Changing Skyline | A stylish update for a modernist beacon

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The plan for the center respects the original architecture while adding three stories above the wings and one atop the back.

When the Barnes Foundation suggested that its planned move to the Parkway would be a good thing for Philadelphia's schoolkids, it probably wasn't thinking about the ones scarred by the city's rising murder rate, or foreign wars, devastating house fires, abuse, and other modern traumas.

But this is a world of unintended consequences. So when an international-class art museum announces it will build a signature building in a part of town that is scruffier than it ought to be, the neighbors take note. Real estate changes hands. Land prices rise. Owners spruce up their properties.

None of that activity was lost on the Children's Crisis Treatment Center, a nonprofit psychiatric clinic that had been leasing a rundown former city orphanage at 19th and Callowhill Streets - a scant two blocks from the Barnes' future home - for the last three decades. The sprite of a modernist building may be in bad shape, but its location on the northern edge of Center City couldn't be more convenient for its clients, children who have suffered traumatic stress of the urban sort.

But with tattered Callowhill Street on the rise, the agency realized that it wouldn't be long before others started to covet its site. The Barnes' impending move galvanized the outpatient-treatment center to buy the property from the city's Redevelopment Authority. It wasn't long before the center was hatching an expansion plan and interviewing architects.

The Barnes isn't expected to name its architect until August, but the treatment center already has a design by Erdy McHenry Architecture ready to go. Though the project's $8 million budget is so much loose change in the museum world, it's enough to buy the center its own distinctive work of architecture.

Philadelphia-based Erdy McHenry has a reputation for zippy modern buildings, like its Hancock Square and Avenue North projects, that incorporate nontraditional materials. Most of the firm's recent Philadelphia clients have been developers or universities, although it has donated plans to several nonprofits. Erdy McHenry jumped at the chance to design for the center because of its work counseling children with emotional and behavioral problems.

There's no denying that Erdy McHenry was also attracted by the center's stylish building. Even in its disheveled state, it was clearly once modernist royalty. The U-shaped brick structure, which wraps its arms around a children's playground, was designed in 1949 by Philadelphia's first important woman architect, Elizabeth Fleisher, half of Roth & Fleisher.

The pair were committed modernists who had absorbed all the Internationalist Style scripture on regularity and eschewing applied ornament. The orphanage design that Fleisher produced with Gabriel Roth speaks of an era when architecture was meant to save the world. The back portion is low, horizontal and deceptively plain. Though the building lacks the International Style's famous ribbon windows, Roth and Fleisher emphasize its horizontality with a terrace railing on the third floor and a light-colored metal band on the first.

That single skillful band is the architectural equivalent of a Donald Judd line painting, and sets the center apart from a dozen other modernist-inspired institutional buildings around Philadelphia. The metal band serves the very practical purpose of connecting the main building visually with its one-story side wings. But then the stripe keeps going and going - winding around the tops of the two wings and edging down their sides.

The band underlines the base of the east wing, but stops at the ground on the west end. So the east wing becomes a solid, the west a void. It's the kind of trick that would still look clever today.

There's no record in the archives of how the orphanage, or "children's reception center," was received in 1949, but Roth and Fleisher were hired a year or two later to design Parkway House, a luxury apartment building located a few blocks west. Like the orphanage, it features two side wings. These are distinguished by a cascade of curved bays and balconies, but like the orphanage's wings, there is something nurturing in the way they gather up the space.

Erdy McHenry's design for the treatment center, overseen by project architect Patrick Stinger, treads with respectful lightness on the original architecture, even while adding three stories above the wings and one atop the back portion.

The designers have sculpted two boxes with rounded edges, which they balance on the one-story wings, just above the metal band. Because they've left a tiny gap, the rounded boxes appear to float untethered over Fleisher's old wings. The new, taller wings, which look onto the courtyard playground, have been lavished with large windows, so the staff can see and hear the children they serve.

The rounded boxes are clearly cousins of Erdy McHenry's design for Avenue North at Temple University. Yet they also pay homage to Fleisher's design by referencing the metal outline, as well as the curve of the boomerang-shaped pergola columns that shade the playground. The hope is that the new facades will be clad in a soft gray zinc. The choice is dependent on the center's success in raising the remaining $4 million for the project.

The additional floors will give the treatment center 30,000 square feet of space, twice what it has now, and allow the agency, which treats 1,200 children a year, to consolidate its far-flung administrative staff in one building.

The new plan keeps all the classrooms on the ground floor, near the playground. The main entrance will be moved to the existing loggia in the west wing to make it easier for disabled people to enter. Skimpy, narrow windows along Callowhill Street are the only discordant element in the composition.

Antonio Valdes, the center's director, said he hoped to start construction by the end of the year, and to have the expanded treatment center finished by fall 2008, a full year before the new Barnes is due to open.

In the next few years, Callowhill Street is likely to undergo a major transformation. The fine design of the children's center sets a high standard.


Changing Skyline |

See a video about Children's Crisis Treatment Center at http://go.philly.com/cctc.


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.