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PNB letters survive another day

Safety concerns, decay of sign, prevented a helicopter crew from removing all 12 letters atop Center City building.

A helicopter lifts a P, the first letter removed from the south facing side of the PNB sign at 1 S. Broad St., and carries it past City Hall, August 17, 2014.
A helicopter lifts a P, the first letter removed from the south facing side of the PNB sign at 1 S. Broad St., and carries it past City Hall, August 17, 2014.Read more

IT WAS BOTH strange and sad to see the iconic 16-foot, 3,000-pound letters atop the Pennsylvania National Bank building flying through Center City yesterday, onlookers said. But for the folks paying the bill, it was possibly sadder.

That's because unexpected complications and safety concerns meant that a helicopter crew from Michigan could remove only three of the stainless-steel letters perched around the building's bell tower on Broad Street across from City Hall, and there was no telling when the others would come down.

"Unfortunately, It had to be halted after it was discovered that the letters were more fragile than previously believed," said Barbara Nate, a spokeswoman for Wells Fargo, which is responsible for the maintenance and repair of the letters.

Roads had been closed all around City Hall in preparation and all 12 letters - PNB x 4 - were expected to be removed before noon. But it was already almost 1 p.m. when the third letter from the building's south face, an N, was yanked away and carefully dropped down by an awaiting crew near the north side of Dilworth Plaza.

After that, police began to take down the police tape, and crowds watched that final letter loaded onto a long, flat trailer.

Nate said the letters were scheduled to be removed because an inspection had raised concerns with structural integrity and the costs of rehabilitating the structure were prohibitive.

"They are 60 years old and handmade," Nate said.

The One South Broad building was completed in 1932, and Philadelphia National Bank bought it 20 years later and added the letters. They remained atop the building for more than six decades despite numerous mergers. The Historical Commission approved the removal of the letters July 2.

Nate said that the removal team had concerns with the process shortly after it got started, and that now there's no "timetable" for when the rest of the letters will be taken down.

"We are regrouping with the sign company," Nate said.

The removal process requires permits from both the city and the Federal Aviation Administration. The helicopter crewmen from CHI Aviation in Howell, Mich., said they would be traveling to another job by day's end with their four-bladed, twin-engine Super Puma.

Shortly after the first letter was yanked away, Michael Nichols, 55, was trying to find a way around the police tape to get to work. He said he's OK with change, as long as it comes a little at a time.

"I guess it's not a sign of the times anymore, is it?" he asked. "Change is inevitable, though."

Jeffrey Humbert, 31, a Wells Fargo employee, said he would miss the letters, and the interoffice joke that they stood for: "People Need Burgers."

"It's going to be weird," Humbert said, craning his neck to look up on Broad Street. "It's part of Philly."