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What should Philly do with the Roundhouse? No, seriously, the city is asking for your help.

Philadelphia is preparing to sell its old police headquarters for redevelopment. It's starting by asking people how they feel about the building.

The Roundhouse at 750 Race St. was designed in 1959 and had served as headquarters for Philadelphia police until the department's recent move to North Broad Street.
The Roundhouse at 750 Race St. was designed in 1959 and had served as headquarters for Philadelphia police until the department's recent move to North Broad Street.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Who wants to buy a 60-year-old concrete Brutalist hulk, heavily used?

That’s the question the City of Philadelphia is faced with as it phases out the old police headquarters at Seventh and Race Streets, its undulating concrete contours known as the “the Roundhouse.”

“When I was growing up, [people in the neighborhood knew] you don’t want nothing to do with the Roundhouse,” said Luz Crespo, one of about 100 people who gathered Thursday to talk about the future of the building. “That’s the police, that’s trouble.”

The future of the Roundhouse has been in doubt since the police began planning their move to a new headquarters — The Inquirer’s old building at 400 N. Broad St. — in 2017. The city was in the midst of putting together a plan for the sale of the Roundhouse in the summer of 2020.

It was always going to be tricky to sell a police headquarters that inadvertently looks like a pair of handcuffs. But following George Floyd’s murder and the resulting epochal wave of protests against police misconduct, the building’s history began to feel dauntingly fraught.

That’s why the city is embarking on a new kind of community outreach for the site. Instead of beginning with a traditional request for developer proposals, the Planning Commission is leading a community outreach to give Philadelphians a chance to express their feelings about, and hopes for, the building. The process is expected to last a year, and listening and engagement sessions will be held in neighborhoods across the city in the months to come.

Two consultant firms, Connect the Dots and Amber Art and Design, were selected to help lead the “Framing the Future of the Roundhouse Project.” They have been talking to former police officers, people who were locked up in the Roundhouse, and youth groups. One of the original architects, Robert Geddes, now 98, will be interviewed next week.

“A typical engagement process might go right into what the Roundhouse should be, whereas we are trying to spend a lot of time thinking about what it meant to people and how we can move forward from that,” said Marisa Denker, cofounder and president of Connect the Dots.

On Thursday, the Planning Commission and its consultants held their first in-person public engagement session at Franklin Square, kitty corner from the Roundhouse. Dozens of people showed up to talk with staffers, give speeches at a podium, and draw their dream projects on paper printouts of the building’s layout.

The Roundhouse lies at the northernmost frontier of the clutch of institutional buildings around Independence Mall. Thursday’s intense heat highlighted the isolated, shadeless location of the former police headquarters, which is wreathed in surface parking lots and multilane speedways.

“I err on the side of historic preservation,” said Mijuel Johnson, who works as a Black history tour guide in the city. “I, like most people, am not that big a fan of Brutalist architecture, let alone the brutal history that [the Roundhouse] has. But it is a unique building, unique to Philadelphia.”

The Roundhouse was designed in 1959 by the Philadelphia architectural firm Geddes, Brecher, Qualls & Cunningham. Ninety percent of the building is made of concrete created by an innovative Dutch architectural casting system known as Schokbeton. Originally, the bottom floor was meant to be made of translucent glass to give an air of transparency. The concrete wall that gives the building a fortresslike visage was added later.

The Roundhouse’s innovative design was part of a modernizing moment in Philadelphia history when the city charter was fresh, civil services standards were professionalized, and reformist politicians were in power.

The broader Brutalist architecture and the innovative Dutch design were seen as part of this liberalizing bent. So, too, was the move of the police headquarters from the basement of City Hall — a location seen as a holdover from the patronage era — to its own modern, independent building.

But the Roundhouse’s debut roughly coincided with a surge in crime that began in the mid-1960s and continued until the early 1990s. This fueled increased spending on law enforcement, which grew more aggressive and punitive as the War on Drugs ramped up.

Locally, the building coincided with the rise to power of Frank Rizzo, the policeman-turned-mayor who would bring a definitive end to the reformist postwar period of Philadelphia history. The building’s imposing hulk soon came to be associated with his aggressive political and policing style and, especially in Black and Puerto Rican neighborhoods, with an expanded presence of the carceral state.

“I knew many people who would do wrong things, and they would have to go to the Roundhouse,” said Crespo, who moved to Philadelphia with her family from Puerto Rico in 1956. But her feelings toward the building — and the police department — are more complicated than that. “I have a brother and sister who gave the police 40 years, so I respect authority a lot.”

The building is not historically protected, although there is a pending designation. The most common refrain among Thursday’s attendees was that it should be a place of “healing,” perhaps for advocacy groups that serve marginalized groups or a nonprofit arts space.

Such plans would presumably be hard to monetize and sell to for-profit developers to balance the $322 million the city spent on the drawn-out process for the new police headquarters. But the planners say that they are a long way from taking precise proposals.

“We have to be careful with the engagement process because the city can’t dictate what it will be,” said Denker, one of the city’s consultants. “We can’t say, oh there should be a park here, a playground there. But so far people are generally talking about what it meant and how that should be connected with in the future.”

Future events and online engagement can be found at Framing the Future of the Roundhouse.