Good Eye: Rediscovering the technicolor marvel of an old Horn & Hardart

One side benefit of the construction of the massive retail-and-residential East Market project is that it has opened up views (temporarily, anyway) of the tightly packed commercial blocks between 11th and 12th Streets. For the first time in decades, you can clearly make out the colorful terra-cotta details on 15 S. 11th St., once a flagship location for the Horn & Hardart restaurant chain.

The ornate, five-story structure was designed and built in 1912 by William Steele & Sons, the go-to developer of the day, on commission for Horn & Hardart. The restaurant chain, which already had three Philadelphia locations, was looking for a prominent new space in the shopping district to house its popular Automat. Steele & Sons came up with a design that mimics an Italian palazzo, complete with decorated friezes and an impressive, overhanging cornice. The restaurant lobby was sheathed in stained glass by Philadelphia's celebrated D'Ascenzo Studios.

For all the intimations of grandeur, this was really a working building. The upper floors were essentially factory lofts for clothing manufacturers, who sent their finished garments straight to the racks of the Market Street department stores. That probably explains why the vibrant terra-cotta decoration just barely wraps around the building's corners. The side and back walls are brick with large factory windows.

Steele & Sons weren't architects, but they were fine craftsmen with a sharp eye for design trends. Horn & Hardart was the first Philadelphia building to employ glazed, colored terra-cotta tiles. The design of their tripartite facade - base, shaft, and capital - clearly owes a debt to the ground-breaking Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. Steele & Sons similarly emphasize the horizontal and vertical lines of the concrete structure, and gussy them up with classical and geometrical elements. The show-stopper is the cornice, with its layers of dentil and egg-and-dart moldings.

It's a tribute to the builder's skills that the cornice survives intact. Though the facade has turned gray over time, the historically certified building is about to get a good scrubbing. Its owner, Brickstone Realty, has leased the old manufacturing floors to the Yard, which manages co-working spaces, and is renovating the structure with DAS Architects and Clemens Construction. Missing tiles will be replaced to bring out the original colors. And once the project is done, the ground floor will again be leased to a restaurant.

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You'll find the former Horn & Hardart Building at 15 S. 11th St., a half-block below Market, at the corner of Ludlow. Best views are from the construction entrance of East Market, but watch out for departing dump trucks.