Nightmare on Pine St.?

Melding historic facades with modern buildings can yield odd results.
by | May 2004

Walk along the south side of Walnut Street near Washington Square in Philadelphia, and you'll surely be charmed by the 1807 brick townhouses known as York Row. The newly refurbished buildings delight pedestrians with their Federalist-style arched doorways and their low- rise human scale. Cross the street, however, and look back at York Row and you're in for a surprise. Shooting up into the sky, just behind the stately facades, is a sparkling new 45-story luxury apartment tower.

There is a term for the architectural surgery conducted on the York Row townhouses, the backs of which have been shaved off and melded into the new high-rise: The procedure is called a "facadectomy," and it can sometimes produce an awkward result. These types of projects are increasingly common--and controversial. What local preservation boards find, when they sit down to consider these proposals, is that the usual politics of development and historic preservation are turned on their head. It's the developers, ironically, who wind up arguing in favor of saving old buildings or at least parts of them. And it's often the preservationists, afraid of setting many precedents with these hybrids, who uncomfortably argue that total demolition might be preferable after all.

Facadectomies are nothing new. In Philadelphia, the first one was done to make way for a downtown office building back in the 1970s. But lately, developers have proposed a spate of them as demand for housing surges in Center City. Members of the city's historical commission, who regulate development in historic districts, are torn. In a few cases, they have come to see saving facades as a suitable compromise between growth and preservation. Commission member and architect Harris Steinberg disagrees. "In the end, it's not a satisfying solution," he says. "What we get is wallpaper. The incongruities of the pasted-on facade are absolutely laughable."

The proposals have put John Gallery, head of the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, in a tough spot. Normally, Gallery would like to see historic buildings restored close to their original state. But at least one recent project drove him to the opposite conclusion: that it would be better to bulldoze a row of old townhouses than to glue their fronts onto a 390-foot condo tower. The commission agreed with his recommendation. "We have to evaluate these case by case," Gallery says, noting that some facadectomies work better than others. "Some depth of the existing building should be saved, and integrated in a way so that when you walk down the street you don't just see a stage set but activity and life through the windows."

Facade controversies have cropped up in a number of cities recently. Last fall, the New Orleans landmarks commission rejected a proposal to raze five historic buildings and build a 27-story hotel near a downtown casino. The city council, however, agreed to a compromise that incorporates two facades into the design. Armchair critics in Chicago are still bickering over the recent reconstruction of Soldier Field, where a glass-and-steel football stadium was plunked down into the neo-classical shell of the old coliseum. And in Salt Lake City, preservationists are upset with how a city-financed facade operation changed the Brooks Arcade building. "We don't refer to it as a historic building anymore," says Kirk Huffaker, assistant director of Utah Heritage Foundation. "When you walk in, you pass through 4 inches of facade and you're in a fluorescent-lighted hallway."

In Washington, D.C., where a downtown building boom has been going on of late (see story on page 30), many developers are mixing the old with the new. Mary Oehrlein, a preservation architect there, says facadectomies are sometimes the only way to balance the developer's right to build a large amount of usable space with the desire to keep old appearances at street level. Washington's dubious record of producing bland modern architecture makes facadectomies seem like a safe choice. "It's not so bad," Oehrlein says. "We can say we value the historic resource and the texture it provides that a new building could not. I suppose you could have something else built that's new and good. But unfortunately, new and good typically does not happen."