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As Old City booms, new buildings struggle to make themselves part of the neighborhood | Inga Saffron

The National and 218 Arch incorporate historic elements into their designs.

Wilmington developers Buccini/Pollin faithfully recreated the 1958 facade of the National Products building for their new apartment building at Second and Arch.
Wilmington developers Buccini/Pollin faithfully recreated the 1958 facade of the National Products building for their new apartment building at Second and Arch.Read moreInga Saffron / Staff

Old City has been many things in its history: a colonial-era neighborhood, a warehouse district, a manufacturing center, a cheap place for artist studios, a nightlife district. In its latest incarnation, it has become a residential neighborhood again. Since 2010, its population has swelled by 14 percent — to over 5,000 residents — making it the second-fastest growing neighborhood in Philadelphia after Northern Liberties.

Judging by the number of buildings under construction, many more people are coming.

Because of its eclectic past, Old City has never been a homogeneous place architecturally, in the manner of Society Hill. The buildings range from toylike colonial homes to muscular 20th-century factories. Their only constant is their adaptability.

Even though Old City is a designated historic district — protected, in theory, by the Historical Commission — its multilayered collection of buildings could easily be overwhelmed as more developers move in, turning it into a more generic place. But two new arrivals, The National and 218 Arch, offer some lessons for the future. Although they’re both budget-minded buildings, they actively incorporate elements of Old City’s heritage into their designs. Their architecture is the better for it, and so is the neighborhood.

The past is most visible at The National on Second Street, designed by Barton Partners for Buccini/Pollin, a Wilmington developer that is making its first foray into Philadelphia. The massive apartment building sprawls across a full acre, weaving its way from the old restaurant wholesalers on Arch Street to Elfreth’s Alley, one of America’s oldest, continuously occupied residential streets. The project takes its name from the former National Products store, which occupied the site until 1996. It also took National Product’s facade, a mid-century commercial masterpiece that was installed in 1958 and listed on the city’s historic register in 2002.

Actually, that’s not the original 1958 facade you see; it’s an exact replica. The high orange wall that sweeps down Second Street was painstakingly re-created using tiles produced by the same company that made the originals, Boston Valley Terra Cotta of Buffalo, N.Y. National Products’ stainless-steel signage was refurbished and reinstalled. The exuberantly curved script evokes Eisenhower-era cool. So does the jaunty pleated canopy over the entrance, now framed in a fresh band of orange mosaic tiles.

By itself, the original showroom was nothing special. The sprawling National Products building was cobbled together from a group of 19th-century warehouses by the company’s founder, Harry Caplen. It was only after he decided to unify the hodgepodge with a jazzy terra-cotta billboard that National Products became one of Philadelphia’s great modernist landmarks.

It’s doubtful that Buccini/Pollin would have bothered to re-create the mid-century facade if the restoration wasn’t mandated by the Historical Commission. The tiles were already beyond salvage when they acquired the property in 2016. Three earlier developers had tried and failed to find an economical way to build an apartment house on the complex site.

To their credit, Buccini/Pollin never complained about the preservation requirement. Working with J&M Preservation Studio, they used laser technology to record the exact dimensions and shape of the original tiles, so they could be replicated. Fortunately, Boston Valley still had the formula for the orange glaze. The results at ground level are so good, they may be better than the original. As a bonus, the company also set aside the corner of Elfreth’s Alley for a new park designed by Land Collective, as part of a public effort overseen by the non-profit Community Design Collaborative.

It’s a different story once you reach the second floor. The six-story, 198-unit apartment house is an unrelenting block of a building, dressed up in silver-and-orange metal panels, in the increasingly common fast-casual style. One consequence of such a big floor plate is that many apartments have bedrooms with no windows.

The saving grace is the way Barton’s design plays off the 1958 facade. The architects used angled orange panels to outline the windows and give the facade depth. Their effort works reasonably well along Second Street but falls apart on Arch Street, where the huge maw of the garage entrance overwhelms the ground floor. That stretch of Arch Street happens to include some of the best buildings in Old City, notably the cast-iron Smythe Stores. But Barton’s facade is oblivious to its surroundings.

Buccini/Pollin would have been better off following the lead of 218 Arch, a few doors to the west. Designed by Varenhorst Architects to mimic an old factory that had been built in stages, the brick-faced apartment building looks as if it had always been part of Old City.

Like the National, 218 Arch has a long and tortured construction history. At one point, a developer wanted to erect a 28-story tower on the site. The proposal so alarmed Christ Church — whose steeple dominates the Old City skyline — and the now defunct Old City Civic Association that they sued to stop the project. After several other groups joined in, a settlement was reached to reduce the height to 10 stories (107 feet). The project passed through several developers before landing with PMC, the company responsible for One Waterside on the Delaware.

The apartment house starts low on Arch, at five stories, then gets taller as it moves back from the street. Varenhorst used a different color brick for each setback — red, yellow and black — to help camouflage its size. It really does look like a factory that expanded incrementally over time. Modern casement-style windows add to the industrial feel and reference other Old City buildings. There are no fancy architecture moves, but 218 Arch is as satisfying as good bowl of pasta.

These two projects are just the beginning of massive change in Old City. At least two high-rise towers have been proposed, along with several townhouse developments. The National and 218 Arch have established an important precedent. They’ve shown that new buildings can earn their place in the neighborhood by paying attention to the past.