Anyone who has visited Italy knows it's not unusual to round a corner and stumble upon an ancient Roman column that has been casually incorporated into a modern (or not-so-modern) building. But you don't expect to run into such archaeological remains in Philadelphia.
If you head down a narrow, rutted alley in Philadelphia's jewelry district, you'll discover a trio of flowery Corinthian columns lodged in the rear wall of an apartment building. The columns aren't ancient, at least by European standards. And they only look as though they predate the building's flat modern facade. They're actually survivors of the original design, which was thoroughly obliterated during a 1960 renovation.
The apartment house, which occupies the corner of Seventh and Sansom Streets, was known as the Philadelphia Press Building when it opened in 1898, and it may have been commissioned by Curtis Publishing, whose headquarters was on the other side of Seventh Street. It was designed by Theophilus P. Chandler Jr. in the style of a Venetian palazzo. Chandler's ground floor was a noisy parade of arched windows that wrapped around three sides of the building - Sansom, Seventh, and (coincidentally) Ionic Street.
In old photos, those softly rounded arches look as though they were drawn in an exaggerated cursive script. By 1960, Chandler's flourishes must have looked pretty old-fashioned. In effort to update the storefront, the owner ripped out the sculpted terra cotta columns and arched windows. They were replaced with their stylistic opposite: square windows and a flat facade finished in turquoise and gold ceramic tiles.
The renovation never progressed above the first floor, and the result is a disconcerting contrast between the modernist shop front and the elaborate Venetian floors above.
Luckily for us, the owner also skimped on the rear wall, leaving us a small reminder of the building's former ground-floor glory.
Chandler's Venetian palazzo is at 701-707 Sansom. Safian & Rudolph, a well-known jeweler, occupies the corner storefront. To glimpse the surviving classical fragments, walk north on Seventh Street to the Ionic Street alley.