Thursday, September 8, 2011

Empty Lot of the Week-- September 8th

Spring Garden Super-Lot

Bounded by Broad, 15th, Spring Garden, and Brandywine Streets

This lot stares back at you.
                    This is one of those empty lots that never should have happened. The worst part is that this lot changes hands quite often... you would think that ONE of these owners would buckle down and actually develop something here instead of just sitting on it and making piles and piles of dough from people parking. Well, I guess I answered my own question right there.
                    This Asphalt Assfield never really had anything exciting sitting on it. It's not like there's some kind of long history or great story associated with this thing. It's just a crappy block that became a crappy empty lot and has stayed that way for decades. It held an auto dealership on the Broad Street side and rowhomes on the 15th Street side.

1948. The lot is in the upper left.
                  A lone wolf rowhome still stands facing 15th street, standing in fuckyouance to all the others that are gone. Its a clubhouse for some kind of private club and was purchased by someone in 2003 for $100,000.

They should call it the Fuck You Empty Lot House.
                  The Spring Garden Super-lot was recently sold to some guy from Long Beach Island in November of 2010 for the low low price of $309,494. That seems a bit strange. Previous lots I've written about that are 1/10th the size have sold for 2-3 million. The property tax is 17,960.56, which is also much much lower than other lots that are much smaller. Suspicious, this is. Hopefully I won't get whacked for bringing it up.
                    I wish I had some kind of crazy story about something cool that happened in this spot, but again, there's nothing. The only thing I can really tell you is how the eastern end of this space has been a decades-long empty lot BEFORE. It was a lumber yard in the mid 19th Century and an unused parcel in the late 19th Century. Buildings first appeared there in 1910.
                    So if there's nothing cool about this lot, why write about it? Well, there shouldn't be a empty fucking lot at such a major intersection and it needs to be exposed, that's why. Build something here already! With all of the gentrification and development plans for this part of North Broad that everyone seems to be excited about, 7 million possibilities exist for this piece of shit.
                      A condo tower. A commercial skyscraper. An Ass-Shaving Resource Center. A Museum of Fingernail History. A giant sculpture of a stapler. The possibilities are endless!

UPDATE! Philaphile Scoats has pointed out that this lot is actually TWO empty lots put together. The west side is the one owned by the guy from LBI. The other side was purchased in 2000 by some dude from NYC. Thanks for the tip!

This is still better than what's there now.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lost Building of the Week-- September 7th

The Continental Hotel

838 Chestnut Street

                    Philadelphia actually once held the title of the city with the largest hotel in the world. That little bitty building up there is what the title was talking about... it was 18 fucking 60.
                    The monster was the result of one of the most badass Quakers in history, Junius Edward Kingsley. This guy was the Steve Wynn of his time. He got educated in an old-timey country schoolhouse and then blasted and bombarded his way through the hospitality industry. He ran all the way up the ranks of cruise line service crewmen until people were offering him management of entire line of cruise line and then partnership in big city hotels.
                    In the late 1850's Kingsley was approached by another badass hotelier, Paran Stevens, with a plan for the largest hotel in the world located in the most badass city in the world, Philafuckingdelphia. The Philadelphia Museum and Equestrian Circus, a famous city landmark of the time, had recently burned down, leaving a large plot of land in the middle of the city's central business district. At this part of the 19th Century, the largest buildings in town were Churches and the occasional 6-8 storey thin-ass commercial building.
                   The gruesome twosome came up with the idea of a super-massive modern hotel, many times larger than any in the city at that time. They found a young architect named John MacArthur, Jr. who was up to the job. MacArthur was a badass. He didn't just design buildings, he loved designing gigantic stone megaliths with a million superlative qualities. 35 years later he would go on to design Philadelphia City Hall, which is still breaking records. He gave Kingsley and Stevens a brownstone juggernaut that wrapped all the way around the property from Chestnut, down ninth, then front George Street (now called Sansom) around the back.

Under construction across the street from John MacArthur's previous gigantic building, the Girard House Hotel.
This style of architecture is called Badassisism
                   That may not look big or imposing by today's standards, but this motherfucker was decidedly massive in 1860. It took three years to build! Kingsley and Stevens shit themselves over the design. They were excited as fuck and made sure this spot would not only be the largest hotel in the world, but the most luxurious. They got the most skilled designers and builders to create and construct every detail of the interior from the staircases to the door handles.

The lobby as it first appeared when the place opened.
                        In a time when elevators were barely seen, this thing had TWO of them. They called them "steam elevator cars". Since other large hotels in America had been lost in fires, this hotel had its own FIRE DEPARTMENT and a six-storey tall water tower running through it just in case shit went down. The guests lucky enough to stay in this motherfucker were greeted with the finest and most kiss-ass service anywhere.                      
                  The Continental had single-sex reading rooms, entrances, and lounges. It held stores with the finest products of the day. It even had its own goddamn merchant exchange so you could network with the other rich-ass tycoons that were staying at the hotel.
                  The hotel opened for business on February 1860 and by the next year the place was so famous that anyone who was anyone in the WORLD intended to visit. Abraham Lincoln stayed in the hotel while president-elect in 1861. He spoke from his balcony to the thousands of citizens that surrounded the hotel due to his presence. All of the most famous 19th Century celebrities stayed there. The Emperor of Brazil, P.T. Barnum, Charles Dickens, Buffalo Bill, King Edward the Seventh, Sarah Bernhardt, and the Japanese Ambassador are but a few of the famous figures to come by.

Buffalo Bill daydreaming about the Continental Hotel as an albumen print.
                     The Continental stayed popular through the centennial but once the 20th Century rolled around it had become old news. By 1925 it was demolished in order to build another kick-ass hotel, the Ben Franklin, which is a pretty cool building itself. The Continental reminds us that there was once a time when a block-long six-storey building was a thing of fantasy and wonder. Good job, MacArthur. For City Hall, too.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Butt-Fugly Building of the Week-- September 6th

International House

3701 Chestnut Street

                    Brutalism. Brutalist architecture lets you know its shit with its name alone. It's brutal to look at, brutal to be in, and brutal to everything around it. It's like if I made an architecture style called "Shitfuckcunttaintism". You would know it sucked before you even saw it. This Great Wall of Concrete Cubbies has no goddamn redeeming qualities.
                    A castle of fucking sidewalk. You're supposed to walk on this shit, not see it on the outside of a building. What happens when a sidewalk gets old? It cracks and turns brown and shit. What did you think would happen to a facade made of sidewalk? It ends up looking like the honeycomb of turd-harvesting bees. A turdcomb, if you will.
                   Don't get me wrong, International House is a great organization. I feel bad that they ended up in this lousy-ass building. It all started with this crazy reverend named A. Waldo Stevenson and his wife. They were out partying one night and happened upon a group of foreign students. They were amazed to find out that they were the first Americans to get to know them so they started holding balls-out parties every Friday night for foreign Philadelphia college students.
                  After eight years or so, Stevenson was able to get his Christian organization into the idea of buying a house for the parties at the old Potts Mansion at 3905 Spruce Street. This became the International Student House. It was a great meeting hall for international students where they could vent their frustration related to being surrounded by early 20th Century Americans all the time.

Google Translate is the shit.
                When the organization was getting up into the thousands of members, the mansion was no longer up to the job. The Quakers were still holding on to the cool old building at 15th and Cherry Streets that I'll have to do an article about some time. They let the International House use it as their new clubhouse. When it came time to be demolished for an expansion of Arch Street (never happened), the International House was donated some mad cheese for a new facility, this time one that students could live in!! Several architects submitted designs.
                 Mind you, it was the late 60's. The shit they got offered made my ass look like a willow tree.

Here's one from the firm Mitchell Giurgola, responsible for many of Philadelphia's ugliest buildings. So many.
Good thing they never picked this one.... ah shit.
                   They ended up picking the one from Bower Fradley. That Bower guy seems to show up in these butt-fugly building articles a lot, but always coupled or tripled with different names. Construction of this Cement Ass-Shield was completed in 1970 for 8.5 million bones. Even when it was brand new it looked like ass, like someone took a bunch of sidewalks and tried to make a building out of it. Oh wait, they did!

Seriously, its brand new in this picture.
                   Seriously, they couldn't do better than this? Did they think about how this thing would look in the future? What an insult to 103-year-old International House organization. The awesome-looking Irongate Theatre/Tabernacle Presbyterian Church across the street has taken a shit in its hand and thrown it at International House on the hour for the last 41 years.

Keep trying, Tabby. Keep trying.
                     This building is the victim of the crappy architectural time period its from. It makes one think... what would an International House of today look like? Would it be better or even more goofy-looking? Well, we're about to get an answer. Another International House is being built on the Temple University campus.

And the answah is... Its shit! BYE BYE!!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Old-Ass Building of the Week-- September 5th

Musical Fund Hall

808 Locust Street

Are you ready for this shit?
                      This building has a long fucking history. Its been used for so much different shit that its dizzying to even think about it. The whole neighborhood surrounding this motherfucker has changed multiple times in the last 187 years but this beast has managed to stick it out and push through into the 21st century like a fucking champ. Good for you, building.
                     The Musical Fund Society formed in 1820 to provide a pension for retired musicians (they called them "decayed") and to promote the improvement of musical taste. They would have meetings in churches and eventually managed to put on a few concerts in Washington Hall, a ballroom/Temporary Masonic Temple that was popular at the time. They gained a lot of national attention and started to plan out their own concert hall. It would be the shit. The acoustics would be engineered to be some of the best in the world.
                    The Fifth Presbyterian Church sold their building to the Society and they demolished the fuck out of it. They had one of their members who happened to be a super-kickass mega-architect, William Strickland, design them a musical nirvana. The cornerstone was laid on May 25th, 1824 and it opened on December 29th, 1824. The construction cost was $12,968.56.
                    It was a HUGE success. All of the rock stars of the early 19th Century made a point of performing here. The Society added gas lighting on September 26, 1847 so that they wouldn't accidentally burn the place down at night with the shitload of candles they needed. They packed the house constantly and by the 1840's they were having so many successful seasons in a row that they figured that they should almost double the seating capacity.
                       In 1847 the Society went up to the Five-Star Admiral of Dragon Eating, Napoleon Le Brun, and said "Listen, you bastard. We need you to overhaul this whole place. Extend the facade all the way out to the street and move the main stage to the back instead of the front!". Only 5 months later, the brand new Musical Fund Hall was complete. It re-opened on October 21st, 1847 with seats for 1,500, which back then was like building a doctors' office waiting room with seating for 50,000.

What the fuck? Where's the wheelchair ramp?
                        This time, the acoustics were EVEN BETTER than before and became the primary draw for musicians to play there. It wasn't just for musicians, however. Circus acts, athletic events, college commencements and graduations, anything else you can think of went on stage. The place even had a human zoo act in 1852!

Maximo and Bartola, the "Aztec Lilliputians", were put on display at the Hall. This place had everything!
                     Le Brun was so respected for his work that he ended up getting tapped to design the American Academy of Music. While that was being built, the Musical Fund Hall became home to the 1856 Republican National Convention. This is the fact everyone wants to beat you over the head with when they tell you about this building. The problem is, this fact is WRONG.
                    The first Republican National Convention took place at Lafayette Hall in Pittsburgh in February, 1856. The one at Musical Fund Hall took place in June. The Musical Fund Hall one was the first to nominate a presidential candidate, John Charles Fremont. Lincoln was there, trying to be the Vice-Presidential candidate, but he didn't win.   

The announcement of Fremont's candidacy. Rabble rabble rabble rabble rabble!
                    Once the Academy of Music was completed in 1857, the Musical Fund Hall's neighborhood became shit. Even though it was only 8 blocks west, the Academy was located in the nouveau riche Broad Street neighborhood and was large enough to accommodate full-costume-and-set opera acts, which were very popular. The Musical Fund Society said "fuck the Hall" and moved their performances over to the Academy in 1858.
                  From 1857 to 1895, the Musical Fund Hall became the second-string event venue in the city. There were conferences, lectures, plays, college events, and athletic competitions, but the Society strangely calls the period "the time of no concerts".
                  By the 1880's, the neighborhood was getting better and the Society felt stupid sitting on this once great Hall that had so much potential. In 1891, they called on one of the great architects of the period, Addison Hutton, to gut the place and pretty much rebuild it from the ground up. They wanted the Hall modernized to the Victorian period. Hutton went fucking nuts. He redesigned all the interior spaces, added an additional storey, then, in 1893, ripped the whole facade off and built a brand new one.
1900. Meh, I think I like the old facade better. Sorry, Addison!
                      The place re-opened in 1895 and was back to being an elegant and modern concert venue. The Society's Germania Orchestra played there for the next four years. Musical acts of all kinds rolled through, so many famous names that this article would reach the Oort Cloud if I listed them for you. It also continued being a meeting hall for various organizations, most notably a batch of unions that began rioting out the door of this Megacastle of Roundhouse Kicks in the first decade of the 20th Century.
                     The second great period of the Hall didn't last long. By the mid 1910's, the neighborhood was ass again. The Society tried another small renovation in 1914 but ended up mortgaging this beast to the Philadelphia Labor Institute ten years later. The Labor Institute didn't have much luck there and the building got repo'ed by the Society in 1937. For the next five years, they leased the Hall to a boxing promoter. It was in this period that windows got punched out in the facade, making all those rectangles on it make a lot more sense.
                     The Society was down on their luck in the mid 1940's and couldn't afford to repair the decaying building. They knew its day was over and sold it to a tobacco concern called Yahn and McDonnell Company in 1946. Yahn and McDonnell got architect Howard Carter Hill and converted the Hall into a gigantic humidor that stored 2.5 million cigars.
As Yahn & McDonnell. It wasn't exactly looking great at the time.
                  The tobacco warehouse stuck around until 1964 when the building was purchased by the Redevelopment Authority. It sat there falling apart for years while the Authority and others mulled over what the building would be used for. Some argued it should be offices, other argued it should be restored back to a theatre, others wanted other uses and as usual they all argued about it. A restoration study was done in 1970 but didn't get much further.
                 By 1979, the place was literally about to fall over. The windows were broken and the roof collapsed. Someone had to do something with this thing or it would be demolished.

Yeah, this'll buff right out!
                   Finally in 1981 a developer with some iron balls came along and converted the entire building into fancy-ass condos. It was a pretty risky move considering that this it what it looked like across the street:

Empty Lot of the Year, 1977.

                    Even when these new-fangled condos were complete, the neighborhood was still pretty bad. Eventually, new construction and renovations occurred all around and the Musical Fund Hall is now a pretty nice place to live... if you're rich as fuck, of course. You can buy a badass unit there right now! 
                    It current has two different kinds of historical markers on the outside, one to commemorate the "first" Republican National Convention and another commemorating some of the famous folks that have appeared there. The latter plaque was placed by residents who cared so much about their political persuasion that they didn't want be mistaken for Republicans by living there, like someone was going to wait outside and beat them in the street when they left for work. If you really wanted to get down and dirty and find all the history of this thing, the building would end up with like 60 plaques.

                    This building is such a goddamn survivor. While other much nicer and historically significant buildings in this city were built and demolished without a thought during its lifetime, this one managed to survive and will survive for many decades to come. This beast has been around for such a long time that I must tell you that I've barely scratched the surface of telling you its full history. What a cool building.