Franklin Court renovation plan needs reworking

The ghost print shop at Franklin Court . The site, also including a ghost house, is threatened by a proposal to add windows to brighten the underground museum. That would strip one of the key original elements, turned wooden posts and a canvas canopy that evoke a colonial market. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

The 1976 Bicentennial is generally regarded as a big bust for Philadelphia. The hoped-for crowds never arrived, scared off by an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease early in the summer. Having invested heavily in architectural attractions, the city found itself stuck with a collection of history-themed white elephants.

Although their quality was mixed, it's hard not to be moved as relics from the time vanish. The Living History Museum on Sixth Street died just three years after opening. Mitchell/Giurgola's exuberant, swooping bell pavilion was replaced in 2003 by a bigger, more obedient version. Next to go will probably be Cambridge Seven's misguided visitors' center at Third and Chestnut Streets, to make room for a museum devoted to the American Revolution.

The Bicentennial did give Philadelphia one great landmark: Franklin Court. The haunting white outlines of Ben Franklin's house and print shop, designed by the firm then known as Venturi & Rauch, are showing their age but survive intact. At least for now.

The National Park Service is gearing up to renovate the site, which includes a dreary underground Franklin museum, along with the better-known ghost structures. It has raised the $18 million budget and hired a Washington, D.C.-based preservation specialist, Quinn Evans Architects, to oversee the overhaul. Bids go out this fall.

There is no doubt that Quinn Evans is deeply committed to repairing historic sites, but Franklin Court is no ordinary renovation project. There are two pasts embedded here - Franklin's and Venturi's - one layered on top of the other. The designs proposed so far don't reflect that complexity, although revisions are in the works.

It's a shame that the Park Service never invited Venturi's firm, which now goes by Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates, nor any other Philadelphia firm, to oversee the restoration. I don't normally buy the argument that Philadelphia projects should go to Philadelphia architects; outsiders can bring perspective and experience that locals lack.

But Franklin Court is a very personal statement about Philadelphia's past, made by architects who are still alive. The design resonates beyond the city because it grafts the city's particularities onto internationalist architecture. In doing so, it reminds us that there isn't one right way of remembering history or creating architecture.

Unfortunately, the Park Service's missteps in rolling out the design provoked an uproar in academic circles, where Franklin Court is revered. Dozens of letters poured in during the unusually brief - 10 days! - comment period in May. Some of the concern was overstated, but there is still reason to be watchful.

Like the house Venturi designed for his mother in Chestnut Hill and Guild House on Spring Garden Street, Franklin Court develops ideas that the architect laid out in his paradigm-shifting book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. It juxtaposes familiar, traditional forms - a picket fence, Colonial-style lamp posts - that are meant to tap deep cultural memories with the industrial efficiency of the steel in Franklin's abstracted house.

Venturi, who developed the project with Denise Scott Brown, his partner and wife, believed those almost, but not quite, Colonial details connected the modern design to its place. At the same time, the architect bravely resisted the fad for replicas that was still much in vogue in 1976. Since Franklin's house was long gone and little was known about its design, they acknowledge its existence and loss with a whitened outline that resembles a child's depiction of a house.

Franklin Court is so tightly woven into the weft of Philadelphia that it is almost impossible to separate it from its surroundings. It is as much a street as a structure, one that Philadelphians enjoy using as a short cut. Its contrasting gardens - one formal and modernist, the other sporting a shade tree straight out of Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom - are still a place where school groups rush to let off steam.

This little space overflows with ideas and references, even as it offers a cozy place to relax. Perhaps that's why the ghost house and courtyard remain one of the most effective memorials America has produced.

The same can't be said about the underground museum. By burying Franklin's museum, the architects were able to preserve the site's architectural finds and create the hidden court, but an underground exhibit space comes with challenges.

Expecting big crowds, Venturi designed a wide ramp down to the galleries that was meant to recall Franklin's walks down to the banks of the Delaware River - a poetic idea. But the impression for today's visitor is of descending into a series of dank, dark caves. The ramp blocks out any daylight and forces some weird gallery sequences. It doesn't help that sepulchral rooms feature what was the latest technology in 1976, like telephones you can pick up to hear historical figures give their impressions of Franklin. Most of the lines are now dead.

Quinn Evans' plan calls for tearing it all out, including the ramps and replacing them with a staircase and elevator. That would create space on the upper facade for windows, allowing daylight to penetrate the museum.

But installing those windows means stripping the brick facade of one of Venturi's key elements: the turned wooden posts and a canvas canopy that evoke a colonial market and provide shade to waiting museumgoers. Worse still, Quinn Evans' current design would replace that element with a trite, contemporary exposed-steel structure. The window design misses the whole point of Venturi's composition, which makes the modern ghost houses the centerpiece within a colonial streetscape.

It's not really a window we're talking about, but one entire side of Venturi's carefully arranged environment, the fourth wall. Change that and you change a lot.

The good news is that Quinn Evans' Carl Elefante acknowledges the windows need more work. But a big challenge remains: How do you provide a new ending to an acknowledged masterpiece?

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