The Callowhill neighborhood is just a few blocks north of Philadelphia's City Hall, yet it has always felt slightly removed from the center. You can blame I-676, which cuts a brutal gash across the city's midsection, but there is also a historic reason for the disconnect. Before the city assumed its current geographic form in 1854, Vine Street was Philadelphia's northern border, and Callowhill was part of Spring Garden Township.
Because of restrictions on burning coal in residential areas, factories were forced outside the city limits. A dense, industrial district formed north of Vine, served by a former Reading Railroad depot at Broad and Callowhill, and its network of street-level spurs. Though many of those former manufacturing buildings have been turned into apartments in recent years, Lasher Printing is one that remains true to its industrial origins.
The massive concrete structure is at 1309 Noble St., directly across from the ramped spur that is being converted into the Reading Viaduct Park. Commissioned by company founder George F. Lasher, the printing plant opened in 1927, just as construction of the new Broad Street Subway was wrapping up, making it easier for workers to commute to jobs.
Expecting more business from the city's booming economy, Lasher asked the noted architect Philip S. Tyre to design an eight-story, reinforced concrete factory building on Noble Street. Trained as an engineer, Tyre was acclaimed for his industrial buildings and was already designing an addition to the Packard Motor Car Co. at Broad and Wood. That project maintained the look of Albert Kahn's original car factory, but Tyre staked out completely new architectural ground for Lasher's printing plant.
Treating reinforced concrete like clay, Tyre sculpted a gorgeous art deco castle. The Noble Street facade is divided into seven bays, separated by flat columns topped with tiered brick, wedding cake-shaped crowns. The central bay is embedded in a series of accordion folds and bookended by trianglular columns. The entrance bay culminates in a 12-sided tower meant to hide the water tank. A frieze of stylized chevrons above the first floor suggests that Tyre, like many art deco architects, was inspired by Native American motifs.
Even as Tyre was applying ornamental icing to Lasher's concrete cake, he was expressing the new modernist view that a building's form should mirror its function. That becomes apparent on the west facade, where quarter-circle balconies serve as fire escapes and play off the building's mostly straight lines. The reinforced concrete floors were designed to support heavy printing presses.
It's not clear when Lasher's rumbling presses went silent. By the 1980s, the building was home to a collection of manufacturers, including Destination Maternity. In 1999, it was purchased by 3607 Broadway Realty, a New York company that operates data centers. Today, the building, which is listed on the city's historic register, hums with the gentle vibrations of hundreds of computer servers. When the Viaduct park opens this spring, accelerating Callowhill's evolution into a residential neighborhood, this relic of the industrial past should still be working as hard as ever.