Center City's grimy alleys are the equivalent of Philadelphia's attic, stuffed with forgotten architectural treasures. And there may be no richer trove than the stretch that runs behind the former Lits Bros. department store.
There's now a parking garage at one end and a prison at the other, but with your eyes half-closed, the alley almost suggests a canal in Venice, canopied by its own moody Bridge of Sighs. Designed in 1912 by Castor & Stearns, the Renaissance-style arch is tightly notched into the narrow opening between Lits' back wall and Arch Street's Cast Iron building, connecting their second and third floors. The elaborately detailed span seems to hover effortlessly over the space.
There are many references to the Venetian original. The architects celebrate the symbolic keystone at the center point with a framed stone window that mimics a classical temple and is supported by a shield and garlands. Two smaller windows, covered in carved stone grilles, bracket the composition.
For all its grandeur, the bridge was built for the humble purpose of moving merchandise between the two locations. Lits, now Mellon Independence Center, was formed by combining several small Market Street stores, and then finished off with a remarkable, palazzo-style facade on Eighth Street. The architects picked up the Renaissance theme for the bridge.
Though the buildings have different owners now, and the bridge is a vestigial relic, it serves as a dignified gateway to the street's forgotten delights, including the fine rear facade of the Cast Iron Building and a copper-clad skybridge at the east end of Lits. Given that the Venetian bridge was a portal for prisoners on their way to the Inquisition's interrogation chambers, there's even a poetic symmetry in having the arch now lead to the federal prison.
Despite the gritty intrusions, the alley remains an intensely resonant space. With plans for an apartment tower on top of Lits, I can imagine it as a pedestrian passageway, perhaps outfitted with cafés and shops, a tribute to Philadelphia's own renaissance.