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Debate over International House highlights what’s wrong with preservation in Philly: Everything is negotiable | Inga Saffron

If a proposed addition is approved, all that would be left is a partial view of the Brutalist building’s facade — the equivalent of someone being buried up to their chest in beach sand.

This drawing shows how a new retail podium and high rise addition could be attached to International House, a Brutalist-style building at 37th and Chestnut.
This drawing shows how a new retail podium and high rise addition could be attached to International House, a Brutalist-style building at 37th and Chestnut.Read moreALMA Architecture

On Thursday, a Philadelphia Historical Commission subcommittee is expected to recommend the designation of International House, the brutalist-style residence hall that stands as a monument to the idealism of the ’60s. This should be a big deal because brutalism is probably the most misunderstood and — let’s be honest — reviled architectural style in America.

But don’t expect the honor to protect the former student dormitory at 37th and Chestnut from the city’s powerful real estate interests. The Historical Commission and its staff are already having discussions with the developers over how to carve up the building.

It’s amazing that the designation of International House has gotten even this far. Docomomo’s Philadelphia chapter and the University City Historical Society submitted the paperwork to list the Bower & Fradley design on the city’s historic register more than a year ago. The application made an unusually slow crawl through the approval process and then, just as the commission was approaching a decision, the 14-story residence hall was sold to a pair of developers, CSC Coliving and Alterra. While they did not try to prevent the designation, they made it plain that they expected a free hand to ensure their investment yielded a nice profit.

Now we know exactly how they intend to treat their historic nuisance. At last month’s meeting of the Historic Commission’s architectural committee, Alterra’s Leo Addimando unveiled a design by ALMA Architecture that would virtually entomb International House inside a contemporary addition. On the north side, the developers would slam a 16-story tower up against the existing facade, obscuring the big square windows and obliterating the sculptural outcroppings that make International House such an interesting work of architecture.

On the south side, facing Chestnut Street, they would fill in the shady public garden with a large retail box. All that would be left would be a partial view of the front facade — the equivalent of someone being buried up to their chest in beach sand.

The architectural committee, to its credit, rejected the concept. But that doesn’t mean Alterra’s plan is dead. Addimando told me that he intends to appeal on Dec. 11 to the full commission, which is generally less fussy about design integrity. Since Historical Commission staffers have already given the proposal a thumbs up in a written evaluation, the odds are high that this landmark work of architecture will be chopped up for parts.

» READ MORE: West Philly’s International House to be renovated by ‘co-living’ investment group

What’s happening to International House is, in many ways, emblematic of the Kenney administration’s approach to preservation: Yes, the administration accepts that architectural landmarks like this are important to Philadelphia’s history. Yes, it agrees these old buildings enrich our daily lives. But that doesn’t mean it’s willing to let historic designation stand in the way of a big development. The Historical Commission behaves more like an adjunct to the city’s economic development agencies than a steward of the city’s cultural artifacts. Everything is negotiable.

Because developers know the commission is a soft touch and can be persuaded to allow all sorts of additions, those anticipated concessions are now factored into the purchase price for historic buildings. Despite the near certainty that International House would be listed on the historic register, CSC Coliving paid $21.5 million for the property. That’s almost $2 million more than a developer spent on a non-historic building across the street, one that was quickly demolished to make way for a 405-unit apartment tower. Now Addimando points to the cost as one of the reasons the developers need the bulky addition. Otherwise, he said, “the project won’t pencil.”

According to this logic, the developer’s problem becomes the public’s problem, and the public is asked to sacrifice an important cultural touchstone. This view assumes that historic buildings can’t be put back into productive — and profitable — use just as they are. That was the thinking that informed the renovation of a Frank Furness-designed house on Walnut Street, where an awkward stack of glass condos was piled on the roof. The amputation of the Boyd Theater, which occurred during the Nutter administration, and left only a stub of the theater’s lavish art deco lobby intact, remains the most notorious recent example of bending to a developer’s demands.

» READ MORE: New apartment tower is weak compensation for loss of Philly’s art deco Boyd Theater | Inga Saffron (from 2019)

If it was hard for a popular favorite like the Boyd to resist pressures from real estate developers, it’s doubly difficult for a brutalist building. Concrete, which is brutalism’s signature material, has never captured the public’s heart. And many brutalist designs really are bad, especially those built as government offices. But every style has produced its clunkers. It’s crucial that we make the effort to distinguish between good brutalism and bad brutalism.

And International House is very good brutalism. It’s worth remembering that brutalism was a reaction to the overly corporatized, slick glass towers that had become commonplace by the ‘60s — towers not unlike the pair that have sprouted on Chestnut Street next to International House. By using concrete, architects were able to imbue their buildings with a sturdy, masonry solidity. They quickly discovered that the material also allowed for more expressive forms.

Compared to those one-note metal-clad towers nearby, International House’s facade is a sculptural tour de force, with deep-set windows that dance across the facade and capture shadows. The exterior also mimics what’s going on inside. Just by looking at the facade, you can see where the large apartments on the lower floors give way to more modest dorms on the upper floors, and the double-height communal lounges that serve them.

Unfortunately, the same design features that make International House good architecture also make it challenging to retrofit. The International House organization, founded in the early 20th century to provide housing for nonwhite foreign students who had trouble renting from private landlords, commissioned the building in 1965 as a place where people of different cultures could easily mingle. While there are a few standard apartments, most are communal dorms, with shared lounges, kitchens, and bathrooms. The elevators, believe it or not, stop only every other floor. Because everything is concrete, it will be challenging to reorganize the building for modern tastes.

So, all things considered, it’s not unreasonable for the commission to allow an addition to International House. Just not the one Addimando is demanding.

Maybe the most disturbing aspect of Addimando’s presentation last month was its bullying tone. A generous campaign donor to City Council and a member of the influential Civic Design Review board, Addimando threatened to demolish International House if his company doesn’t get “the rentable yield” it needs from the property. That unsettled George Poulin, the head of the University City Historical Society: “I’m not opposed to an addition” he said, “but it’s being presented as a take-it-or-leave-it proposal.”

The architectural committee actually came up with several alternative design ideas during the discussion. The tower addition, they observed, could be slimmed down, so it would still be possible to view International House’s sculptural form, one of its defining features.

Preserving the garden is equally important, they said. Unlike the two neighboring high-rises where the amenity spaces are private, International House’s garden was a place that always welcomed the public. Foreign and native-born students mingled in the ground-floor restaurants and dined al fresco under the trees. I can attest from personal experience that the garden was a delightful spot to have a drink and meet friends before catching a movie at International House’s theater. If the developers really need more retail space, they should put it in the basement under the garden and construct a small glass entrance, similar to the one at New York’s Apple store.

» READ MORE: After 18-month study, Mayor Kenney’s preservation task force offers a few (modest) proposals (from 2018)

The last few years have seen a renewed interest in brutalism, as evidenced by the flood of images on Instagram. But as brutalist buildings enter middle age and require expensive maintenance, their survival is uncertain. Whatever happens to International House could set the direction for an even more important brutalist design, the Police Headquarters on Race Street by Philadelphia School architect Robert Geddes and the brilliant structural engineer August Komendant. Given the city’s casual demolition of Columbus Square’s Mid-century pavilion, there’s a danger it could be treated as just another teardown when the police move to the old Inquirer Building.

Preservation shouldn’t be just about protecting buildings that are easy and profitable to reuse. These brutalist buildings represent two of Philadelphia greatest cultural achievements of the last half century. That’s worth more than a real estate deal any day.