Updated: Friday, March 14, 2014, 1:09 AM
Philadelphia is a city that is all too willing to squander its assets. We've hacked away entire blocks of Center City for parking lots, leveled Frank Furness' greatest buildings, and stripped our neighborhoods of their stately banks and churches. We're so blase about our past, we've even razed the houses where the city's founder and the nation's first president lived.
The destruction has proceeded at a slow, steady pace for more than half a century, and yet we never seem to learn from our mistakes. Every week, another school or library or church comes crashing down, leaving the city a more generic place, with fewer institutions of substance. As you read this, the Historical Commission could be approving a death sentence for the Boyd Theater, Philadelphia's last intact art deco movie palace.
While not everyone may appreciate these treasures, photographer Vincent D. Feldman does, and he has chronicled them magnificently in a new book, City Abandoned, a deeply moving survey of the great civic structures that Philadelphia erected, then neglected. Fittingly, it has been produced by the fine local publisher Paul Dry Books, with essays by preservationists John Andrew Gallery and Kenneth Finkel.
Feldman is not the kind of photographer who shoots and runs. An old-school craftsman, he uses a large-format view camera much like the one Mathew Brady hauled around to record the devastation of the Civil War. Feldman then retreats to the darkroom to print his images on paper, rendering them with such precision that bricks and stones appear to leap from the page in three-dimensional relief. Who knew blacks and whites came in such variety?
Feldman's choice of a Brady-style camera is especially apt given that the devastation he encounters on Philadelphia's streets is nearly as extreme as that on a battlefield. Living amid the ruins, it's easy to grow inured to the hollowed-out structures that background our daily travels.
Feldman, 48, who grew up in the city's Overbrook Farms section, admits he didn't see them fully until after he returned home in the early 1990s to attend graduate school at Temple University. Philadelphia was at its lowest ebb then, a few years away from the housing boom that has renewed so many neighborhoods. Feldman was shocked and awed by the casual way Philadelphia was abandoning palaces like the old Ridgway Library on Broad Street and the Ile Ife Museum of Afro-American Culture on Germantown Avenue.
In 1993, he photographed his first vacant building. He had no real method. If he passed a structure he liked, he'd make a mental note to return. Sometimes years would go by, and the building would already be gone. Feldman discovered that if he set up his camera after a rain, the misty light brought out the architectural details, giving his images a sculptural depth.
I've been following Feldman's work for years, and own a photograph from his series on old cemeteries. In City Abandoned, he typically shoots buildings straight on, cropping out the context. He treats them like people sitting for their portraits, an approach that allows their individual personalities to emerge. The buildings, embodiments of a more public-spirited time, "meet us on equal terms," he explains.
Although Feldman often cites the work of Brady and the Parisian chronicler Eugene Atget as the inspiration for the book, the photos remind me of the work of another late-19th-century photographer, Edward S. Curtis, famous for his portraits of American Indians. Like Curtis, Feldman uses seemingly deadpan images to restore a lost dignity to his subjects.
The book opens with a portrait of the Gibson, a modest building of shops and offices located steps from City Hall. Designed in 1897 by the Hewitt Brothers, it was as skinny as a rowhouse, yet the architects imbued it with a grandeur above its station by crowning it with an immense Renaissance arch.
Feldman, who provides detailed bios for every building in the book, shot the battered Gibson during its final days in 1994, before Mayor Ed Rendell granted the notorious slumlord Samuel Rappaport permission to demolish it. Feldman lets you see every wrinkle and scar accumulated during its too-short existence. Today, an unworthy parking lot occupies its place.
Feldman's photographs function as an act of preservation for buildings that might otherwise be erased from memory. One heartening surprise that emerges from the book is that so many of its subjects survive. Only a third have actually been lost, while another third have been put back into use.
This is no small detail, given the decision expected Friday on the Boyd. Empty for 11 years, the Boyd has been deemed a blight and an albatross by the Philadelphia Historical Commission's financial hardship committee, by neighbors, even by former champions such as Sharon Pinkenson of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office.
Identical arguments were made by people who wanted to demolish the Reading Terminal Headhouse (empty 17 years), Eastern State Penitentiary (22 years), the Victory Building (23 years), Ridgway Library (25 years), and the Water Works (30 years). All are now productive citizens again.
Like those buildings, and Feldman's other subjects, the Boyd was once a place where the public came together. Such large civic spaces are not easy to reuse, and need many years to realize their new potential.
Rather than wait for clarity, the Boyd's fair-weather friends would sell out its exuberant auditorium for a suburban-style multiplex built of throwaway materials.
Of course, cities are always renewing themselves. Deciding what can go and what should stay is a difficult art.
But Feldman subtitled his book Charting the Loss of Civic Institutions in Philadelphia because he is concerned that our public buildings are our most vulnerable. As Philadelphia's appetite for new residential buildings increases, so does the temptation to tear down a church here, a library there, to create buildable lots.
Perhaps some of the lost treasures will be replaced by equally well-made, equally public-spirited buildings. That's the hope, anyway. It should certainly be the standard.