Thursday, March 22, 2012

Butt-Fugly Building of the Week-- March 22nd

William Penn House

1919 Chestnut Street

That's a big wall of ugly right there.
                              Hey, that's not William Penn's house! Its the perpetual answer to "What the fuck is that ugly building behind the 1900 block of Chestnut Street?" The William Penn House is from the age of the butt-fugly housing co-ops. This one, however, is special. Its so ugly that it was intentionally hidden behind two major streets so no one would really have to look at it.
                           This Natural NIMBY Nest consists of a giant beige-colored 60's college dorm-looking wall of trash stuck between Ranstead and Ludlow Streets at the 1900 block. It lists its address at 1919 Chestnut because it has a crappy little covered sidewalk that runs all the way out to Chestnut Street so that no one has to see it that isn't looking for it. The problem is, the residents of the building have made sure that no other building nearby be tall enough to fully obscure this shitsnack from view.

Chestnut Street entrance of William Penn House, which is smugly prowling the background.
                          Back in the days when the boxes of Penn Center were thought to be the height of architecture and design, housing co-ops were also all the rage. Though quite common in some other cities, Philadelphia only has about 10. In the early 1960's, when Penn Center was already pretty established, the city encouraged employees working at Penn Center to move into Center City. Most of Center City's housing stock at the time was considered old fashioned and unsafe. Even the few highrise apartment buildings still going strong  weren't modern enough for middle-class suburbanites to want to move into, and the few new ones (the Savoy and the Claridge) were too expensive.
                          This problem was the direct cause of some of the worst buildings the city has ever seen-- the Sterling, Kennedy House, Penn Center House, and this, William Penn House. It all started with Frank M. Steinberg and Efriam J. Frankel. They had the same idea everyone else was having at the time--- middle-class housing in Center City for employees at Penn Center. In fact, this would be the third such building built for this purpose in a space of only a few years.
                          They purchased a plot of land that was barely accessible and set up model apartments in the Strawbridge and Clothier. The big selling point was that the units would be "all electric". What the fuck does that mean? Was the shower electric? Who the fuck prefers an electric stove to a gas one? The other selling point was the view. From that vantage point, residents would be able to look upon City Hall and the Art Museum without encumbrance.
                        Strangely enough, despite the sorry state of the neighborhood at the time (an assload of abandoned buildings and many empty lots), the units sold like hotcakes. Construction began on this atrocity in the Spring of 1964 and people started moving in around October 1965. Those great views that were a huge selling point of the place started getting obscured only 2 years later when the butt-fugly IVB Building was built. That shitty piece of construction didn't just ruin William Penn House's view of William Penn, but created NIMBYs out of normal red-blooded Amuricans. Every other project that would be built nearby fell under their scrutiny, causing long periods of time that the place would be in view of horrible empty lots.

IVB, the NIMBY-maker.
                      While some of the empty spaces eventually got filled with tall buildings, the lot directly behind the shitbox was especially effected. This was a lot that faced Market Street, so logic dictates that a tall building would eventually have to go there. Proposal after proposal came along that was squashed with Kryptonite-infused NIMBY superpowers. Even the goofy master plans of the age (like the Century 21 Complex) ignored the plot behind the Willam Penn House in fear of its wrath. Many of these dead-ass proposals are lost to the ages, but one was a Hyatt Regency Hotel. By the late 1970's, the lot had been completely cleared of abandoned buildings (which included the Stanley Theatre) and was itching for development, but the NIMBY firestorm kept most away.
The lot in 1976, fully cleared (for the Hyatt Regency that never happened).
Full of cars in 1977.
                      Finally, after years of NIMBY domination, a group came along with so much power that they were unafraid of proposing a tall building for 19th and Market: the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. They were extremely motivated to get out of their own butt-fugly building and build a new and modern financial mega-center that would outdo the crappy one they were renting since 1966. They proposed a tall building in the late 1970's that would overshadow the crappy William Penn House forever.
                      The NIMBYs foamed at the mouth and pulled out all their tricks to delay the project into dead-ass status. They got politicians involved and demanded an archeological dig. The Stock Exchange was trying to beat the clock (their lease at the old building was almost up), so they played along. In the end, what was to be a massive 400-500 foot skyscraper became a shitty 8-storey box that got built in 1981. Thanks, assholes.
The Atrium, the new and current home to the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, photographed when it was brand new in 1981. The tarnished-up piece of shit William Penn House is right behind it, dickheadishly smiling from its NIMBY victory. Image from the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.
                     The next time you're on the 1900 block of Chestnut, pay your respects to the Boyd, mourn the lost Aldine Hotel, and take a big shit in your hand and see if you can reach the William Penn House in one throw.

                            Happy 81st Birthday to William Shatner.


  1. Typo 2nd par.

    "Shitshack" instead of "shitsnack."

  2. Perhaps, but I prefer it. A snack for shit, indeed.