Outfitting a ruin
Retailer Urban Outfitters is overhauling a Navy Yard workshop but saving its shabby charm. Renovation preserves the rough edges.
Architect Jeff Scherer remembers feeling a chest-clasping horror the first time he walked into the historic factory building that Urban Outfitters Inc. had acquired as part of its new national headquarters.
The 103-year-old workshop at the Philadelphia Navy Yard had just been renovated by another architect for a different client. The interior walls were encased in smooth red masonite. Gray ceramic tiles marched across the lobby floor with the precision of a military consort, while a gleaming stainless-steel elevator stood in stiff review. The design elements were perfect. Too perfect for Urban Outfitters .
As Scherer continued his tour last March through the palazzo-style Building 10, where Navy machinists once worked oily lathes, his disbelief continued to grow. The maple floors, rutted and deeply stained from a century's worth of labor, had been mummified under a standard wrap of synthetic carpeting.
"Can you believe anyone would cover up floors like this? " Scherer asked with the indignation of someone who had just discovered a Renaissance masterpiece painted over with crude dabbles. "This stuff will all have to come up," he declared.
And so it has.
In the year since Philadelphia's Urban Outfitters hired Scherer's firm, MS&R of Minneapolis, to create its new headquarters, the architects have spent much of their time banishing traces of the earlier renovation and lovingly restoring Building 10 to a state of controlled ruin. Scherer's gritty mix of decay and history - accessorized with a few exquisite decorative flourishes - is exactly what the billion-dollar-a-year fashion retailer was seeking for its unified corporate campus.
Urban Outfitters ' design team has finished renovations on only one of the campus' five historic buildings, yet it is already clear that the project will be something special. Rarely has an architecture and landscape design so thoroughly embodied a company's corporate identity and aesthetic sensibility.
The design, a joint effort by MS&R, D.I.R.T. Studio and the Philadelphia-based interior designers SAAW, is the architectural equivalent of an ensemble from Urban Outfitters or one of its siblings, Anthropologie and Free People. Like the clothes sold in those stores, Building 10 manages to look tarnished by age and completely modern at the same time.
It's a neat trick, and one Urban Outfitters knows well. In the cookie-cutter world of fashion, the company stands out by selling mass-produced items that feel unique and handcrafted. It's the anti-Gap, and architecture plays a big role in the illusion. The company's 150 stores in North America and Europe look as accidental as a flea market. But those silky pajamas aren't draped across that 19th-century Italian sideboard merely by chance.
The guiding idea for the retailer's headquarters is that the power of the past can lend authenticity to the present. Preservationists make that claim, too. But Scherer and the retailer reject the idea that preservation means restoring a building to its opening-day condition. They zealously pursue a postmodern jumble, combining whatever references and styles meet their fancy. What matters is that the final mix seems credible.
Remember the gouged maple floor that had Scherer swooning? While the architects were able to save the wood on the second floor, the first floor was lost. They bought 30,000 square feet of maple flooring from an old convent in Chicago. The Chicago wood now covers the ruined floors in Building 10, which serves as the head office and studio for Anthropologie.
But the original brick walls are again visible, although painted, and a large overhead crane is fully exposed. For work stations, MS&R put concrete tops on vintage sewing-machine bases. When they ran out of bases, they simply ordered copies.
Richard A. Hayne, the Lehigh University anthropology major who founded the company in a West Philadelphia storefront in 1971, loves nothing more than a good contradiction. So, after Building 10 was stripped to its historic bones, he had SAAW's designers weigh in with assertive modern wall treatments on the free-standing offices. One section is sheathed in painters' canvas that has been covered with gesso and pleated like a skirt. You can't resist touching its sculptural folds. Don't be surprised if the look turns up on an Anthropologie rack.
"I've always liked weird juxtapositions," said Hayne, who ranked 207 last year on Forbes Magazine's list of the richest Americans. "It's more interesting than Fifth Avenue glitz. " Hayne also loves the idea that fashion is being produced in the "gigantic temples of testosterone" where "the Navy's instruments of war" were once made.
With that kind of sensibility, no one would ever identify Building 10 as the headquarters of a company listed on the prestigious Nasdaq-100 index. Yet Urban Outfitters Inc. is probably the most influential home-grown company in Philadelphia, with the exception of Comcast, the cable television giant. As it happens, Comcast is also expressing its growing corporate might by building a new headquarters. But while Comcast hired the well-known Robert A.M. Stern to do a plain-vanilla glass skyscraper in Center City, Urban Outfitters has veered off the map, both geographically and aesthetically.
The company's move was precipitated by its explosive growth over the last decade. Last year, sales passed $1 billion, yet its 550-person corporate workforce was still crowded in five different Center City buildings. Hayne had hoped to consolidate everyone in one of Philadelphia's old, pre-war Class B office buildings, but most have been gobbled up for condos. He was finally persuaded to visit the mini-city that the Navy built in South Philadelphia in the late 19th century - and was immediately smitten by its relics.
The retailer acquired five decommissioned buildings for $1 apiece and is putting $50 million into their rehabilitation. Building 10 is the most elegant, but the architects liken the hangar-sized Building 543, from the 1930s, to a cathedral.
The remaining buildings are scheduled to be finished in July, although project architect Alex Haecker admits it's a tight schedule. Demolition crews are still at work clearing debris.
Haecker says he has to remind them not to clear too much. "Take this peeling paint," he said, pointing to a rainbow of flakes. "Everyone loves the walls like this. We're just going to wire-brush it lightly and apply a sealer. "
One of Urban's favorite finds is the number "529" that someone long ago scrawled across a wall in yellow paint. What does it mean? No one knows. But to Urban, it represents the authenticity of the human hand, like mistakes in an Oriental carpet.
For the retailer, preservation is about the continuum of memory and time, rather than freeze-framing one moment. Ideally, they would like to refurbish their Navy Yard buildings just enough to make them safe, and encapsulate everything that remains, rust and all.
That philosophy is the subject of much debate among preservationists. It has always been difficult to decide what gets preserved. Should buildings be restored to the way they looked when they were finished? Or should a renovation acknowledge changes over time? Bonnie Mark, who monitors the project for the state, says that as long as the exteriors are strictly restored, she is willing to compromise on interior details.
Meanwhile, Urban's landscape architects, D.I.R.T. Studio, have their own ideas about preservation, says principal Chris Fannon. One part of their design will involve crushing the asphalt in the parking lots and scattering the pieces between the plantings and remnants of old freight tracks. "Our motto is that nothing old leaves this site," Fannon explained. It just gets rearranged.
Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or email@example.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/ingasaffron.