Good Eye: The Alexander building

Philadelphia easily has a dozen small, corner, limestone-covered commercial buildings similar to the one at 19th and Chestnut. What makes this one special are the details, both historical and architectural.

The three-story structure is believed to be the first major Center City office building commissioned by an African American businessman, Raymond Pace Alexander, one of Philadelphia's great civil rights figures. Not only was Alexander the first black person to graduate from the Wharton School, he went on to study law at Harvard and become a top judge in Pennsylvania. It was his lawsuit that led to the desegregation of Philadelphia's movie theaters.

So, when the city's office landlords refused to lease him space for his law office - fearing his practice would bring too many black clients through their lobbies - he responded by commissioning his own building in 1934. The result is as elegantly tailored as the man himself.

Designed in the period's popular art deco style, the building is the work of Frank Hahn, a Jewish architect who built several synagogues and the Jewish Y at Broad and Pine. As a businessman, Alexander knew he would need a ground-floor shop to help pay the bills, along with office tenants upstairs. Hahn gives both uses their due, and, despite the challenges of the long, narrow site, skillfully maximizes every inch of the facade.

Hahn was able to accentuate the retail space on Chestnut Street by shaving off the corner and installing large display windows. Along 19th Street, Hahn calls out the entrance to the offices with a dramatic, three-story entrance, decorated with curtain-like frills and other art deco details, like the stylized typeface for the business address: 1900 Chestnut. The void of the office entrance nicely counterbalances the shaved corner. By providing an extensive run of windows, Hahn ensured there would be plenty of light for Alexander's English-style law library.

The Alexander building was originally part of a trio of art deco designs on Chestnut Street. But with the tragic demise of the Boyd Theater this year, along with the neighboring retail building, 1900 is now the only intact survivor.

Though it looks a bit forlorn at the moment, Alexander's building has Historical Commission protection and will be incorporated into a new mixed-used development by Pearl Properties. It serves as an important reminder of a time when African Americans had to struggle to make their ambitions visible to the rest of Philadelphia.

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At the southwest corner of 19th and Chestnut, the Alexander Building is impossible to miss. It's the last structure standing in the massive construction site around the former Boyd Theater.