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Two buildings demonstrate Philadelphia’s capacity to change — and change again | Inga Saffron

First save the building. Then worry about the design.

MM Partners has converted the former St. Joseph's Hospital at 16th and Girard into an apartment building.
MM Partners has converted the former St. Joseph's Hospital at 16th and Girard into an apartment building.Read moreInga Saffron

One of the great strengths of cities is their ability to reinvent themselves. Brawny factory buildings become incubators for coffee roasters and boutique metal fabricators. Former schools become apartments for people who work in restaurants and tech start-ups. Warehouses become offices for growing companies. Those new uses enable cities to adapt in a fast-changing world. As we struggle with diminishing resources, a growing mountain of plastic waste, and weird weather from climate change, recycling old buildings is becoming more urgent than ever.

For a long time, Philadelphia excelled at such conversions. But after a decade of nonstop construction, that virtuous cycle is being disrupted. There are fewer empty lots around the city now, particularly in the handful of neighborhoods where developers want to build. Rather than renovate, many find it easier and more lucrative (thank you, tax abatement!) to level the old and build new. Unlike older buildings constructed with brick and stone, the replacements, often made from plywood and metal, are less likely to enjoy a second act in the future.

So, when today’s developers choose to renovate, you have to applaud, even if the updates are sometimes lacking in design finesse.

Two conversions wrapping up in Francisville and Kingsessing are good examples of why even imperfect renovations are better than demolition. In size and style, these two are a study in extremes: One is a clunkily designed hospital from the 1980s, the other an elegant Furness-design church complex from the 19th century. As it happens, Philadelphia has a surplus of both building types — churches and hospitals — because those neighborhood institutions are dying out fast. Both have been salvaged and repurposed for what people really want these days: apartments and commercial space.

The conversion of St. Joseph’s Hospital, at 16th and Girard, is particularly interesting, given the upheavals in the health-care industry. As my colleague Harold Brubaker has reported, at least 10 small neighborhood hospitals in Philadelphia have shut down over the last 20 years, and the much larger Hahnemann Hospital could be next. Besides the loss of convenient medical services, neighborhoods can get stuck with a vacant white elephant in their midst for years.

Hospitals tend to be especially difficult to reuse. They’re usually sprawling agglomerations, comprised of multiple structures. Although St. Joseph’s had the advantage of being housed in a single five-story building, “people thought we were nuts” to buy it for $8.1 million in 2017, said David Waxman, of MM Partners, which also is redeveloping the Poth brewery complex.

It turned out that the hospital, which declared bankruptcy two years earlier, was perfectly configured for apartments. Designed by Medifac (later known as Granary Associates) in 1981 to replace a Victorian-era hospital on the same block, St. Joseph’s had large, open floors, enormous windows, and modern elevators and ventilation equipment. Even the roof was still under warranty.

That allowed MM Partners to effectively burrow into the existing space. After ripping out the patient rooms, they lined the perimeter with 88 apartments to take advantage of the big windows and great views of the Center City skyline. Since the floors are so big, the hallways are unusually wide, and the architects, Marshall Sabatini, were able to carve out several social and coworking areas. Now called The Civic, the building boasts a dog-washing room and storage closets, along with the usual amenities, such as a rooftop deck and golf-simulator room. The whole thing cost less than $22 million to fit out, a fraction of what it might cost to construct a new building of similar size.

But because MM Partners occupied what was already there, many of the hospital’s worst architectural features remain intact. The ‘80s building turns its back to the street on three sides, with long blank walls on both Girard and 16th Streets. The fourth side faces a sprawling parking lot that interrupts the continuity of Girard Avenue, a street of stately townhouses that is being increasingly ruined by thoughtless designs.

MM Partners kept the asphalt expanse even though demand for parking is almost nonexistent and the subway is a two-block walk. So far, just two of the 30 signed tenants have opted to rent a space, Waxman says.

The good news is that MM Partners says it wants to open up the blank walls to create street-facing retail with windows and doors. The company has just signed Freeman’s auction house, which is leaving its longtime Chestnut Street building. The antiques dealer will open a small storefront on 16th Street. It seems appropriate that the St. Joseph’s emergency room will be used to store items that might need a little stitching and mending.

Once other commercial tenants are signed, Waxman says, he hopes to pull down the blank walls on Girard. That includes the lower wall of the former hospital chapel, which also turns its back to the street. The free-standing, sloped-roof structure, which faces an enclosed garden, is slated to become a restaurant.

Compared to retrofitting a hospital, dividing up the 19th-century stone church at 47th and Kingsessing in West Philadelphia required serious architectural acrobatics. Both the main sanctuary and the parish house of the Church of the Atonement were designed by Frank Furness, one of Philadelphia’s greatest architects. They were constructed around soaring, vaulted spaces and lavishly decorated with Furness signatures, including sculpted flowers on the column capitals and richly colored stained glass depicting biblical scenes.

The complex had been badly neglected, though, and was about to be torn down by the Department of Licenses & Inspections in 2014 when former Mayor W. Wilson Goode intervened. He helped delay demolition long enough for a developer, Guy Laren, to reach a deal with congregation. Laren acquired the entire property for $250,000 and has turned it into an apartment building called Furness Lofts.

Laren’s name might be familiar because he’s the same developer who last year tore down Christ Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church, a magnificent cathedral-like building at 43rd and Chestnut. He has now redeemed himself somewhat by saving Furness’ Kingsessing complex, populating the church and parish house with apartments, two day-care centers, a maker’s co-op, and offices for a comic book distributor.

The concept is terrific; the execution, so-so. As in all church conversions, Laren and his architect, Thomas Nickel of Atlantes, had to make hard choices about how to lay out the apartments without destroying the essence of the architecture. Still, walls awkwardly cut through the sanctuary, slicing the nave’s stained-glass windows in half, in an effort to get the apartment count to 21. Laren has painted the wood trim a shocking coral red. Although a far cry from the Victorian original, which was probably brown or green, it does help enliven the church’s pale stone (and can always be repainted). Much more disturbing is Laren’s decision to locate the air-conditioning condensers on the sidewalk next to the Victorian Gothic front door.

Some of these design choices were probably unavoidable. But others are no doubt the result of the project’s tiny construction budget, just $3 million.

Although these renovations feel a bit improvisational, the key thing is that the two buildings survive mostly intact. Perhaps we should think of the updates as a first pass or a work in progress. The continued existence of the hospital and the church buildings will be good for their neighborhoods, good for the city, and good for the planet. If we’re lucky, these structures will last a long time — long enough, perhaps, to be renovated again, only better.