The renovated neoclassical palace nobody wants

The city has spent $50 million to rehab the historic Provident Mutual Life Insurance building at 46th and Market, including re-gilding the dome.

The Provident Mutual Life Insurance building at 46th and Market looks pretty sharp for a 90-year-old. Its golden dome has just been regilded and can be seen for blocks across its West Philadelphia neighborhood. The crisp limestone facade has the glow of someone who spent a week at the spa. Altogether, the city has spent $50.5 million restoring the enormous Ralph Adams Cram building to its stately elegance.

Too bad no one wants to occupy it.

Since its namesake company moved out in 1983, there have been at least four attempts to repurpose the monumental structure designed by one of the giants of neoclassical architecture. It failed as a satellite campus for Lincoln and Cheyney Universities. It failed as a hub for local nonprofits. It was rejected by the judges at Family Court, who recoiled at the idea of crossing the Schuylkill to go to work.

The historic building was finally offered a lifeline in the waning days of the Nutter administration when the Police Department agreed to relocate its headquarters to West Philadelphia. City Council seconded the move by approving the financing.

But that was then and this is now.

The police, who have complained for years (legitimately so) about cramped conditions in their once cutting-edge administration building at Eighth and Race, appear to have gotten cold feet. So, even though the city has sunk a hefty $50 million into renovating and stabilizing the Provident’s exterior, the Kenney administration confirms that it is negotiating to acquire the police a  new home closer to Center City. One possible site,  sources confirm, is the white tower that housed the Inquirer and Daily News. Frank Rizzo, the former police commissioner and mayor who often sparred with the papers, couldn’t have plotted a better revenge.

The willingness of the police to occupy that decrepit office building, which needs at least as much renovation as the Provident, makes you wonder: What does everyone have against West Philadelphia?

Throughout the Provident’s long struggle to find a new purpose, it has been repeatedly described as occupying a neighborhood too far. The length of the commute between 46th Street and the court complex at 13th and Filbert appears to be the reason the police asked the city to shop around for a new site. Yet the Provident's location is anything but inconvenient.

Camera icon  Michael Bryant/ Staff Photographer

The building, which the city acquired by default in 2008, sits at the foot of SEPTA’s 46th Street Station. My recent trip on the Market-Frankford Line from Eighth Street took 12 minutes, platform to platform. If you were to leave from the Criminal Justice Center next to City Hall, you could be at the Provident’s front door in under 10 minutes, less time than it takes to walk from the current police headquarters to the center’s courtrooms. For those who prefer to drive, the Provident is surrounded by a sprawling green campus, which means there is plenty of opportunity to create on-site parking.

It’s true that Philadelphia’s downtown is an incredibly convenient place to do business, with government offices, top companies, shops, and restaurants all clustered within easy walking distance. But Philadelphia’s center of gravity has been gradually shifting westward. The near-completion of the Cira towers on the west bank of the Schuylkill speaks to that, as does Aramark’s decision to move into the former Marketplace Design Center. Penn and Drexel have expanded their spheres of influence well past 40th Street, and now virtually bump up against the Provident’s largely residential Mill Creek neighborhood. Children's Hospital is already there, having established a beachhead in 2013, when it opened an outpatient clinic, the Karabots Pediatric Care Center, at 48th and Market.

Moving the police headquarters to 46th Street would further strengthen this part of Market Street as a commercial node. Though  the blocks adjacent to the Provident are thin on services right now, that could change quickly. The Enterprise Center, in the former American Bandstand building at 45th Street, has been boosting the neighborhood’s entrepreneurial capacity. You can see the progress in the small businesses sprouting up along 45th Street between Chestnut and Walnut.

Alan Greenberger, who was the city’s chief planner when former Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey endorsed the move west, said he always saw the Provident as a natural location for the police headquarters. Not only is it a roomy 325,000 square feet, but also “it looks like a municipal building,” he observed.

Until the 1920s, the insurance company was housed in a small, eccentric Frank Furness building at Fourth and Chestnut. It made the move to West Philadelphia as the area was emerging as a leafy streetcar suburb. Perhaps in reaction to its quirky Furness building, the Provident hired Cram & Ferguson, a venerable Boston firm, to design its new headquarters. They were known for turning out understated neoclassical and Gothic Revival buildings.

Like so many of their buildings, the Provident was a tower flanked by two symmetrical wings. Except for the tiered, classical tower, topped by the gold dome and a gilded weather vane in the form of a clipper ship, it is exceedingly plain, the opposite of Provident’s flamboyant Furness building. Other than an ornate lobby that resembles the one in the old Family Court, its office floors are vanilla spaces that can be adapted to any number of uses.

Though  the city has already spent $50 million on the renovation, completing the project and finishing out the spaces for the police could easily take $100 million more, according to original estimates. The newspaper tower, now owned by developer Bart Blatstein, would also be expensive to retrofit, especially because  modern policing requires tremendous amounts of technology and security. The Nutter-era plan had also envisioned that the city’s medical examiner, morgue, and laboratories would share the space with the police. 

Should they all find other homes, the city could be stuck with the half-finished Provident. Now that the neighborhood is rebounding, it might be able to sell the renovated shell, although it's not clear whether it could recoup its substantial investment. Gary Jastrzab, the city’s chief planner, said he could envision the building being used once again as a satellite campus for a Pennsylvania university. Because the site includes so much open land -- more than seven acres -- there are opportunities for additional development. “Housing wouldn’t be a bad use,” Jastrzab added.

One official suggested the Provident would make a great location for the city’s newly enlarged Department of Planning and Development. It sounds like a great idea, but would those city employees be willing to make the trek to West Philadelphia?

Probably not.

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