Good Eye: A pop of modernist color on Broad Street

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A view of 500 S. Broad Street in Philadelphia, PA.

The name "District Health Center No. 1" may have a Soviet-style ring to it, conjuring up images of severe-looking officials with clipboards striding through the hallways, but the curvy, mid-20th-century building is the very opposite of dreary. Its teal facade and red columns offer a cheerful spot of color on South Broad, and they were intended to lift the spirits of people arriving for medical tests.

In the early 1950s, after the election of the city's first reform mayor, Joseph S. Clark Jr., Philadelphia began creating a network of health centers to serve its poor neighborhoods. Concerned about the spread of infectious diseases, especially tuberculosis, Clark's administration hired well-known architects to build small clinics where people could go for free testing and treatment.

Despite its name, Health Center No. 1 wasn't first in the network, but it remains the biggest. In 1959, the city tapped Newcomb Montgomery and Charles Bishop to come up with a design capable of accommodating examination rooms, a laboratory, and medical offices. They produced a zippy building that expresses the progressive civic values and optimism of the time.

The clinic seems to share some architectural heritage with George Howe's 1952 Bulletin Building, next to 30th Street Station. Like that design, the health center is a squat (three-story) building with ribbon windows and curved corners, and it's faced in glazed bricks (in a luscious teal). Both buildings feature ground-floor arcades set on plump, round columns.

But while Howe's design is a study in cool grays, Montgomery and Bishop embraced color with a vengeance. Bright-red bricks support the exposed staircase, and details are outlined in honey-hued wood. Each corner is marked by a glass-block wall, which glows, lanternlike, at night. Some find the use of the corner for parking an abomination. Originally intended as an entry plaza, it could easily be converted into a park for the greenery-starved Avenue of the Arts.

The interior is just as interesting as the facade. The architects sensibly put examination rooms on the first floor. The second floor, where the office work was done, has a skylighted atrium. All the labs are on a third-floor mezzanine, which rings the atrium. The building's column grid is arranged in 18-foot bays, the standard size for laboratories in those days. Conveniently, half a bay is the perfect size for an examination room.

Though the open-plan offices could be noisy, especially during the days of manual typewriters, it's a testament to the design that the health center is still in use. In 2019, the labs will be moved to a new police headquarters being fashioned at West Philadelphia's Provident Mutual Building. But testing services, now focused on HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, will remain on Broad Street.

The move will be a good excuse for the city to invest a little money in maintaining this important midcentury gem. This is not a historically certified building, but it should be. If the Health Department ever tires of No. 1, this exuberant modernist survivor would make a great location for a contemporary art museum.

District Health Center No. 1 is at the corner of Lombard Street, easily accessible from the Lombard-South subway stop.

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