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A pioneering Northeast Philly building is once again the flagship for a changing neighborhood | Inga Saffron

The architectural landmark at Cottman and Castor Avenues provides the centerpiece for a dazzling new campus housing an organization that provides mental health services to the community.

Built in the mid-'50s for the First Federal Savings & Loan Association, this cerulean blue office building at Cottman and Castor is a Northeast landmark. It has been transformed into a bright and airy treatment facility for the area's designated mental health provider.
Built in the mid-'50s for the First Federal Savings & Loan Association, this cerulean blue office building at Cottman and Castor is a Northeast landmark. It has been transformed into a bright and airy treatment facility for the area's designated mental health provider.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Whenever I pass the four-story, International Style building at the intersection of Cottman and Castor Avenues, I marvel that such a sophisticated urban design ended up in this land of shopping malls, drive-through restaurants, and other auto-friendly attractions. Yet, if I had to pick a work of architecture to tell the evolving story of Northeast Philadelphia, this cerulean blue mid-rise would be a good candidate.

The building, which hugs its corner site as tightly as anything in Center City, was commissioned in 1955 by the First Federal Savings & Loan Association, which started out as a South Philadelphia neighborhood bank serving a largely Jewish immigrant population. As its customers began migrating to the Northeast, First Federal followed.

According to a National Register nomination prepared by Powers & Co., the bank funded the vast majority of home mortgages issued in the Northeast during the ′50s and ′60s, helping the children of European immigrants and returning veterans buy homes, and transforming the area’s old farmsteads into Philadelphia’s version of the suburbs. But once the neighborhood was fully developed, the bank (now known as Firstrust) accompanied its customers as they moved across the city line, to homes in the actual suburbs.

Those changes left the building empty for several hard years. Many of its original neighbors, such as the Lit Brothers and Gimbels department stores, had long ago disappeared. There were rumors that the daring mid-century landmark might be torn down and replaced by a Wendy’s restaurant. What makes this a true Northeast story, however, is that a building that once facilitated white flight from Philadelphia’s core was ultimately rescued by a nonprofit that caters to the area’s increasingly diverse population.

Since July, the old First Federal building has been home to PATH, the designated mental health provider for the central portion of the Northeast, where about 50 languages and dialects are spoken. Although the group is still awaiting its final permits from Harrisburg, it has started moving staff into the brightly colored offices. Once it gets the state’s OK, PATH will begin using the building to host day programs for people with intellectual disabilities and treat clients suffering from depression, schizophrenia and other disorders. The project has given PATH a dazzling and nurturing new campus to treat its patients.

How PATH ended up in the former First Federal building is, like most moves, a roundabout story. The organization, founded in 1973 as People Acting To Help, had outgrown its building in nearby Rhawnhurst. Its president, Betty Andl-Petkov, was adamant that the replacement should be in a transit-accessible location because most PATH clients are low-income and take SEPTA buses to appointments. Figuring that the project would require a custom design, Andl-Petkov asked several architects to submit proposals. Only one, Bloomfield & Associates, suggested reusing an existing building.

The architect, Peter Bloomfield, had long had his eye on First Federal, designed by Philadelphia’s Thalheimer & Weitz. He particularly admired its modernist facade, with its alternating bands of glass and blue panels, which bore a striking resemblance to SOM’s celebrated Lever House on New York’s Park Avenue. “I was driving by one day and fell in love,” Bloomfield recounted as we walked around the building, admiring the glossy panels from the Caloric stove company, a popular brand from the ‘60s. Because the building’s pared-down aesthetic doesn’t appeal to everyone, he knew he would need a sympathetic client who could appreciate its sophistication.

Saving a work of modern architecture was the last thing on Andl-Petkov’s mind. She said she didn’t even know that mid-century modern was a thing and couldn’t understand why architects went gaga for the modest office building.

But she loved the location, which has the best transit connections in the Northeast. She also liked the idea of reusing an existing building. Bloomfield’s firm got the job.

First Federal is more than just a significant modernist building. The bank, founded on Point Breeze Avenue in 1934 by Samuel A. Green, can be said to have helped invent the Northeast. Between 1946 and 1962, the neighborhood’s population quadrupled as residents from Philadelphia’s older neighborhoods moved to homes built by the Korman family’s real estate company. Most were financed by Green’s bank.

As Bloomfield tells it, Philadelphia planner Edmund Bacon is directly responsible for First Federal’s intensely urban form. Bacon envisioned the Northeast as a “suburb-in-the-city,” a place that would be less dense than Philadelphia’s old rowhouse neighborhoods and easier to navigate by car, yet would still retain an urban sensibility. He was convinced that Cottman Avenue would become its main street and develop into a walkable commercial thoroughfare. The neighborhood master plan called for wide sidewalks on Cottman and earmarked sites for a regional library, health center, and Northeast High School.

Thalheimer & Weitz faithfully carried out Bacon’s vision, bringing First Federal right to the sidewalk and lining the Cottman Avenue facade with shopfronts. Because the site is shaped like a wedge, they angled First Federal toward the intersection of Castor Avenue, shaving off the corner to make space for a large neon sign and clock.

That combination of sidewalk retail and highway-scaled signage allowed the building to speak to both the pedestrian and the motorist. The arrangement also recalls the many corner buildings that punctuate Philadelphia’s diagonal avenues, such as Point Breeze and Passyunk Avenues. Pedestrians could walk up to First Federal’s bank branch on the ground floor, which faced the corner. But the modern bank also covered its bets by installing a drive-up teller window around the back.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out exactly as Bacon imagined. In 1963, the city created a new zoning category for shopping centers, acknowledging the Northeast’s auto-centric destiny. None of the large buildings that came after First Federal was as urban.

First Federal nevertheless prospered in its Northeast home for many years. Lit Brothers was across the street, making the corner a premier destination for Northeast residents. Business was so good that the bank added a fourth story in 1962 to accommodate the extra office staff. But things began to change in the ‘80s. In 1995, the bank moved its office employees to Conshohocken, leaving only some IT employees on Cottman Avenue. The bank finally closed the elegant ground-floor branch in 2017.

Finding a buyer for the four-story building wasn’t easy, according to a Firstrust spokesman. The bank’s third-generation owner, Richard J. Green, was eager to see the building reused as offices. When Bloomfield introduced him to Andl-Petkov, Green thought that PATH would be perfect to take over the building. He not only gave the group a break on the price, said Andl-Petkov, he also contributed generously to the $42 million project.

Because the original bank building wasn’t big enough for all PATH services, Bloomfield’s firm added an extension along Cottman Avenue and constructed a second building in the parking lot. Now, the old and the new gaze at each other across a narrow courtyard. That thin space could have been just an unremarkable sidewalk, but Bloomfield and the landscape architecture firm Ground Reconsidered made the most of every inch, turning it into a charming pocket park, with casual seating nooks, sculpture and plantings to manage the project’s storm water runoff. Just steps from Cottman Avenue, it will serve as a green refuge for staff and patients alike.

The Cottman Avenue addition is a bit less successful. While the former bank is a restrained composition of glass, aluminum and blue panels, the extension vibrates with color — a little too much color. At Andl-Petkov’s request, a patchwork of colored glass was inserted into the windows overlooking the street. But it was Bloomfield who chose to contrast the old building’s horizontal bands with vertical ones. While no one expects an addition to be the twin of a historic building, the arrangement might have worked better if the two demonstrated more of a family relationship. Bloomfield does plan to commemorate the old bank design by installing a new clock on the corner, a move that will add life to the intersection.

The new building in the courtyard, which is devoted exclusively to children and youth, works better, probably because it stands separate from the old First Federal. While its turquoise panels and acid green fins bear only the faintest relationship to the original, its wedge shape helps frame the courtyard in a way that feels cozy and safe. Inside, the offices and treatment rooms are bright and airy and full of color. As part of the project, PATH turned the ground-floor bank into a community room and carved out offices for several local nonprofits, including Mighty Writers and Community Legal Services.

» READ MORE: Northeast Regional Library: Hero of the highway (from March 2016)

Finding ways to reuse mid-century buildings is always a challenge. The Northeast produced an impressive assortment of modernist architecture during its growth spurt in the ‘60s, a time when designers were trying to figure out how much architecture should accommodate the car. The local examples come in high and low forms, from Robert Geddes’ Northeast Regional Library, to the vernacular Ott Camera store. What makes the First Federal building so interesting is that it is a resolutely urban design that also manages to address the cars zipping past. The city is now working on a plan to calm traffic along Cottman, between Roosevelt Boulevard and Castor. “For a place that appears so suburban on its face, there are a lot of pedestrians,” notes Matt Wysong, the city planner responsible for the area.

“I wanted a building that didn’t feel like a clinic, that would make anyone walking in feel good,” explained Andl-Petkov explained. She got exactly that. And, thanks to PATH and Bloomfield, this landmark building will continue to tell the Northeast’s story as it reinvents itself once again.