Toll's two-faced Jewelers Row tower is no gem as architecture

An artist's rendering of Toll Bros.'s planned tower, which would face both Jewelers Row and Washington Square. The glass side faces Washington Square.

We in the media have been misleading in referring to Toll Bros.’ Sansom Street skyscraper project as the “Jewelers Row” tower. Although its lobby faces the Row, the 29-story monolith will also be visible behind a group of historic Walnut Street townhouses and will directly overlook Washington Square, one of Philadelphia’s most gracious parks.

Too bad Toll’s architects forgot to design that side of the tower.

The lapse barely received any comment last week when Toll presented its plans for the 354-foot tower to the Washington Square West Civic Association, and I can understand why. Until Toll unveiled the renderings at the meeting, the debate revolved around the project’s impact on Jewelers Row, America’s oldest and most intact diamond district. The loss of character will be substantial. Not only will the project gouge out five 19th-century structures, it will disrupt the street’s ecosystem, with its distinctive mix of artisan workshops, wholesalers, and jewelry stores.

Although those structures have no historic protection, Toll still needs to clear several hurdles before demolition can begin, including a Feb. 7 hearing at the Design Review board focusing on the look of the new tower. The Preservation Alliance is hoping to use those hearings to mitigate the worst aspects of the design. It is trying to shrink the tower back to the 16 stories in Toll’s original proposal.

The alliance is also waging a vigorous campaign to get Toll to save the facades of the five targeted buildings, which it believes would help the Jewelers Row ensemble retain its integrity.

But let’s be honest. Even if those facades remain standing, it will be just a token victory. It won’t stop the upscaling of Sansom Street or keep the Row affordable for the artisans who populate the upper floors. And the fight to save the facades distracts from something just as important as Jewelers Row: the tower’s impact on Washington Square.

Toll’s design record in Philadelphia has been, at best, underwhelming. With projects like 2400 South Street and the Naval Home, it assumes slapping on some red brick is all it needs to create a contextual Philadelphia design. We know Toll can do better, as evidenced by its latest New York project, a flashy, faceted tower called 121 E22nd, by global superstar Rem Koolhaas and his firm, OMA.

Toll’s Sansom Street tower is its most strained attempt yet at contextualism. Designed by New York’s SLCE Architects, the two-faced tower offers redbrick traditionalism on the Jewelers Row side and glassy contemporary on Walnut Street. The awkward vertical sandwich will stand as the physical embodiment of indecision.

You can just imagine the conversations that led to this split-personality architecture: Give the jewelers something familiar, but cook up something sexy on Washington Square that will appeal to well-heeled condo buyers.

“We wanted to make sure the project weaved into the fabric of the neighborhood [and] didn’t detract from it,” Toll vice president Brian Emmons told Washington Square neighbors. But it appears SLCE ran out of steam after designing the Jewelers Row side.

The facade overlooking the square -- one of William Penn’s originals -- is a blank glass wall that will boomerang the strong southern light back onto the park. With its immense trees, elegant paths, and Revolutionary War memorial, the square is one of Philadelphia's most gracious public spaces, and deserves to be cherished. In case anyone forgets, the square is only a block from Independence Hall. Yet Toll's generic architecture is a pitiful companion to the fine high-rises surrounding the park, including Oscar Stonorov’s modernist Hopkinson House and Ralph Bencker’s art deco Ayer. On Walnut Street, a row of early 19th-century townhouses designed by Benjamin Latrobe, America’s first trained architect, will be reduced to four-story door-stoppers for Toll’s giant mirror. 

By comparison, the Jewelers Row facade is a competent first try, especially at the base.

It’s easy to understand why SLCE chose a faux-factory look for Sansom Street. The four-story base was clearly inspired by the building next door, and it evokes other small manufacturing lofts nearby. Its redbrick facade features casement-style windows divided into three bays by flat columns, topped with limestone-colored caps. As an option, Toll also plans to show the Design Review board a second design for the base with bigger windows. By itself, the base is a handsome design.

There's much more to it, of course. After a 15-foot setback, 25 more floors of casement and brick rise straight up from the base. Although the slab tower has the benefit of being relatively slim, it is weakly detailed, with no additional setbacks and no balconies to relieve the regimentation.

Other projects have also taken their inspiration from Philadelphia’s industrial past. Have a look at 108 Arch, a 160-foot tower designed a decade ago by New York’s SHoP Architects. Its facade features brick and factory-style windows, but they are used in a less literal manner and are broken up with concrete and zinc trim. Two strips of glass frame the composition in a way that emphasizes its verticality.

Toll deserves credit for its willingness to use a textured material like brick, especially at a time when so many high-rise designs look like oversize metal gas cans. But choosing brick shouldn’t be the end of the design process.

As for the mirrored monolith facing Washington Square? The architects need to think about the tower design in a more holistic way. It’s one building, and all of us are going to have to live with both sides of it.