The Shirt Corner, the Market Street clothing emporium that celebrates Philadelphia's distinctive but rapidly vanishing style of retail hucksterism, will shut its doors today, opening the way for demolition of its ebullient, red-white-and-blue-painted building and six of its Old City neighbors.
Although the properties remain in the hands of the Shirt Corner's 77-year-old owner, Marvin Ginsberg, a potential buyer is scheduled to appear today before a Historical Commission subcommittee to request permission to tear down the row of mid-19th-century structures. The vivid facades, with their overscaled graphic signs, account for about half the frontage on the north side of Market Street's 200 block, along with a section facing Third Street.
The demolition request will almost certainly be rejected at the recommendation of the commission's staff, largely because the buyer, Avi Nechemia, did not submit all the documentation required to justify tearing down protected buildings.
Were Nechemia to supply the information, there are indications that the demolition could eventually win approval from the commission. In its one-page analysis, the Historical Commission's advisory staff pointedly noted that "this application has some merit."
In an interview, Executive Director Jonathan Farnham said he was impressed by Nechemia's concept for the site. Though the plan involves tearing out a big chunk of Market Street's original commercial fabric, Nechemia is promising to replace the lost buildings with a faithful replica that disguises a modern interior.
For Nechemia, the advantage of such a plan is that it would allow him to transform seven small retail lots into a single, generous space capable of being rented to a chain store.
Many issues would still have to be resolved. Historic replicas, especially those sporting long, modern shopfront windows, rarely look convincing. Third and Market is an especially critical corner because it serves as the gateway to Old City's historic district, a rich and intact collection of factories and warehouses that helped propel 19th-century Philadelphia into the role of industrial powerhouse.
But Farnham argued that the Market Street buildings themselves are not key to the district's character. Plus, he said, "it's so unusual for someone to want to build four or five stories these days, we don't want to discourage him."
Neither Nechemia nor his architect, Vincent Rivera, a former member of the Historical Commission, returned phone calls made over the last several days. But according to several people familiar with the project, Nechemia has secured a retail tenant. The prospect of such a major lease is driving the rest of the project.
The plan is likely to meet stiff resistance, however, from the Old City Civic Association, which is alarmed by the neighborhood's loss of historically certified buildings.
Richard Thom, a professional planner who heads the association's Developments Committee, said he was appalled by the willingness of the Historical Commission's staff to entertain Nechemia's proposed replica.
"This is a bald, in-your-face, we-think-we-can-get-away-with-this proposal," Thom said. He suggested Nechemia was "emboldened by what happened at Front and Chestnut," where two protected buildings were demolished in 2007. Their buyer paid $1 million-plus for the pair, but succeeded in claiming they were too expensive to repair. The land is now a parking lot.
The Market Street buildings "are not in terrible condition. They are not dangerous," Thom argued. Several have their original peaked roofs.
While the buildings are listed on the city's historic register primarily because they went up in the first flush of industrialization, from 1830 to 1915, those closest to Third Street became a landmark only after they were turned into a giant billboard in 1980 by the architect David Beck. He slashed thick stripes in patriotic hues across the front and filled them with huge supergraphics proclaiming the Shirt Corner's name.
Turning buildings into signs had long been common retail practice in Philadelphia. But Beck's eye-popping style clearly drew inspiration from the Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi, who elevated such vernacular iconography into a feature of respectable, high-art architecture - often to the consternation of those who regarded the signs as vulgar commercialism.
Indeed, the Historical Commission's report on Nechemia's proposal decries "the inappropriate signage" without noting that the blazing letters are what makes the buildings special.
"I love the sign. I love, love, love it," Venturi said yesterday, although he conceded it "would make no sense once the use changes."
Dozens of fading painted signs can still be glimpsed on buildings around Philadelphia, ghosts of the city's commercial heyday. Old City was full of them. Third Street's Friedman's Umbrellas remained famous long after it ceased to exist because of its painted sign, which proclaimed, "Free rain with every purchase."
If the city loses the Shirt Corner, it will at least still have a similar sign across the street at Suit, Shirt & Tie Corner, owned by Ginsberg's brother, Jerry.