There are plenty of reasons to mourn the demise of Little Pete’s, the hole-in-the-wall diner on 17th Street where it was possible to order breakfast at any hour, day or night. But amid the extended paeans to its passing, an important milestone in the evolution of Philadelphia’s downtown has gotten short shrift. Little Pete’s closed because the aging, open-deck parking garage where the restaurant resided on the ground floor is finally getting the treatment it deserves: demolition.
Philadelphia was never among those American cities that foolishly leveled their downtowns in the name of progress, but it did allow far too many standalone garages and surface lots to fracture its colonial-era streets. Well into the mid-2000s, city officials were still aiding and abetting parking companies’ efforts to build new garages. At least three parking behemoths — the Kimmel garage at 15th and Spruce, the Jefferson Hospital garage at 10th and Chestnut, and the Convention Center garage at Juniper and Arch — were forced onto Center City in the last 15 years.
What prevented Philadelphia from ceding more of its precious urban fabric to parking was the renewed popularity of city living and the corresponding rise in land values. As apartments and rowhouses became more lucrative than car storage over the last decade, developers began scooping up parking lots for new housing. It soon became clear that a standalone garage at 17th and Chancellor, a half block from Philadelphia’s premier shopping street, made no economic sense. For once, the goals of developers and urban planners have aligned, and its demolition will make way for a 13-story Hyatt Centric hotel.
Little Pete’s is an unfortunate casualty of those trends, but it is unlikely that the anyone will miss the garage. Except for the dollop of charm provided by the diner’s mod windows and elaborate canopy, the three-story garage is as generic as they come, an erector set of thick concrete beams. Replacing a building that catered to the automobile with one devoted to human beings is a very good thing for Philadelphia. The project will revive Chancellor Street, which has been treated for far too long as a service alley. It’s worth noting, too, that the hotel will employ many more people than the garage ever did.
True, the Hyatt Centric is part of a large chain, but one that seeks to avoid a cookie-cutter look by hiring local architects. Hyatt chose DAS, a firm that has been on a tear lately, designing apartment houses and hotels mainly for Pearl Properties. It’s now finishing up the Beacon apartments at 16th and Walnut and the Cambria Hotel on Broad Street.
Its Hyatt Centric design reprises elements from those two projects, but adapts them to the difficult site, which is more deep than it is wide. Most of the hotel’s frontage, as well as its entrance, will be on Chancellor. That means the Centric will have just a 60-foot-wide toehold on 17th Street, compared with the run of 250 feet on Chancellor. Because of the awkward configuration, the challenge for DAS was to come up with a building that heralded the hotel’s presence, but didn’t overwhelm its historic neighbors, which include St. Mark’s Church on Locust Street, designed by John Notman in the mid-19th century to look like a medieval chapel.
It may sound counterintuitive, but the firm’s strategy was to set back slightly the upper floors on Chancellor. The recess opens up the building at the corner, and makes the hotel more visible to visitors arriving from the north. Since Hyatt plans to put a restaurant on the ground floor, DAS marked the Chancellor intersection with a strong rounded corner to signal its entrance. A small garden will be planted on the roof above the curved entryway. Besides adding a softening touch, the greenery is meant to be help the building stand out in the urban crowd.
Typically, hotel guests arrive by car or taxi. Hyatt’s website boasts that Centric’s niche customer is a “modern explorer.” That seems to suggest that its guests are the intrepid sort who might take transit to their destination. Assuming they are approaching the hotel from the bus or subway, the greenery will be help catch their eye and direct them to the building. “Modern explorers are truly a savvy, curious group,” Hyatt’s website says. One imagines them dressed in khakis and carrying binoculars, as they search for the hotel in the urban forest.
Not that the Centric adopts an outback motif. DAS’s David Schultz gives the Centric an urbane look with an elegant palette of gray brick, white corrugated concrete, and glass. The materials will ripple across the Chancellor facade, energizing the building. The vertical bands of corrugated concrete will also help the not-tall hotel appear more statuesque.
On the south side, where the hotel will form a solid backdrop to St. Mark’s Church, the facade is intentionally more subdued. The large wall won’t completely disappear behind the little Gothic building, but at least it won’t cast any shadows on St. Mark’s garden, south of the hotel.
It’s hard to look at Schultz’s design without thinking of New York’s turquoise-hued Summit Hotel, designed by the playful mid-century modernist Morris Lapidus. It occupies a similarly long, narrow site, and Lapidus sought to enliven its main facade with a serpentine wall of glass and brick. When it opened in 1961, it was, as Lapidus gleefully acknowledged, “the most hated hotel in New York.” Today, it’s admired for sneaking a bit of Florida modern into Midtown and injecting a sense of movement into the Manhattan grid.
While their forms are similar, the skinny hotels have a key difference. The narrow side of Lapidus’ hotel was a blank, windowless wall that served as the backdrop for a big sculptural sign. The Centric will have plenty of windows facing 17th Street. The more open treatment is evidence of how much architecture has embraced an urbanist sensibility since the ’60s.
In one respect, though, things haven’t totally changed. While the Centric replaces a 319-car, standalone garage, it will offer 220 parking spaces to the public when in opens in 2019. At least this garage is underground. With an entrance on Chancellor Street, the modern explorers should have no trouble finding it.