It's not news, but women are nearly invisible in architecture. Even though my job primarily involves talking to architects, there are weeks when I don't get to interview a single woman in the field. That's partly because only a quarter of the designers at architecture firms are women. Their membership in the American Institute of Architects - which holds its convention in Philadelphia in May - hovers at a depressing 15 percent.
It isn't surprising, then, that the few buildings created by women also fly under the radar. Next time you visit Callowhill Street's Restaurant Row, take time to look at the redbrick, midcentury modern gem squeezed between the beer distributor and a vacant lot. It was designed in 1949 by Philadelphia's first licensed female architect, Elizabeth Fleisher, who died in her early 80s in 1975.
Commissioned by the city as an orphanage, the modest structure later housed the Children's Crisis Treatment Center, which counsels children who have experienced gun violence, abuse, and other traumas. Since the center moved out several years ago, Fleisher's building has been looking sadly forlorn. In 2014, a developer bought it from the city for $2 million and announced plans to replace it with apartments and a microbrewery.
Demolition would be a real loss, not just of a rare woman-designed building, but of an interesting example of midcentury architecture. Fleisher, who was then in partnership with Gabriel Roth, as Roth & Fleisher, was clearly influenced by the functional modernism of the early 20th century. But she warms things up with art moderne details.
The building is U-shaped, and Fleisher uses the one-story wings as though she were wrapping her arms protectively around the children's playground. Behind that courtyard, the main portion of the building rises three stories. Fleisher emphasizes its horizontal lines with slatted steel railings that wouldn't be out of place on a classic ocean liner.
Even more interesting is the way she unifies the main building and the wings. A thick band of metal, or coping (now painted a garish yellow), runs from the ground up to the first floor cornice, around the main facade, and then back down the other wing, tying together the parts. Her composition also cleverly mixes up solids and voids to create texture and shadow, in the third-story porches and on the facades of the two wings.
The orphanage wasn't the last building for Fleisher, who got her start with Simon & Simon, designers of Rodeph Shalom, and Market Street's Strawbridge & Clothier store. After its success, she was hired to design Parkway House, a luxury apartment building. It similarly employs a U-shape form, this time to engage the large Parkway lawn on its doorstep.
Only a few blocks apart, the upscale residence and the orphanage echo one another in form and detail. We need both to clearly hear this rare architectural voice.
Elizabeth Fleisher's orphanage is at 1823 Callowhill St., just east of 19th Street. Continue west, as the street becomes Pennsylvania Avenue, to 22d Street for a glimpse of Parkway House. On the way, you'll pass the Barnes Foundation, another building whose design team included a female architect, Billie Tsien.