The branding of Broad Street as the Avenue of the Arts is one of those hokey marketing ploys that actually seems to have paid off. In the last decade, the blocks immediately south of City Hall have been transformed into Philadelphia's twinkling theater row. The cultural chain was extended another link in October, with the opening of the Suzanne Roberts Theatre at Lombard Street.
Continue walking south, however, and the Avenue of the Arts doesn't seem so bright. The only lights you see emanate from gas stations and fast-food places. The avenue's charter members, the Clef Club and Arts Bank, rarely open their doors these days, and the Pennsylvania Ballet's dancers no longer belly up to the practice barre at their Washington Avenue studio. Even the long-established Brandywine Workshop, ensconced behind the heavy wood doors of a 19th-century firehouse near Fitzwater Street, appears dormant.
That erroneous impression should be corrected soon. Brandywine Workshop, which operates the only public art gallery on South Broad, is making a play for the limelight. It has just released a design by Metcalfe Architecture for an eye-catching, transparent entry that is intended to let the sun into its historic building and advertise Brandywine's presence on the avenue.
Brandywine really does run a nonprofit artists' workshop, where hulking offset presses clank and shudder and the air is perfumed by the near-forgotten scent of printer's ink. But it also has amassed an impressive collection of lithographs and etchings by the top practitioners of those painstaking art forms, and it wants to share the work with the public.
Brandywine conceived its $4.5 million renovation as a strategy to get more visitors into its exhibitions. The workshop, which was founded on Brandywine Street in 1972, jumped at the chance in 1991 to acquire the spacious Italianate firehouse near Fitzwater Street, but soon found that its solid facade is a formidable barrier that tends to scare visitors away.
The big problem is that there are no windows at street level, since the 1849 building originally housed pump wagons and other equipment of the Franklin Hose Company. Yet because the ornate marble facade, which was redesigned in 1867 for the Harmony fire company, is historic, Brandywine is prohibited from altering its appearance.
A lack of visitors didn't seem such an impediment in Brandywine's early years. Broad Street was little traveled by pedestrians except for neighborhood regulars, who knew all about the workshop. But as Center City's development tide has rushed south, it has brought with it potential new visitors who are unaware of the group's activities.
Brandywine Workshop is now bordered by the million-dollar-plus townhouses of the Artisan Homes development. Dranoff Properties, which just completed the Symphony House condo tower at Pine Street, is about to start work on a five-story, block-long luxury-apartment building across the way from Brandywine, at Catharine Street, designed in a faux art-deco style by JK Roller Architects. It will include a long stretch of shops on Broad Street.
South Street, east and west of Broad, is already filling in with restaurants and clubs. The sidewalks are suddenly populated again.
Because Brandywine operates on a shoestring budget, architect Alan Metcalfe devised a two-part strategy to capture some of the increased foot traffic on the avenue. The workshop will start by punching new doors and windows in its home's blank sidewall, which is not restricted by the city's preservation laws. It also plans to green the empty lot next door, an eyesore that Brandywine used for parking cars. The first trees went in a month ago.
These will be relatively modest improvements, intended to whet public interest. Brandywine still needs to raise about $3 million to complete a much grander entrance design, which features a three-story-high, sharply angled glass pavilion that Metcalfe said was inspired by the sheaves of paper that roll off the lithograph presses. Sam Gilliam, a painter and printer who is a frequent artist-in-residence at Brandywine, will create an artwork that can be incorporated into the glass wall.
Brandywine's president, Allen Edmunds, hopes that opening up the sidewall with a brilliantly colored art piece will be a dramatic calling card for the workshop. It should also improve the interior, which now feels claustrophobic, by flooding it with natural light. On the ground floor, Edmunds envisions a cafe that can spill out into the new park.
Landscape architect Christopher Allen has been hired to design the outdoor space, which will border the newly re-established block of Pemberton Street, and sculptor Mel Edwards is to create a fountain. Ideally, their work should help distract us from the ruthlessly functional, cinderblock office building that Brandywine constructed in 1997 next to the historic firehouse to generate income and house its presses.
Because the neighborhood has been neglected for so long, Edmunds says there is virtually no open space where people can sit outside and mingle. He sees the future park as Brandywine's way of "giving back." But he fully acknowledges that it will set up a beckoning, can't-miss view of Brandywine's new entrance that should help the workshop boost attendance.
And if the workshop's new park should inspire more developers to build luxury housing nearby, Edmunds says he'll welcome the new residents with open arms. And then ask for a donation.