Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

An architecture critic unravels Philadelphia’s untold history through its buildings | Book review

A critic for the Wall Street Journal, Michael J. Lewis is a natural-born storyteller who treats buildings as characters in the ongoing drama of Philadelphia.

The cover for Philadelphia Builds, by Michael J. Lewis, features the tower of Philadelphia's City Hall.
The cover for Philadelphia Builds, by Michael J. Lewis, features the tower of Philadelphia's City Hall.Read morePaul Dry Books

Philadelphia Builds: Essays on Architecture

By Michael J. Lewis

Paul Dry Books. 373 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Inga Saffron

Philadelphia is not a place that tells its story well. Our pragmatic nature doesn’t lend itself to the introspection necessary for sweeping historical narratives. We’ve been much too busy over the last three centuries with practical pursuits — turning out widgets, developing medical innovations, assembling (and destroying) transit empires — to dive into the past and examine those moments that made us who we are today.

But we have managed to produce a lot of solid, durable buildings since William Penn’s arrival, and it may be that our story is best deciphered from the record of those structures. That’s the mission that historian Michael J. Lewis undertakes in his new book, Philadelphia Builds, a collection of essays on Philadelphia architecture. His narrative spans from the establishment of the street grid in 1682 to Robert A.M. Stern’s Museum of the American Revolution in 2017. As Lewis sketches the stories of these creations, our buildings become characters in the ongoing drama of Philadelphia, telling us as much about ourselves as their creators.

Lewis is a professor of art history at Williams College in Massachusetts, as well as the architecture critic for the Wall Street Journal, but don’t let that fool you. He is a native Philadelphian, a child of Mayfair, graduate of Haverford College and the University of Pennsylvania, and author of the definitive biography of Frank Furness. He also taught a class on architectural history at Penn that I attended some 30 year ago, and we have remained friends ever since. He is a natural-born storyteller who effortlessly conveys the interplay of the city’s religious, commercial, and political histories.

Lewis demonstrates his erudition and wit in the first sentence of the first essay when he declares, “Philadelphia, the only major city in the world founded and designed by Quakers, lies at the meeting point of the Italian Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation.” He does a great job in the early essays showing how the first waves of European immigrants brought their architectural traditions to Philadelphia, filtered them through their experiences in this untamed land, and then laid the foundations for a distinctly American approach to architecture. In certain ways, Philadelphia Builds works as an architectural companion to Sam Bass Warner’s The Private City, which argued that America’s extreme devotion to private property and moneymaking was also incubated in Philadelphia.

Like Warner, Lewis is interested in showing how the choices we made early on as a city still inform our behavior today. Take the street grid. While the arrangement laid the foundations for a more egalitarian society than had existed in Europe, Lewis argues the grid was also good business, especially for those who dabbled in real estate development. Our preference for plain, well-made buildings over showy architecture developed because Philadelphia’s first architects were carpenters who took pride in their craft. Philadelphia was renowned for its quality construction long after architecture became a formal profession, although the city’s craft tradition now seems to be losing out to its developer tradition.

As might be expected in a survey of Philadelphia architecture, several chapters are devoted to familiar icons — City Hall, the Academy of Music, Fairmount Park. But Lewis has dug deep in the archives to reveal new details about their origins. He offers blow-by-blow accounts of the design competitions that led to their final form. The competitions were often knockdown, drag-out ideological fights, and the jury discussions are as revealing as anything in our political history. These sagas are also a reminder of how long it takes to get anything built in Philadelphia.

Lewis’ poignant account of the Widener mansion, which stood at Broad and Girard, could easy form the basis of an Edith Wharton novel. Peter A.B. Widener was a humble butcher who made his initial fortune provisioning the Union troops during the Civil War, and then emerged as a Gilded Age tycoon with vast holdings in trolley franchises and real estate. A striver who longed to be accepted by New York society, Widener hired Willis Hale to design a fitting residence. Money was no object, so long as the architecture made Fifth Avenue’s stately houses look like cozy cottages.

Widener’s pleasure palace was instead a fabulous flop, ridiculed for its excess and lack of taste. Within a decade, Widener had unloaded the house on the city, for use as a public library. The city, in its usual fashion, let the white elephant fall into disrepair, and it was finally demolished in 1980. The crowning detail, which Lewis uncharacteristically omits, is that the Broad Street corner where Widener’s mansion stood is now the site of a KFC restaurant. This is what vanity gets you in Philadelphia.

As Lewis moves into the present, his essays take on an oddly old-fashioned quality. He tends to see architecture mainly in formal terms. While he has a sharp eye for composition and detail, the emphasis on formal qualities causes him to undervalue the social and cultural importance of several recent buildings, particularly Kelly-Maiello’s President’s House Memorial on Independence Mall. Lewis is a political conservative and he takes the view that the memorial should have celebrated George Washington’s accomplishments instead of dwelling on his history as a slave owner. Whatever design flaws the President’s House may have, I would argue that the architects’ insistence on looking the past in the eye is what gives the memorial its emotional power.

The same conservative worldview also causes Lewis to harshly review the Barnes Foundation’s new home on the Parkway, while excessively praising Stern’s American Revolution museum. Such assessments might be more expected if Lewis was part of the anti-Modernism camp that is trying to bring back Classicism, but he clearly appreciates contemporary architecture. Even if you accept, as I do, that the Barnes’ design is problematic, especially on the Parkway side, its architects do modernism far better than Stern does traditionalism.

Don’t let Lewis’ politics put you off. Some of the most important and provocative American critics have had a conservative and cranky bent — Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, for starters. Even when they were flat-out wrong, their high standards, vigorous writing, and refusal to accept that everything new is progress makes them vital reading today. Despite the occasional head-scratchers, Philadelphia Builds is an important contribution to understanding the contentious, maddening and inspiring history of our great city.

Inga Saffron is The Inquirer’s architecture critic.