Monday, August 22, 2011

Old-ass Building of the Week-- August 22nd

John F. Kennedy Community Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center (aka Fidelity Mutual Insurance Association Building aka North Wing of the UGI Building)

112 North Broad Street

I didn't forget you, man!
                  This building represents a time when the amount of development on South Broad and North Broad was equal. This little building, which barely gets noticed, is one of the oldest highrises in the city and is probably the oldest surviving highrise on North Broad Street.
                   Take a good look at that thing. It's sporadically detailed with intricate patterns and has somehow managed to retain it's kick-ass cornice, a detail that most buildings still standing from it's era have long lost. This Tower of Tae Kwon Do Ball-scratches is probably one of the most under-appreciated pieces of architecture in the city.
                   It began with Levi Garner Fouse. Fouse attended college to be minister in a time when barely anyone went to college. Before finishing his second year, he said, "Fuck this, I need to make some scrilla!" and dropped the fuck out. He became an insurance agent in 1870 at age 20 in both Pittsburgh and Fredricksburg, PA. He became obsessed with actuarial tables and statistics and even wrote papers that invented insurance concepts that we still use today.

Photo from the cover of Fouse's biography, "Who Needs College With Guns Like These?"
                        After a brief foray in the Medicine Show business, he started his own insurance company in Philadelphia in 1879 called the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Association. He had immediate success based on the fact that he had literally written the book on how much risk was involved with giving a soldier life insurance during wartime. The company was so badass so quickly that by 1893 Fouse was ready to build a one million dollar skyscraper. Back then that was like opening a matchbox store and becoming successful enough in 3 weeks to build a Space Elevator.
                  At the time, it was generally understood that the business center of the city would soon be moving over to where the new City Hall was being built (they didn't know it would take thirty years to finish!). Any lot that was within view of City Hall became prized property. The Iron Hall Association (yet another 19th Century Trade Association/Gentleman's Club), owned a lot on North Broad that they were going to use for a new clubhouse. It never happened.
                They sold the spot to Fouse. Fouse went up to Massachusetts-known architect F.S. Newman was was like "Look motherfucker, I don't want some boring-ass highrise with no windows on the sides. I want windows all the way around. I got you this lot that has the short Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts on one side and the smallest part of the First Baptist Church on the other. You can put a cool facade and windows on all four sides of this piece of shit!" And he did.

Fidelity Mutual when it was new and you would actually notice it.

Check out that doorway... it's like a goddamn cathedral!
                      This place had everything... steam heating, letter chutes, electric lights, and FOUR elevators! It was touted as fireproof and burglarproof. It made every other office building in the city look like a dead rat's ass. Everybody loved it.
                       A few years later, Fidelity Mutual was one of the only insurance agencies in the country that could offer life insurance to soldiers during the Spanish-American War, due to Fouse's advanced knowledge of military wartime risk. This made the company grow EXTREMELY fast. Soon they were operating in over 40 states and Fouse was getting praise from all over the world... not just because of his success, but also because his building kicked ass. It was called "one of the finest types of architecture in the East" by one newspaper.
                     In the late 1890's, Fidelity Mutual's success led others to believe that North Broad street was going to be the place to be in business. The United Gas Improvement Company was like, "Fuck your southern facade, Fouse! We're gonna build right next to you!", as they knocked down the First Baptist Church.
Southern facade of the building as seen for the last time.
Fidelity Mutual with the U.G.I building in the way. The Independent Order of Oddfellows building is saying "Fuck you!" on the right.
                       Fouse had bigger problems at the time (he became partially paralyzed) so he didn't get in the way. Once the U.G.I. Building was complete, it caused all those southern-facing windows of the Fidelity Mutual Building to face a brick wall. Rouse continued to run the company until his death in 1914.
                      When the 1920's rolled around, Fidelity Mutual was ready to move out. The Ben Franklin Parkway was being built and they thought they would be cool if they built their new office building there. The building they completed by 1927 is now called the Perelman Annex of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. U.G.I, around the same time, was looking to expand. They doubled the size of their building and connected it to the old Fidelity Mutual. This Fortress of Fist-Fucks became the northern wing of the U.G.I. building. The lower facade of both buildings was boringed-out four decades later.

Fidelity as we know it now, completely obscured by the expanded U.G.I. Building.
                        In 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed Public Law 88-164, authorizing the use of federal funds for community mental health centers. The idea behind the law was to allow people requiring mental health services to be able to get treatment within their own community instead of going off to some crazy house in the middle of nowhere. The Fidelity Mutual Building became Philadelphia's answer to this law and became the John F. Kennedy Community Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center, which continues to function today.
                     Time passed and both buildings became all fucked up. A plan came along in 1986 to demolish both buildings and build a skyscraper that would be set back 20 feet from the UGI Building's detached facade. The building would have included an addition to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. The architect chosen for the project was Carles Vallhonrat. Obviously, it never happened. It probably would have looked cool for like five minutes but I'd rather have this cool-ass old building.
                    If you're ever on the first blocks of North Broad, take note of this masterpiece. It's easy to miss, being that it's so close to PAFA, the Convention Center Expansion, the Masonic Temple, Arch Street Methodist Church, and that big fucking paintbrush. It will still impress you as it impressed the world 117 years ago. If it doesn't, fuck you.

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