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Whoever designed Columbus Square’s ‘Roundhouse,’ the modernist pavilion deserves to be saved | Inga Saffron

Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation doesn’t get why this whimsical pavilion matters.

The pavilion in Columbus Square was recently lit up at night. Who actually designed it? It's hard to say. Like moviemaking, architecture often involves a team.
The pavilion in Columbus Square was recently lit up at night. Who actually designed it? It's hard to say. Like moviemaking, architecture often involves a team.Read moreDena Driscoll

Who really designed the whimsical stone pavilion in Columbus Square?

In March, I wrote a column attributing the 1960 building with the crown-shaped roof to Elizabeth Hirsh Fleisher, the pioneering architect who was the first woman in Philadelphia to receive a state license in the field. But the Department of Parks & Recreation maintains that the community center was actually designed by her partner Gabriel Roth.

And partly because of that determination, it’s about to demolish this neighborhood gem to make way for a $2.4 million renovation of the square. The contractors have been assembled, the asbestos removed from the interior. The wrecking crew is expected to start taking its shots any day now.

So, who’s right? And why should it matter at this late date?

Since the second question is easier to answer, I’ll take that one first. Eleventh-hour preservation battles are nothing new in Philadelphia. There are so many demolitions these days (generally by private developers, not city agencies) that we don’t really focus until someone is ready to erase a major element from the backdrop of our daily lives. Even though it’s late in the game, it’s worth fighting for this small, difficult building because of its unique design and complex history — no matter who designed it.

In the two weeks since preservation activist Jay Farrell started a petition urging the city to save the pavilion, more than 2,300 people have signed. Docomomo PHL, an advocacy group that promotes modernist design, is also on the case.

Despite having been closed for several years, the pavilion at 12th and Reed remains a much-loved landmark in Passyunk Square, where it is affectionately known as the “Roundhouse.” The contrast between its heavy stone walls and jaunty modernist roof make it unlike anything else in Philadelphia. Until it was eclipsed by a bigger community center in 2005, it was the place where neighborhood residents went to play bocce and take art classes.

But its importance extends beyond this corner of South Philadelphia. The stone pavilion is a significant example of Philadelphia’s reform-era architecture, one of the many rec centers, health clinics, libraries and housing projects built during the administration of Mayor Richardson Dilworth, the great changemaker who presided over the city from 1956 to 1962. As a work of modernist design, it’s considered good enough to be deemed eligible for the National Register.

For all that, the pavilion’s fate now seems to come down to the gender of the person who designed it. One reason that Parks & Rec decided to go ahead with the demolition is that it couldn’t find any clear-cut evidence that Fleisher was the designer, Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell told me. “There’s a big question about the significance of this building if it’s not tied to the first female architect,” she said.

In hindsight, I realize that I went too far in my March column when I attributed the Columbus Square pavilion solely to Fleisher. That’s not because I believe that Lovell is right and that Roth is the real designer. The evidence, as I’ll explain in a minute, is far too circumstantial to make a definitive claim for either architect.

The reason I regret writing that Fleisher designed the pavilion has to do with way architecture is made. As much as we like to believe otherwise, no building is the work of a single individual, except, perhaps, a lean-to assembled from branches and leaves on a rustic camping trip. It would have been more accurate for me to say the pavilion was designed by Roth & Fleisher, the firm formed in 1941, one of the earliest in the city with a female owner.

Critics and historians have been guilty of perpetuating the myth that architecture is the product of a lone genius. We talk about a Frank Gehry design or a Norman Foster building as if they were artists turning out a painting or novel. But architecture, like moviemaking, is a group effort involving a cast of many people with different specialties. To be sure, there are times when a singular vision prevails, establishing the overall aesthetic, and that lead designer deserves to be acknowledged.

Determining who played that role in the case of the Columbus Square pavilion is nearly impossible. Parks & Rec’s belief that Roth was the lead designer rests on three points, all problematic: When the pavilion project was presented to the city Art Commission in 1959, Roth did the talking. He later signed the architectural drawings. And, according to the architectural database maintained by the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, Fleisher was already enjoying her retirement, having left the firm in 1958.

Fleisher would have been 66 in 1958. That may sound like a plausible age for retirement, but like many women of that time, Fleisher got a late start in her career. She didn’t graduate from Smith College’s Cambridge School of Architecture until she was 37, and she didn’t hit her stride until after she joined forces with Roth in the 1940s. Together they produced a series of high-profile modernist designs, including Parkway House, the Queen Lane public housing project, and an orphanage on Callowhill Street.

But here’s the clincher: After Fleisher’s death in 1975, both the Inquirer and Daily News obituaries reported that she worked as an architect until 1968. That sounds right to Jon Berger, her grandson, and the director of technology at the Berger & Montague law firm. He started high school in 1959, and “there is no question that my grandmother was still working” at Roth & Fleisher, he told me. She ran the firm’s design department, meaning she was the firm’s chief designer.

The fact that Roth presented the project to the Art Commission and signed the architectural drawings is merely indicative of the times. In the late ‘50s, women still couldn’t open a bank account without a male relative’s permission. They were prohibited in most states from serving on juries, and female lawyers were not permitted to argue their client’s case in a courtroom.

It’s hard to imagine the firm sending Fleisher to face the all-male Art Commission. Roth didn’t just sign the drawings for the pavilion; his name also appears on official documents for Parkway House, the elegant apartment building frequently cited as Fleisher’s most significant accomplishment. There’s a long history of women and minorities — Julian Abele, Denise Scott Brown — not getting credit for their architectural work because others fronted for them.

Meanwhile, the city’s own description of the Columbus Square pavilion, submitted to the state in 2016, credits Fleisher’s work on the project. “The design of the buildings shows the influence of both Fleisher and [Thaddeus] Longstreth,” another architect at the firm, a city staffer wrote.

Two other things are worth noting: Fleisher’s husband, Horace, worked for the city planning commission, designing parks, including McPherson Square and Dickinson Square Park. The two were deeply committed to social projects and public space. Perhaps even more important, Roth died in 1960, before the pavilion was completed. Who finished the job?

It seems clear from interviews with neighborhood residents and members of the park’s advisory council that parks department officials have considered the little pavilion a problem since the new community center opened in 2005. In their view, the easiest way to deal with the problem is to remove it, rather than figure out a new use.

Given its small size and solid walls, there’s no doubt that finding a new use will be a challenge. But not an impossible one. Leah Rominger, the landscape architect who oversaw the park’s redesign for the Community Design Collaborative, a non-profit that provides pro-bono design services, it might be turned into a gateway arch or gazebo by removing some of the golden-hued stone from the walls. Although keeping the building intact is preferable, those proposals are far better than demolition. The city can continue with the park renovation while it figures out the best approach.

While we may never know whether a female architect designed this unusual mid-century modern pavilion, it is still deeply entwined with Philadelphia’s history. We don’t need to know everything about the Roundhouse to know that it should be preserved.