November 08: Nothing More Modern

2016/11/08 § Leave a comment

During this month in 1930 the board of the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society  accepted the proposal of architects George Howe & William Lescaze for their new building.

The project was a huge one: almost 500 feet tall, the skyscraper-headquarters would be the tallest building in the city, except for the tower of City Hall (its height was not decisively eclipsed until the ’80s and that’s a whole different story).  But the building was more than just tall: it was intentionally and aggressively marketed as the most modern building in the city.

“Modern” is a tricky, slippery word; always meant to be heroic and definitive, but is actually only ever relative and thus dependent on context for meaning.  While “modern” in 1930 suggests something very specific to later audiences who look back at the thirties as the first roil of the whitewashed wave of little factory boxes that spread from Europe to, well, everywhere; the PSFS has little to do with that sort of reductivist abstraction. It is a lush and luxe building, a rare non-traditional project that benefitted from falling prices during the Depression that allowed its builders to scoop up exotic marble, apply chrome everywhere, and commission Cartier to design the lobby clocks.  There is a simplified language about the building, no overt historical references, but there is also a sleekly stylization that’s more Hollywood screen siren than German factory worker.

But the style of the building was significantly downplayed in advertisements for tenants. What instead made the building attractively “modern” to its audience? In part, its technology–but not the structural kind.  Promoters talked up the building’s “manufactured weather” that made operable windows and fiddly radiators unnecessary.  Other modern gizmos included high speed elevators of radio outlets in all the offices.  “Modern” aspects of the building’s planning included foresight to include garage facilities only a block away.  The closest that advertisers come to commenting on the style of the building is their observation that its large windows admitted plenty of daylight, which was also maximized through the building plan.  A short and passing note to the “modern design” of lobbies and corridors–with marble wainscot and cove lighting–hardly suggests the radical image the tall building would strike on Market Street, or as a model in the 1932 MOMA show that made it familiar to a different audience.

Even if advertisers avoided discussing the building’s formal design, its radical character was not lost on others.  An author of Philadelphia, A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace published by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission in 1937, noted, rather poetically, that the building casts a shadow “over the classic Wanamaker Store.”  They saw the PSFS as “truly a challenge to Philadelphia’s traditionalism. . . . it represents the courage of the modern age.”  At a distance of some decades, it also represents a sleek and engaging version of Modernism in an American city.

Image: from the brochure; read the whole thing, thanks to Hagley (from this source)

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