house is and, at the same time, how perfectly in place it is. First, it was not newly built. It is a reworking of an old dairy barn that is two stories high with a mere 800 square feet of space. Repurposing aside, the simple but stylish addition of a corrugated metal wrap-around roof gives it the look of a small train station. The clean lines and lower roof, in addition to its unusual gate, resemble something that one might see tucked into a tight space in Tokyo – there is a definite Asian vibe to this small manse: the wooden fence, the metal work, the simplicity and functionality. The whole has a Modernist Medieval quality of a tiny monastery situated in a late 19th and early 20th century urban neighborhood. The 21st has landed.

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Outback in the City

Our Hip & Hidden credo is that we focus on residential architecture; one reason being that commercial buildings, by their very nature, are invested in attracting attention. In this instance we are on a fence of sorts. This original building was residential and is now a school and performance venue. Given its history, its life has had full and varied use as well as design influences.

This striking facade is actually a rear addition, on a narrow back street, among 19th century carriage houses that are now dwellings. The Second Empire main building, which faces onto another larger street – and which is what most passersby see – was a house built in the mid- to late-19th century by Furness, Evans & Co.; the interior underwent a few renovations by Furness & Hewitt as well as Hewitt & Hewitt, who added a decorative music room in 1902-03. After a makeshift stage was added in 1938 this complex property became the Academy of  Vocal Arts, and has housed a theater and school of vocal training for more than 65 years.

A two-story rear addition by architects McCauley/Sperr in 1981, then Otto Sperr Associates in 1982-83, allowed for partial demolition of an existing garage structure and created a professional chamber theater with stage lighting, comfortable seating and a performance space large enough for a 30-piece orchestra. And the result is this fascinating rear facade: a Postmodern stucco and tile structure with a jutting bay and double porthole doors (that parody the standpipes to their left). 

What draws the curious and intelligent eye are the points of green, the sly reference in its shape to the surrounding houses that are in normal scale with the street, and the opening at the top that lets one “see through” the building. All these elements try to deflect the mass and scale of the addition. The roofline shape is mimicked in the bookending gates, returning one’s focus back to a more human-scale street level.

Almost seditiously out of place among its staid and conservative neighboring structures, it refers directly to the backstage door of Art Deco movie palaces. Not only does it house a stage and sets, but also there is something stage-setty about it itself, something almost illusionistic (very Potemkin Village-y). Within its formality it is far-out. For what it is, and where it is, it didn’t need to have been so clever, but it is that sort of quietly bold thinking that not only typifies the architect but which also makes Philadelphia a hip and hidden haven of risk takers.

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Keeping an Eye Out

There is something eye-like about this cyclopean porthole that draws our own eyes to it – we stare, it stares back – as if the house were wearing a monocle. Yet, it’s not easy to see. In fact, you have to be walking past a certain downtown church, and gaze across its parking lot, because this place can best be seen from the lot; the house hovers above it, and just beyond it, separated by a tiny street. There is a sense of unreality about it, as if it were one of the trompe l’oeil murals that are painted over old building walls.

Not exactly the rose window at Chartres Cathedral, but similar, at least in scale, this circular light is the dominating feature of a renovation made to the back of a mid-1800s rowhouse. The entire building was converted from one- to four-family in 1951, creating a separate unit in the rear of the building which architect John C. Kohlhas, in the late 1980s, altered from one story to two – presumably adding the window at that time. The structure sticks out like a lighthouse, or like a castle tower sitting high on a hill, overlooking its domain … which happens to be churchgoers’ cars.

It is graphic, planar, vectored: the deck above with horizontal railing, the slashing angles, the notches. The roof lines seem to be at opposite angles to the railing but the rail almost seems to hold the pieced house together, finding a balance, a rhythm. It’s a lesson in geometry. Much of the hipness, besides the design in general, is that it didn’t have to be done – there was no need to have made a huge porthole at the back of a house, in a location where very few people would see it. It is gratuitous, it is eccentric. It is cockeyed. And it is appreciated.

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Somewhere along the way this typical, circa 1810 three-story brick vernacular rowhouse became a pocket postmodern-ish Parthenon, transformed by a shorthand or CliffsNotes version of Classical motifs. With a tongue-in-cheek playfulness, the elements adorning the building are architecturally and culturally familiar ones – the Aegean blue and white motif that recalls not just Greece but Greek restaurants and takeout coffee cups, the octagonal transom window, the entablature’s cornice supported by a chorus line of miniature Doric columns, the referential touches of faux pediments above the second-story windows. Meanwhile, there’s something vaguely nautical about the place, and fittingly so, it being close to the river; it even resembles somebody’s idea of what the stateside office of a Greek shipping line would have looked like maybe a century ago. It is cleverly composed with symbolism from a Mediterranean culture that gave us our western architectural style.

Whatever, it’s a Greek Revival style of a very unusual sort, and a unique and welcome vision of someone’s imaginative and yearning mind. New owners have since broken the spell by whitewashing out its color-scheme. But as captured here, it is a Trojan Horse of a different color.

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Walk with Us

What led us, over these past five years, to write our latest book, Hip and Hidden Philadelphia: The unexpected house in a city of tradition, was just our natural inclination to go wandering through our city – a city of neighborhoods, rich in history and the history of housing styles – in search of unique residences, the ones that intrigued us, the ones that went against the grain. There were a few here, one or two there, but, if not in profusion, they were to be found in nearly every part of town. We are sure there are such places in your town, as well. If you don’t know them, you really haven’t been looking.

We have always been drawn to these unique offerings because they were divergent and “outsider,” and successful in connecting with those characteristics, awake or dormant, within the viewer; also because they exhibited a kind of playful iconoclasm in contrast to their context. What we have been drawn to are those houses – single houses, or, at most, two or three together – that went up in places and at times when doing so wasn’t as easy or welcome or likely as it is today. They were built by architects taking a chance, or by property owners following their hearts, or their hare-brained schemes. We became so interested and amazed at what we saw – and so fascinated by the archival research that we conducted – that we decided to write a book about it.

In the coming weeks and months – along with discussions on past and current architecture, and on what is “hip,” and how urban structures can be considered “hidden” – we will post here some excerpts from Hip and Hidden Philadelphia, but, more, we will publish here many of the hip-and-hidden places we found but could not fit in our book; they are all worthy, and attention should be paid – they just didn’t make the final cut. We’re excited to show them to you.

But even more, we invite you to tell us about hip-and-hidden places where you live (and if you live in Philadelphia, and know of places we don’t, we urge you to write in). Contact us here, and, if we think they’re hip, hidden and a must-see for this blog’s readers, we’ll put them up here.

If there is anything that we hope will come out of this blog, it is getting you to get out wandering in your town, on foot, looking around not at your feet, discovering what’s all around you and what treasures have been left for you.

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