Good Eye: Castles in the air

Granary and apartments share medieval flair.

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This is a shot of the old city granary on 20th St. and the new Granary apartments on Callowhill Street. Credit: Inga Saffron

Considering that the old granary on 20th Street, north of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, was originally a concrete storage bin for wheat and corn, it puts on some grand airs. Topped by an array of towers, it commands the site like a great medieval fortress or a 1920s Gothic skyscraper, proof that powerful architecture exists even in the humblest buildings.

The granary's crenellated roofline is so distinctive that DAS Architects picked up the castle theme and worked it into its Granary Apartments next door. The apartment house (developed by Pearl Properties) is a fairly humble structure itself, sheathed in corrugated metal panels. Like so many mid-rises, it is a long, rectangular building. A flat roof would have been terribly dull.

DAS inscribes the Callowhill Street facade with a white outline that rises and dips to mirror the battlements on the 1924 granary, which is listed on the city's historic register. The see-through outlines are a suggestion of crenellation, rather than the actual thing, and offer a nice contrast to the solid concrete versions next door. Indeed, the whole facade is skillfully composed. DAS extracts a surprising amount of depth and texture from the low-cost panels, especially when you compare it with other metal-sheathed buildings going up across Philadelphia.

The apartment house is only about half as tall as the old granary, yet together they create a strong presence. My favorite way to view the pair is to walk between landscape architect Laurie Olin's majestic evergreen allee outside the Barnes Foundation. The trees block out everything but the two buildings. Suddenly the two castles appear, looming overhead like mountain crests.


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Next time you're on the Parkway or shopping at Whole Foods, take a detour to the corner of 20th and the Parkway. Walk through the Barnes Foundation garden, past the lily fountain, and ascend through the evergreens. At the top step, stop and compare and contrast the two dramatic rooflines.