Monday, August 8, 2011

Old-ass Building of the Week-- August 8th

Stephen Girard Building

21 South 12th Street

                       Wow, this is one hell of a building. This Hall of Holy Horse Apples is one of the oldest surviving highrises in the city and has managed to stay almost identical to it's original form. Most buildings this old get mangled beyond imagination over the decades, especially on the first floor. This building's facade is the same as the day it opened with the exception of a few missing balconies. This beast is a real survivor... many of the buildings that were built AFTER it have long been demolished.
                      It all begins with Stephen Girard. He was the great-grandpappy of super rich motherfuckers in the early 19th Century. He was literally the Bill Gates of his time, the richest man in America. Luckily for us, Girard was also a huge Philaphile. He loved the city and ended up giving over almost his entire fortune when he died to a trust dedicated to the betterment of Philadelphia and its citizens.

Stephen Girard 1750-1831
                       His estate was full of so much fucking property that it took seven years to figure it all out. A big part of his estate was funds dedicated to starting Girard College, a school for orphaned boys. This school was to be built on an entire city block that Girard purchased and developed in 1807 between 11th, 12th, Chestnut, and Market. However, some of Girard's property outside of the city had one hundred million dollars worth of anthracite coal in it, and the mining of that coal made the value of the Girard Estate skyrocket.
                      The skeezy group of City Councilmen who were running the estate had so much money they didn't know what to do with it. They decided to build Girard College outside of town on a much larger piece of property and commercially develop the 11th/12th/Chestnut/Market block. The commercial and retail buildings built on the block became among the most successful in the city, making the Estate grow even larger.
                    By the mid 1890's, the Estate had become super-gigantic despite millions of dollars already being invested. The people running it, now the Directors of City Trusts, were still working out of a dinky little office in the Girard Bank Building on 3rd Street and they wanted a huge commercial office building from which to conduct their badassery. They wanted their building to be on their successful commercial block, but didn't want to give up any commercial space to build it. They decided to have their Grand Castle of Kick Ass built at 21 South 12th Street, a small square of bounded by streets and alleys on all sides.
                    The Directors brought in Vice-Admiral of Roundhouse Kicks James Hamilton Windrim to design the new highrise. Windrim was famous as fuck at this point and had already designed most of 1890's Philadelphia's most badass buildings. He practically drew this thing with his eyes closed and managed to design an invincible fireproof mega-castle that would be the tallest building on 12th street (for a few years).

The rendering. You have to remember that there weren't many other buildings this tall in 1896.
                     Construction took a little longer than expected and the building opened almost a year behind schedule. Once it was done, it was considered a true masterpiece of modern office building design. The building was so popular that almost all of its offices were rented the day it opened, December 18th, 1897. Windrim liked his own design so much that most of the buildings he designed after it were sequels to this one.

Dominating the skyline like a motherfucker in 1899.
                        Only fifteen years later, the Directors of Trusts said "fuck this shit" and moved to the new Lafayette Building. The offices in the Stephen Girard Building went through tenant after tenant and renovation after renovation for 100 years until the present as the city grew around it.
                         The Girard Estate block, as it has come to be known, has entirely changed a few times over since then with the exception of this kick-ass building. After the building boom of the early 1930's, the Stephen Girard Building has been in the shadows of the PSFS Building, making it go unnoticed.
                         Nowadays, the time has finally come when this great building has become in danger of demolition. The rest of the Girard Estate block has become something of an albatross, now consisting of a chopped up low-end retail building on Market Street, a badly aged 1940's parking garage/retail building facing Chestnut, and a former department store annex serving as the city's extra Family Court space. A developer with a 90 year lease on the block intends on building a brand new Everything. Here's an old rendering from before the economy tanked:

Hard to tell if the Girard Building would be demolished for this or not, it's too short to show up from this view.
                         The most recent plan is a four-story retail building facing Market that may or may not encroach into the Stephen Girard Building's space:

Not to be a dick or nothin' but I've been calling this Gallery III.
                       These developments put this awesome building in danger. Being historically registered doesn't mean shit. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows Hall was demolished despite being the third or fourth oldest building on Broad Street for the Convention Center Expansion. I'm not one of these crazy preservationists that will screw over the city's progress for an old building, but I really hope they can save this motherfucker. If it's replaced, please let it not be a glass box or plastic-looking fake-bricked monstrosity. Show Girard some respect.

1910's or so. 12th Street sure kicked ass back then.

1 comment:

  1. Ah yes, the sad story of the former Odd Fellows Temple. Finished in 1895, that building was once regarded as the finest Odd Fellows hall in America. Its luxurious rooms were adapted to all manner of lodge purposes by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, which was once very strong in Philadelphia. (The organization helped those in need, particularly orphans, families of factory workers in cities, and of farmers in rural areas.) The building's auditorium, which could seat 2,000 people, provided the venue for scores of radical events and the like. Converted into office space in the 1920s, the elegant eleven-story edifice was demolited without much note or protest. The following word-for-word quote is from Souvenir Commemorating the Dedication of the Odd Fellows Temple (Philadelphia, PA, 1895), at 39-40:

    Ground was broken for the [Odd Fellows Temple] building December 12, 1892. The corner-stone of the Temple was laid July 19, 1893. The dedication took place May 21, 1895. The building is without a peer in the whole range of fraternal buildings, and to attempt to describe it would also consume more space than the Souvenir would admit of. If you will walk through it you must allow at least two hours, and what one can see in that time cannot be described in a few pages of this book. Over a million of dollars has been raised and expended. The greatest panic the world has ever seen has been successfully passed. The finest and best of materials have been gathered, and the best workmen have manipulated them, until, inch by inch, brick by brick, the Temple has come up out of the ground, arisen to its present proportions, and to-day it is not only gratifying to the Order, but is a notable addition to the architectural beauty of this city.