The architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown famously claimed there are two kinds of buildings in this world: ducks and decorated sheds. The duck conveys its function through its form, and the decorated shed uses ornament and signage to communicate its purpose. The Ott Camera building in Northeast Philadelphia's Oxford Circle neighborhood is both a duck and a decorated shed.
Until the business closed in March, this diminutive Castor Avenue landmark was the home of a camera-supply store founded in 1948 by Joseph C. Ott, and operated for many years by his son, Robert. The glowing green-and-red neon signs clearly conveyed the type of merchandise inside. But if you look carefully, you can see the form of the building mimics a traditional camera, with the exaggerated 'O' in Ott serving as the viewfinder and the strongly outlined ground-floor window performing the role of the lens.
The clever design is the work of Allan A. Berkowitz, a native of Czechoslovakia and a disciple of Le Corbusier, the pioneering French modernist. He was part of the wave of European architects who fled the Nazis in the late 1930s and brought avant-garde design to America. In 1955, after Joseph Ott's camera business grew too large to operate out of his home, he commissioned Berkowitz to design a store next door on Castor Avenue's emerging retail strip.
Though Berkowitz's graphic arrangement of materials shows the influence of Europe's Bauhaus modernists, the architect clearly absorbed American notions about retail promotion. The design creates a three-dimensional object, framed by a red, glass-tile band that emphasizes the two-story building's verticality. The "O" in Ott bursts through the cornice, carrying the eye upward. By wrapping the signage and glass tiles around the side, Berkowitz ensured the building would be seen by all potential customers, whether they were walking or driving.
Based on the research of preservation historian Benjamin Leech, who calls Ott Camera a skillful example of "Main Street Modernism," the Preservation Alliance applied to have the building put on the city's historic register. Although the nomination hearing is scheduled for Wednesday at the Historic Commission, the new owner of the store and attached house, A-Plus Realtors, has already undertaken several unfortunate modifications, including replacement of the second-story casement window and a metal awning over the door. Let's hope the commission can get them to rewind to an earlier image.