Changing Skyline: Bad plan for a city landmark

At left, The Granary at 44 N. 20th St, and right, a rendering shows the proposed 12-story addition. (Left photo: Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer, right by: Interface Studio Architects)

The Benjamin Franklin Parkway was run through Philadelphia's immutable grid a century ago, yet it often feels as if the city is only beginning to reap the benefits of that bold civic project. But clearly the pace of change has quickened since the Barnes Foundation broke ground on the boulevard this spring.

In preparation for the anticipated upscaling of the area, neighbors are dusting off their dream projects. The Franklin Institute is raising money for a new wing. The city is shopping a proposal to convert the nearby Family Court into a hotel. And the Mormon Church is eyeing the parking lot next door for a temple complex. On the east side of Logan Square, ground already has been cleared for a small children's garden.

But in terms of design ambition, those projects pale next to an audacious proposal to transmute the old granary on 20th Street north of Callowhill into an apartment tower. In a mere eight weeks of work, architect Brian Phillips has whipped up a plan for Pearl Properties that would add 12 new floors to the top of the 142-foot structure, a brooding concrete castle that has dominated the area's skyline for almost as long as the Parkway has existed.

Viewed purely as an architectural thought experiment, Phillips' concept is as exciting as anything Philadelphia has seen in years. The design would turn a vacant building into a hive of activity, setting the stage for the neighborhood's transformation.

Phillips, the talented founder of Interface Studio Architects, further embellishes the proposal by studding it with an impressive array of green features, including a planted north wall. How could you not love a project that would reuse the structure's honeycomb of 72 six-story-high grain silos for such things as climbing walls, water-retention basins, and heat exchangers?

The appeal is undeniable. And yet the idea of crowning this kingly industrial building with a common residential cap is as wrongheaded as it is irresistible. But resist Philadelphia must.

The granary may be a plain, mostly windowless building - an immense "foundation," in Phillips' words - but the castellated towers of its roof make it much more than a heap of concrete.

The structure's power comes from its presence as an object apart. Between its ground-floor offices and distinctive penthouse apartments, there is nothing but an expanse of blank wall. It is as massive as City Hall and, despite the stylistic differences, just as deserving of the description Whitman bestowed on that civic building: "silent, weird, beautiful."

Phillips' initial design for the granary - a historically certified building - called for lopping off the towers. Belatedly recognizing the citadel's importance, he produced a second version that retains them as a layer between the old and new buildings. The new apartment floors would be supported by a steel truss wrapped around the crown and encased in glass.

Given the need for the elaborate support structure, it seems doubtful that you would be able to see the towers through the glass wall, or appreciate them as a crowning element. The addition would effectively obliterate the granary's profile from the skyline. That's too great a loss to justify a clever new design.

Such granaries once were common in North America's port cities and farm towns. Built to store the vast quantities of grain that the U.S. and Canadian plains produced, they were essentially giant bins for holding wheat and corn until it could be delivered by truck or shipped abroad. Their monumental sculptural forms are seared into our cultural memory, and famously influenced Le Corbusier's ideas about architecture.

Philadelphia, which had been a big player in the grain trade from colonial times, produced several of these elevators between the late 19th century and 1924. Somehow, only the 20th Street granary survives, although it was the last to rise. It is now surrounded by a gentrifying residential neighborhood.

Pearl Properties has presented its apartment design as an effort to rescue a vulnerable historic building. In fact, the 20th Street granary was rescued quite effectively three decades ago by the visionary interior designer Kenneth Parker. That was years before mainstream preservationists began to appreciate America's industrial past.

A flamboyant party-giver, Parker was attracted to the derelict granary because he sensed its high-ceilinged spaces would make fabulous entertainment venues. He bought the building from the Tidewater Grain Co. in 1977 for $122,000 and spent $250,000 converting the top floors to apartments. He installed his company's offices on the ground level. The functional remnants of the granary's operation - pulleys and pipes - were treated as pop art and painted white. The fact that the granary's midsection was unusable didn't bother him a bit.

Eventually, Parker moved on. Pearl Properties picked up the granary three years ago as part of a deal to acquire the more valuable surface parking lot on Callowhill Street, kitty-corner from the new Barnes site and opposite a planned addition to the Free Library. At the time, the granary was occupied by an architectural firm. But when the financial meltdown doomed Pearl's plans for a 35-story tower on the parking lot, the company turned its attention to the old grain elevator.

In these times, it's tempting to view a 14-story fortress containing just 7,000 square feet of usable space as the epitome of impracticality. But Parker's conversion served the granary quite well for 30 years. Just because Pearl has had trouble leasing it during the last two years hardly justifies invasive surgery, especially when there are acres of buildable land surrounding it. The addition requires several major zoning variances and Historical Commission approval.

Some neighbors have focused their attention on the project's proposed height, around 250 feet. It's unrealistic to expect the neighborhood north of the Parkway to remain a rowhouse enclave forever. At the same time, it's ridiculous for the city to consider each tower proposal in isolation. Now that this forgotten territory is finally coming into its own, isn't it time to plan for its long-awaited transformation?


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or