Changing Skyline: What happens to Philadelphia's old Family Court building?

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Gov. Rendell envisions the Family Court building on Logan Square as an "exciting, glamorous hotel." Developers aren't so sure. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)

Everyone knows that falling in love with real estate is dangerous. So keep your fingers crossed: Gov. Rendell remains committed to acquiring a parking lot at 15th and Arch Streets for a new Family Court, despite the bad smells that continue to waft from the property.

The governor must be pretty confident that the stink, which is of the political and legal kind, will go away. He just advised the city to put the court's current home on Logan Square up for sale.

That elegant neoclassical palace "will become the most exciting, glamorous hotel," Rendell proclaimed in April when he announced the release of $200 million for the Family Court project. He did not say he hoped the massive courthouse would be converted into a hotel, or that hotel suites would fit nicely into its parade of wood-paneled courtrooms. No conditional tense for our Ed. In his view, the only thing left to do is measure the drapes.

Developers, of course, can hardly utter a thought about real estate without liberally salting their sentences with would and could - as in, Family Court could be turned into a hotel if the state would provide a big enough subsidy.

Several dozen real estate people, hotel operators and architects toured the Depression-era courthouse last week at the invitation of the city, which owns the property and is soliciting proposals for the property through the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (PIDC). They agreed with the governor that the courthouse, whose stately design by John T. Windrim was lifted wholesale from Paris' Hotel de Crillon, is an impressive structure in a fabulous location, and will soon have the Barnes Foundation as its neighbor. But none appeared ready to place furniture orders.

The hardheaded bunch rapped on the masonry walls to determine whether new utilities could be inserted. They rolled their eyes at the low-ceilinged mezzanines, whose rooms resembled the 71/2 floor in the film Being John Malkovich. They complained about the generous, well-lighted corridors - as a waste of space.

These days, American hotels are run by big chains that design their properties according to calibrated formulas. Each "flag," as hotel brands are called, is expected to have a certain number of rooms. Those rooms must be a precise number of square feet. Even their shape is prescribed. Philadelphia's elegant new Le Meridien and Palomar hotels show it's not impossible to convert a historic building into a chain hotel, merely challenging.

Despite Family Court's impressive size - 247,000 square feet - some developers on the tour argued it was actually too small because of an inefficient layout and restrictions on the use of its lavish ceremonial rooms. The city's Request for Proposals, which are due Friday, stipulates that the winning bidder must set aside 25,000 square feet for a public culture venue, such as an art gallery.

PIDC's John Grady said the city envisions Family Court as a 150-room, five-star hotel. But several developers muttered that their hotel partners will need more than that number. Carl Dranoff wondered if the ceilings were high enough to insert more mezzanines. Others thought it made more sense to pile a few stories on the top.

Unh-Unh. Family Court, completed in 1941, is the fraternal twin of the Free Library, the 1927 design by the Francophile duo of Horace Trumbauer and Julian Francis Abele. Together the buildings form one of America's great urban ensembles. Adding a tower to Family Court would throw the pair out of sync, ruining the view across Logan Square that gives the parkway corridor its priceless allure.

The city's Request for Proposals (RFP) specifically warns against meddling with the building's height and massing. Since the building's rooftop parapet is very high, it may be possible to construct one new floor that would be screened from people on the ground. But it's not clear the additional floor would provide enough space to satisfy the hotel chains.

If a hotel doesn't fit the building, what about apartments? Some developers were interested in exploring that option, except for one thing: no parking on site.

Then there is the little matter of securing construction financing. Given that Philadelphia is finishing a massive addition to its Convention Center, new hotels should be popping up everywhere. But lenders have been reluctant to finance hotels lately, especially since Philadelphia's room rates remain soft.

Normally the city wouldn't rush to find a developer in these circumstances. The earliest a new Family Court can open is 2013. But because Rendell's term ends in January, the city was encouraged to start the process now so he can allocate a construction subsidy - a figure city officials put at $20 million. "It's a complicated process," Grady acknowledged, but explained that "we want to identify the best partner to take the next step with."

Still, it almost seems as if Rendell is more interested in what happens to the old Family Court building than the details surrounding the new one. But then, the governor has a thing for tourist districts. Having branded the Avenue of the Arts for theater and music, and remade Independence Mall as the city's history district, he is now turning his gaze to the parkway's museum row. The idea of a rundown courthouse one block from the Barnes Foundation must drive him crazy.

The Barnes, which opens in 2012, should transform the neighborhood. So could the Mormon Temple, at 18th Street, if the city ever allows the project to go forward.

It's easy to imagine that Family Court, smack between the two, would make a great hotel. But wishing it doesn't guarantee it will be a hotel.

It could also end up a white elephant.

Anyone remember the Metropolitan Opera House? The Provident Mutual Life Insurance Co.? The Boyd Theater? William Penn High School? Or, the abandoned Ridgway Library before it became a performing arts high school?

Big old buildings are hard to reuse, as Philadelphia well knows. It already has plenty of exciting, glamorous buildings on its hands.

 


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.