Thursday, April 5, 2012

Butt-Fugly Building of the Week-- April 5th

YWCA Metropolitan Branch Annex

2021 Chestnut Street

Jesus fuck!! That's horrible!!
                  What a fucking pile of junk... further proof that 1950's architecture in this city continues to be the most useless. Before this building gets demolished (soon), it needs to be called out for the butt fugly pile of dogshit that it is. Don't let the blighted nature of the building fool you... it never looked good.
                   Post-WWII Philadelphia was a pretty depressing place... especially in Center City. The beautiful old Victorian structures were dirty and falling apart. The 1920's and 30's boom buildings were outdated. The population was in a continuous migration to the Northeast and the suburbs.
                   Then, all of a sudden, three new institutional buildings came all at once, The Sidney Hillman Medical Center, the Mercantile Library, and this, the YWCA Annex. The three were considered a triumvirate that signaled a new age of urban design that would change things forever. Well, time has proven that these buildings have failed. The Sidney Hillman is now demolished (whoopie!), the Mercantile Library has been vacant for 23 years (but will be renovated by a fan of this crappy style), and the YWCA Annex is about to be demolished.
                   It began in 1949. The YWCA had not seen new construction since 1916. The building they were using on the 2000 block of Chestnut Street was built in 1923 as the Stephen Girard Hotel and it was a pretty crappy facility. The new and modern addition to the old hotel was to be a prototype for a new kind of YWCA, offering activities and services that none other had before. The first architect commissioned was the firm of Sydney Martin. They came up with a design that would be a modern version of the old hotel building.

Makes sense, right?
                         The YWCA motherfuckers were like, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!! It looks too much like the old hotel!!!! Fuck youuuuuuu!!!!!!!!" and fired the fuck out of the Martin firm. They then went to the firm of Howell Lewis Shay. Those motherfuckers came up with a design that was thought, at the time, to be the height of urban institutional architecture.

Seriously, it was.
                       The long row of windows was thought to be some kind of magical connection between the building and the street. The stone-clad rectangle window facade toward the top was thought to be a revolutionary design. The YWCA started fundraising for the place in 1950 and was able to break ground in June, 1953. The cost of the building would be $750,000, $9.65 million in today's monies. Once complete in 1954, it was a big fucking deal. The place offered a swimming pool, chapel, women's dormitories, classrooms, courtyards, roofdeck, laundry rooms, and sewing rooms. The ribbon was cut in the swimming pool by a woman diving into it.
                        The building would stay in continuous use for the next 36 years. On August 31st, 1990, the Mid-City YWCA shut its doors, never to be opened again. The piece of shit became the property of the Redevelopment Authority in 1993 and just sat there.

The building in 1991 or 92. Empty but not yet boarded-up.
                      The Girard Hotel would get re-occupied in 1999 by Friere Charter School. The Annex, however, would just sit. And sit. And sit. Eventually, the building's entrance was boarded up, but it was too late. The broken windows allowed birds and weather in. What was originally just a butt-fugly building became a butt-fugly rat, roach, pigeon, and squatter nest. The place actually started to stink from the outside.
                      Once the 2000's progressed, the neighborhood surrounding the building was seeing a resurgence. The YWCA Annex became the most blighted piece of shit on the block and one of the most blighted places in Center City. Check out a photo gallery the Inquirer did of the interior here. Finally, this last December, Aquinas Realty Partners was authorized to purchase the building. They plan to FINALLY demolish the stupid-ass Annex and build a 12 story apartment building with over 100 apartments, retail space, and extra space for Friere Charter School.

From their website.
                   The design is by architect Michael Ytterberg (it must be fun to have to explain how to spell that name 50 times a day) and seems just fine for the area. In February, the Planning Commission shot some NIMBY missiles across Aquinas's bow, complaining about the facade materials to be used. However, they made up for it by being cool with it having no parking garage and for asking that it be taller than the originally planned eight stories. Aquinas should be able to get demolishin' later this year.
                  The loss of the crappy YWCA Annex and the crappier Sidney Hillman Medical Center is the proof that this new urbanism that was all the rage in the 1950's is a complete and utter failure. Sadly, it took 60 years for these shitbird buildings to be replaced, but at least its finally happening. Too bad the Mercantile Library couldn't join them so that all three of these architectural mistakes could be eradicated from memory.


  1. The middle of the 20th century was a crappy time for cities. Not only was everyone leaving, but the people left were like, "hey lets demolish entire neighborhoods and build highways through every single downtown ever and build the ugliest stuff we can think of with whatever we didn't demolish".

  2. I like the YMCA building. Never my favorite building, but one I always admired as I walked by. Someday there will be very few buildings left from this period & preservationists will look back and say, "how could they tear that down?" I would not shed a tear if the new building looked good, but this looks like ass. Really generic flavor-of-the-month ass at that. A step backward if you ask me.

  3. i know this goes against the prevailing wind, but like 'bile greene' said, one day there will be very few if any mid-century modern (shithole) buildings left, and as we know from pining to have some of Frank Furness' work back, thats not always a good thing. i agree that these structures for the most part look like total crap, especially in their usually rundown and long unkempt condition, but if properly and completely renovated to their former (?)glory(?) as is proposed for the Mercantile Library, they could offer a nice (and sufficiently small) educational retrospective. plain and simple, buildings look better when their new and shiny, even crappy ugly ones. what a shame it would be to not have any of these period pieces around breaking the usual monotony...if only to remind us of what not to build.

    full disclosure i work in one of the uglier 1950's buildings in this city...Drexel University's Korman Center!

  4. I used to go to pre-school there in the 80s, my mom worked right around the corner at 2000 Market St.

    Wondered what happened to that place, as I've long left Philadelphia.