Monday, October 6, 2014

Butt-Fugly Building: Casa Farnese

1300  Lombard Street

                 Where were the NIMBYs when this ugly piece of shit was built? Casa Farnese is a mid-60s assdisaster that has been effing up the 1300 block of Lombard for nearly 50 years. Out of place, too tall for the neighborhood, built with tax dollars, and an insult to its own intended residents. Like Guild House, this is yet another old folk's home that looks like shit designed by an ass-kissed architecture firm.
                This building exists because of a great Philadelphian, Andrew Farnese. This dude was a lawyer, a banker, a civic activist, president of the School Board, and pretty much everything else. I think he may have in fact invented sliced bread. Columbus Day is a holiday because of this dude.
               In 1959, Congress made available a HUD grant that helps non-profits build housing for the elderly. Farnese was among the first to apply for this grant. By the next year, a crappy vacant lot at the southwestern corner of 1300 Lombard, at the time one of the city's worst neighborhoods, was purchased and a large new senior housing building to be called Casa Enrico Fermi was proposed. They got a design by one of the hottest architects of the time, the firm of Stonorov & Haws, who were also busy with the design of Hopkinson House at the time.
             Unfortunately for them (and us), the design looks like the architect treated it like an art student treats a project in Art School. It was like he fell asleep while working on it the night before it was due so he put together a quick piece of shit and planned to upsell-it during the critique ("I MEANT to make it look like shit"). The building is a big white tombstone that sticks out like when someone has one big outsized tooth that sticks out from the rest. The place was built like a prison, probably because this was a dangerous neighborhood at the time. The Lombard and Juniper Street sides of the thing is surrounded by a huge impenetrable wall that makes the building seem 100 feet away from the sidewalk that runs right next to it. On the 13th Street side, there's a surface parking lot separated from the street by a prison fence without the barbed wire.

The meaning of "pedestrian friendly" in the 60s.
               The designers included a curvy entrance piece to lighten it all up a bit, but that just made it look more dated over the years. Also, the entrance to the underground parking garage is stuffed back on Juniper Street. Its nice that its hidden, but I feel bad for the Juniper Street residents that live next to and across from that entrance. If you want to see something funny, check out this driveway on garbage day when the truck struggles to get in and out of that ramp without smashing into the surrounding houses.
           At about this same time Casa Fermi was designed, Stonorov had a vision for these then-crappy parts of Center City whereby tall modernist buildings would be interspersed within the fabric of the old neighborhoods with the idea that somehow having big boxy white buildings around would clean up the blighted old places around it.

Stonorov himself presenting this idea. Check out the highway planned for South Street.
              From a development standpoint, the construction took awhile to get going, partially because Zoning's ass fell out from under it when they saw the plans for a 288-unit, 22-story building being proposed in this location. After going back and forth with the ZBA for years, construction finally started at the end of 1964 and went all the way through to 1966. After it was done, they fought with Zoning some more over the surface parking lot behind it.
             Andrew Farnese stayed on the board of the place and kept a law office there until his death in 2003. The place was renamed Casa Farnese in 2004. This ugly building has been housing seniors for almost half a century now. Though I hear that the place itself isn't too bad, the design has been outpaced by the rest of the neighborhood. A giant wall around the whole thing is definitely no longer necessary.
              Of course, I'm not the only one who thinks this. The Casa Farnese Preservation Program is an effort to renovate and modernize the building. The most drastic of the changes will be a new entry vestibule and lobby area built on top of the silly curvy thing that's over the entrance. Construction has already begun on this based on designs by Compass Architectural Designs of Voorhees, NJ.

              That's nice and all, but they have to do something about the street level presence this thing has on Juniper Street. I understand that the long concrete wall is probably just the top of the underground parking garage, so maybe it can't be totally removed-- but it can be improved. This building has some importance for being one of the earliest HUD senior homes, but its ugliness tarnishes all that. Casa Farnese Preservation Program, you have your work cut out for you.

"Wow, Gerdy! They're trying to make this building look less like shit!"

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