December 08: Alas, Poor Provident

2016/12/08 § Leave a comment

Provident Life and TrustDuring this month in 1959 the Provident Life and Trust building was demolished.

Frank Furness designed the singular structure in 1879 for Philadelphia’s “Bankers’ Row” on Chestnut Street.  Many consider it to be Furness’ coming-of-age, coming-out, or maybe his figuring-out building.  Before Provident, Furness (pronounced furnace, thank you very much) was one of many late Gothic revivalists, toying with medieval forms at a new scale for the post-Industrial Age, infusing them here and there with a dash of exoticism.  Provident was something else: a fantastical mélange of unorthodoxly-scaled and -formed elements from a broad palette of historical precedents, shaped, bent, molded, formed, and beat into submission by his fiery imagination.

Accepted as an appropriately wowie-zowie building for a client eager for a distinguishing, look-at-me! headquarters, Provident is provably even more beloved now among general lovers of nineteenth-century architecture and certainly the borderline rabid Furnesscenti who organize conferences on the architect and contribute to his Facebook page.  But the thing itself is no longer there, and its death is an ironic story that would be funny, if it weren’t so sad.  Provident was bulldozed, along with legions of other nineteenth-century buildings, in the late 1950s.  Furness’ great work and its many, many neighbors–some simple and plain, some lovely, some downright wonky, but all of them part of the actual landscape of a real city–fell to create Independence Mall.  Ostensibly a “historical” project meant to honor Philadelphia’s Colonial past, the huge swath of green frames Independence Hall in a stark modernist landscape.  With this approach, the mid-twentieth-century planners picked and chose which of Philadelphia’s historic buildings were worth saving (in other words, which version of history has value at all), and swathed them in “greenscapes” (we guess that was the kind of term they would have used in place of “vastly inappropriately scaled lawns”).  The urban version of dousing a sweater in mothballs–bushels of mothballs–, Independence Mall succeeded in creating a fictional image of a past that was never quite there while obliterating the actual heritage of the city all in the name of–you guessed it–history.

(Image: from this source)


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