Kenneth Parker hobbled across a top floor of the historic grain tower that imposes over Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood, slowly reacquainting himself with a space that decades earlier had been his home and a legendary Center City party den.
Hunched over the cane that he uses to prop up his Parkinson’s-afflicted body, the 80-year-old designer entered a windowed recess to the side of the vacant industrial loft, beyond which sprawled the city skyline.
“This was the happiest room in the house,” he said, recalling the lush plantings of bougainvillea, mango, and ficus that grew in what had been sectioned off during his time into an indoor greenhouse and aviary.
Parker lived and worked in the now-94-year-old Reading Co. Grain Elevator building at 20th Street, north of Callowhill, in the 1970s and 1980s, when he was having an outsize impact on corporate life in Philadelphia as the city’s most prolific office space designer.
During that time, he transformed the habitable floors over the grain shafts that form the building’s windowless midsection into a plant- and animal-filled fantasia that was part home, part life-sized advertisement for his design offices on the first floor.
On a recent trip back to Philadelphia from Palm Springs, Calif., now his home, Parker visited the long-disused building, which is being renovated into 24 apartments over a Fine Wine & Good Spirits store.
“I can’t tell you the number of happy times we had in this place,” Parker said as he surveyed the property’s bare interior for the first time in more than 30 years. “If I start weeping any minute, you’ll know why.”
Parker grew up in Media and studied at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, now part of the University of the Arts. He formed Ken Parker Associates in 1974 in a repurposed former pool hall in Fairmount, initially focusing on renovating aged neighborhood rowhouses.
KPA’s attentions soon turned to the growing number of businesses that needed new office designs as they moved into west Market Street’s expanding skyscraper district.
After landing big jobs like FMC Corp.’s chemicals group’s new headquarters at 2000 Market St., Parker went looking for space to accommodate his growing staff. He settled on the grain tower, “a very weird building that had gone up for auction” in a blighted corner of Fairmount, set back from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway behind a youth prison that’s since been replaced by the Barnes Foundation.
In 1976, Parker moved his staff into the tower’s ground floor, where the 80 grain silos above once emptied barley, oats, and wheat into horse- and mule-drawn carts for loading onto nearby railcars. He hung one of those carts as an office decoration over a fountain he’d fashioned out of an old grain trough.
Working in that space and satellite offices in Washington, D.C., and Dallas, KPA’s staff would grow to nearly 180 members, as Parker laid claim to what he said was three-quarters of the city’s office-design business.
“You felt personal attention from him and his staff, and he had ideas, and he stood his ground,” said former Aramark Corp. chief Joseph Neubauer, who tapped Parker to design the food-service firm’s offices when it moved into its then-new headquarters building at 1101 Market St. in the 1980s. “He was an artist.”
When Provident Mutual Life Insurance Co. reluctantly moved from its palatial headquarters at 4601 Market St. to a modern office building at 1600 Market St., Parker softened the blow by having the West Philadelphia building’s wood-paneled boardroom reinstalled at its new glass-and-steel home.
For the relocation of Arco Chemical Co. from Center City to the former Charles E. Ellis College for Fatherless Girls campus in Newtown Square, Parker designed interior spaces with stonework that riffed off the wooded property’s existing early 20th century buildings.
And when weight-loss entrepreneur and 76ers owner Harold Katz was moving Nutrisystem‘s headquarters into a former Bloomingdale’s department store in Jenkintown, Parker was instructed to design an office just like one in the 1974 disaster drama The Towering Inferno.
Parker did him one better, delivering a suite based on the offices of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, with Katz’s desk on a dais before a window positioned to silhouette him in sunlight over a floor of black-and-white travertine that made visitors self-conscious of their echoing footsteps.
“He was the best of his time,” said Philadelphia-based real estate consultant Walter D’Alessio, who knew Parker while serving as a city redevelopment executive. “If you were going to do first-class office space, you wanted Ken Parker.”
But it was in Parker’s grain-tower home where he let his imagination run wild.
The designer used the building’s small, rickety elevator to haul 110 tons of dirt up to his living space to fill raised beds to grow strawberries, tomatoes and corn on his outdoor deck, as well as for the indoor greenhouse, which a macaw (named “Tutti Pazzi”) and a toucan (“Hot Lips”) called home.
Features of the two-level penthouse home included a hot tub, a commercial-grade tanning bed, and a Sardinian-marble-walled dining room that seated 28.
A living room on the home’s second level had a glass-topped coffee table revealing views of the koi-stocked indoor pond on the floor below, where two peacocks roamed freely among guest cabanas and a large Moroccan tent for overnight visitors to lounge.
Guests included Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor, both of whom Parker knew through his close friendship with Kelly’s brother, Olympic athlete-turned Philadelphia politician Jack Kelly.
For his own bedroom, Parker joined two queen-sized mattresses under a mirrored canopy that he surrounded with thick green curtains that opened and closed at the push of a button: a “sybaritic, mirrored, velvet playpen,” in the words of a Philadelphia Magazine profiler in 1979.
When Pope John Paul II visited Philadelphia that year, Parker’s home was under consideration as a place for the pontiff to bathe and nap after performing an outdoor Mass nearby at Logan Square, until a team arrived from the Vatican on a vetting mission and saw that bed.
“They were horrified,” Parker said.
But most welcomed an invitation to Parker’s residence, a frequent venue for charity events.
At one gala for the Pennsylvania Ballet, an organizer somehow commandeered the Goodyear blimp and had it tethered to one of the building’s turrets so eight ballet students in tutus could jump out and mingle with guests.
“It was like another dimension,” veteran Philadelphia developer Neal Rodin said of Parker’s home.
Parker said he liked playing host, but most important, the parties gave him a chance to schmooze with potential clients and show off his home as a work sample. He said he even managed to convince the IRS to let him claim the costs of operating the elaborate residence — including the salaries of his cook, gardener and animal keeper — as business expenses.
He credited his occupation as a designer with his ability to inhabit the age’s conservative world of office landlords, real estate brokers and corporate leaders while being open about his homosexuality.
“In design, there’s leeway,” he said. “It’s easier for a straight guy — it bothers him less — than it would if his bookkeeper were gay.”
In the mid-1980s, though, Parker decided the demands of running a big company were giving him little time to express himself creatively, and he decided to ratchet down. Before the end of the decade, he had sold the company and moved out of the grain tower, dividing his time between a home he designed for himself on Northwest Philadelphia’s then-ramshackle Schuylkill riverbank and a house in Palm Springs.
A few years later, he was living in California full time, devoting himself to a new low-key vocation that he said was part therapy: peddling patio umbrellas that he painted with nature- and modern art-inspired motifs.
Parker was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease eight years ago and now gets around his desert community in a mobility scooter that he’s had painted red, yellow and black, with flags of the 57 countries that he has visited hanging from two antennae mounted on the back.
“They all flutter in the breeze," he said. “And this crazy old man rolls along walking his dogs.”
After visiting the grain tower again, he said he has an idea for what the building’s current owner, Alterra Property Group, can do with the building’s storage shafts as part of its renovations.