The wedding-cake skyscraper holds a special place in the hearts of those who celebrate urban life. The tiered towers began to appear in the 1920s after New York enacted a progressive zoning law to control the shadows cast by tall buildings. Maybe because those early wedding cake designs are bound up in our collective memory with the glory days of cities — before highways carved up neighborhoods, before cars turned our high-rises into half-garage, half-residence mutants — they are often seen as the benchmark of good urbanism.
The architect Robert A.M. Stern has long been enamored with the wedding cake form, which he believes can be an alternative to the generic glass and metal slabs sweeping our revitalizing cities. Like an architectural Johnny Appleseed, his New York firm has planted dozens of pastiches around the world, from Atlanta to Xiamen, China. The best are faced in tawny limestone and include elaborately stepped crowns and generous storefronts. Others, like 10 Rittenhouse in Philadelphia, bear only a wan resemblance to the majestic architectural bluffs of Manhattan.
I am generally not a fan of Stern’s traditionalist architecture, especially his sizable Philadelphia portfolio, and yet I can’t help admiring the defiant urbanism of his firm’s latest wedding cake, the Alexander apartment tower at 16th and Vine, which was built for the Mormon church’s real estate division, Property Reserve Inc. Although the 378-foot tower borders the gaping I-676 cut to the south and faces a ginormous highway cloverleaf to the east, it looks and acts as though it had just moved onto an urbane block of Park Avenue.
For anyone who remembers the site’s “before” — a vast surface parking lot — approaching the Alexander today is a revelation. The 32-story tower is clad from top to bottom in handsome buff brick (hand-laid on the lower floors). Along both 16th and Vine, the ground floor is ringed with enormous shop windows, each outlined with an elegant stone band and topped with a blue canopy. Midway down Vine Street, the shops give way to townhouse apartments, marked by stately entrance doors and granite stoops. Harsh as the surrounding environment is, the building single-handedly civilizes this corner.
Not that the Alexander is so far from the action. Market Street is just five blocks to the south. But because the area was scrubbed of buildings during the long construction of the expressway, it always felt like the end of the known world.
The arrival of the Alexander thrusts the site, along with the micro-neighborhood around it, back into Center City. The effort has been greatly helped by PMC Property Group’s recent transformation of One Franklin Plaza on 16th Street into an apartment building. The dull, 24-story office tower, which was previously occupied by GlaxoSmithKline, has been stripped of its old concrete facade and reclad in a smoky gray glass by Gensler architects.
Though the Franklin Tower Residences, as it is now known, is another generic glass slab, its new look is still a marked improvement over the old concrete and ribbon windows. Gensler used I-beam style window dividers and balconies to relieve the flatness of the facade. Best of all, PMC has carved out a continuous row of shop fronts along 16th Street. Perched on either side of I-676, the two towers dramatically pull these two parts of the city back together. Together, they house 637 apartments
The Alexander, overseen by Stern’s partners, Sargent C. Gardiner and Paul Whalen, may be faced in brick instead of glass, but it similarly adheres to a predictable architectural formula. Other than their coloring and a few token differences in their crowns, the Alexander and 10 Rittenhouse are identical buildings. Below the fancy, tiered tops, their shafts are just as thick and wide as any other developer’s tower. Even the balconies are largely in the same location.
What distinguishes the Alexander is the quality of the materials and craftsmanship. Unlike developers who sell their completed projects to big apartment managers, the Mormons’ real estate division holds on to its properties. It believes in building for eternity.
As our skylines fill with dull slab buildings shrink-wrapped in glass, the texture and quality of the Alexander’s facade counts for something, even if the deeply conservative wedding cake format is built on nostalgia. Since acquiring a two-block parcel along Vine Street in 2014, the church has erected two historicist religious buildings: a neoclassical temple that riffs on Philadelphia’s French-inspired library and Family Court buildings and ridiculous-looking Colonial-style meetinghouse. The latter is a Stern design.
Despite the weird mismatch of style knockoffs — art deco, colonial, and classical — the ensemble has done wonders for Vine Street, reestablishing it as a walkable street from Logan Square to 16th. Only the meetinghouse breaks the welcoming rhythm with a blank wall facing Vine. Bizarrely, Stern’s firm placed a drainage ditch along the sidewalk.
The west side of the Alexander also reveals how easily Stern’s urbanist principles can be compromised. Even though the Alexander’s 362-car underground garage is accessed from Wood Street, its main pedestrian entrance faces a sprawling driveway and car drop-off, finished in an intricate pattern of gray pavers. This excess, by the way, is how Property Reserve chose to satisfy the Redevelopment Authority’s One Percent for Art requirement. The composition includes rain gardens and two granite fountains, all designed by artist Cliff Garten, but it looks more like developer overkill than public art. It may be the most elaborate automobile court this side of Palm Beach.
Another disappointment is Property Reserve’s decision to lease all 11,000 square feet of retail space to a child-care operator, the Learning Experience. Though the preschool will bring a lot of foot traffic to 16th Street, the company is likely to block up Stern’s elegant windows out of privacy concerns.
Perhaps the slew of new developments that have followed the Alexander to this former wasteland will be more ambitious. Nearly 100 apartments are going into the former INS building at 16th and Callowhill. The Hamilton on 15th Street will add 279 apartments. The Hanover North Broad apartments already have a major presence on 15th Street, facing the I-676 ramps. And, of course, the city plans to move the Police Department to the former Inquirer and Daily News Building, kitty-corner to the ramps.
The way these dense urban buildings front onto the cloverleaf, you would think it was a welcoming public green space. In fact, that’s exactly what it could be, despite the whizzing cars and the disgraceful lack of sidewalks along its 15th and 16th Street edges. The city may not be able to eliminate the ramps to I-676 in our lifetime, but this block-size cloverleaf needs to be retrofitted to serve the area’s new residents.
The idea that the quintessential automobile landscape could be transformed into a pedestrian-friendly park isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Only four years ago, this area was a wasteland of surface lots. Soon, it will be home to hundreds of people. Civilization has arrived.