Historians will debate whether Ralph Bencker was a modernist or Art Deco architect. Like so many practitioners in the 1920s and '30s, he combines the sensibility of both in his work, which can be found throughout Philadelphia. But his best-known design, the N.W. Ayer Building on Washington Square, now the Ayer condos, is distinguished by its emphasis on sculptural embellishment.
Bencker's decoration is visible before you open the front door of the 14-story limestone tower. Completed in 1929, the building was designed to serve as the headquarters for Ayer, which was the city's premier advertising agency in the pre-Mad Men era. The door's dark surface is encrusted with a checkerboard of bronze bas-reliefs featuring a vignette of the skills used in the advertising trade. A recent polishing has given them a golden glow.
Executed by sculptors J. Wallace Kelly and Raphael Sabatini, the reliefs include a variety of figures: One depicts a scribe writing in a large manuscript. In another, a figure holds a painter's palette. Further along the door, a pair work at a printing press. All are dressed in medieval gowns.
Some have suggested the gowns are meant to evoke ancient Egypt. The discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922, and the resulting "Tutmania," deeply influenced Art Deco design. But it's more likely that Bencker was throwing everything into the same pot. The gowned figures are interspersed with symbols of the zodiac, along with plows and lamps.
In a 1929 article in Architectural Forum, Bencker explained that the three-part frieze at the top of the doors was meant to tell the history of the advertising profession. It starts with an open book, which Bencker says stands for "truth." At the center, a large, radiating sun glows between two figures, a writer and an artist. Finally, there is a flying bird, suggesting the power of advertising to disseminate a message.
Advertising was still seen as a benevolent force in those days. Of course, now that we're saturated in promotional messages, we tend to be less starry-eyed about the sales pitch.
In a strange irony, it is the residents of the Ayer who now have to endure direct views of the endless loop of ads on the new digital signs on the Lit Bros. building two blocks away on Market Street. Fortunately, those flashing images can't be seen from the sidewalk in front of the Ayer, so you can enjoy the naive charm of Bencker's analog depictions in visual peace.
The Ayer is located on the west side
of Washington Square, between Walnut
and Locust Streets.