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Updating an old newspaper building for Philadelphia’s new Schuylkill Yards innovation district | Inga Saffron

The renovation of the former Bulletin Building signals the start of a new mixed-use neighborhood around 30th Street Station.

As part of a makeover and modernization of the former Bulletin Building for Brandywine Realty Trust, Kieran Timberlake would replace the glass and brick facade with a glass wall and red frame. The building is set off by a new park called Drexel Square, which opens June 10.
As part of a makeover and modernization of the former Bulletin Building for Brandywine Realty Trust, Kieran Timberlake would replace the glass and brick facade with a glass wall and red frame. The building is set off by a new park called Drexel Square, which opens June 10.Read moreBrandywine Realty Trust

Starting in the early ‘60s, newspaper companies began slipping out of cities and following their readers to the suburbs, where they erected graceless, low-slung buildings, usually near highway interchanges. Since these buildings tended to be conceived as printing plants, the newsroom and office spaces were often tacked on as an afterthought.

I know this firsthand because, as a young reporter, I spent a good portion of my days (and nights) toiling in nearly windowless suburban newsrooms from that period. From deep inside our news bunkers, my colleagues and I churned out stories about new subdivisions, suspected burglaries, school plays, and the occasional runaway cow. You were grateful for any assignment that allowed you to experience sunlight.

The headquarters constructed for the Evening Bulletin in 1954, at 30th and Market, may have an urban location, but it was the product of the same architectural trends that produced those suburban newspaper plants. Designed by George Howe, the architect who helped create the groundbreaking PSFS tower, the Bulletin is long and low, with cavernous floors and a highway interchange nearby. Howe had a peculiar affection for blank walls, and he gave the Bulletin’s two main facades immense, unbroken expanses of shiny gray brick. In its original incarnation, the side facing 30th Street Station served as a giant billboard, with the Bulletin’s name emblazoned in two-story-high type.

The Bulletin newspaper is long gone, sadly, having shut down in 1982, but its analog-age building is about to take a starring role in the new Schuylkill Yards “innovation district” being developed by Brandywine Realty Trust. To make it work, it needs new windows.

Most of the 10 or so buildings shown in the Schuylkill Yards master plan (by SHoP and West8) will be enormous towers, presumably sheathed in acres of glass, so Brandywine deserves props for retaining this four-story, masonry relic. Although the Bulletin is not listed on the city’s Historic Register, it is an important building. It was Howe’s last commission, and the Bulletin’s decision to remain in the city, rather than move to a suburban interchange, was a touching demonstration of the paper’s commitment to Philadelphia.

Repurposing the Bulletin building is also a smart bit of urban planning. Because the former industrial area west of the train station is such a placeless place, Brandywine is launching Schuylkill Yards with a park called Drexel Square, rather than a big skyscraper.

The 1.3-acre square occupies the newspaper’s parking lot and offers a pleasing shot of green amid all the urban clutter on the station’s west side. Together, the $14 million park and $45 million Bulletin building will mark the center of Schuylkill Yards and provide some breathing room for the future towers, keeping the area from feeling too claustrophobic.

The problem was outfitting the Bulletin building for its new assignment. After Drexel University acquired the property in 1993 to use as classrooms, rows of ribbon windows were inserted on the blank eastern facade. Although the openings matched Howe’s windows on the north and south facades, they were so small, they did little to bring natural light into the block-long floors.

Brandywine played around with a few eye-popping designs from New York’s SHoP architects, before deciding to hire locally. The selection of KieranTimberlake, a firm that works mainly for universities, cultural institutions, and other high-minded clients, suggests that Brandywine is committed to giving Howe’s building the careful treatment it deserves.

While there may be some sentimentalists out there who would like to see Howe’s blank facade restored, that’s not practical or pleasant for the people who will work inside. (Spark Therapeutics, a fast-growing pharmaceutical start-up, is taking most of the building.) The KieranTimberlake team, led by Richard Maimon, has instead come up with an intriguing alternative that preserves the memory of Howe’s design, while bringing in much more natural light.

The architects plan to peel away virtually all the gray brick on the east facade, leaving just two vestigial strips at the corners. In its place, they will install a layer of super-clear glass and top that with a metal screen.

Not only will the glass wall brighten the interiors, it will reveal the delicate, Piloti columns that support the heavy structure. Howe borrowed their rounded forms from Modernist architect Le Corbusier but used them in a tough, industrial way, creating 28-foot bays. After exposing Howe’s design, KieranTimberlake subverts it by overlaying it with a different grid in bright red, proportioned according to the Golden Section. The two competing grids are simple but energizing.

The frame also keeps the Bulletin building from turning into another slick, scaleless glass sculpture. Two feet deep, it essentially creates punched openings, giving depth and shadow to the facade. Brandywine, which already has built three glass towers along the riverfront, will have to work hard to ensure that Schuylkill Yards does not become a collection of random glass shapes.

KieranTimberlake humanizes the glass wall by including several sentimental nods to the building’s history. To reduce glare, they are etching the glass with a sun-blocking pattern called a frit. Look closely and you’ll see the design is based on the Bulletin’s type fonts. The architects also plan to restore the electronic ticker over the first floor. After initially calling the project One Drexel Square, Brandywine has christened it the Bulletin Building.

First announced two years ago, Schuylkill Yards is now picking up steam. Drexel Square opens June 10, followed by the Bulletin Building late this year. The ground floor is being reserved for retail, mainly restaurants.

By the time it opens, Brandywine expects to start work on two towers overlooking the north side of the square, one residential, the other offices. The developer is also contributing $2 million toward the $38 million reconstruction of the SEPTA headhouse at 30th and Market. That project is expected to start next year and finish in 2021.

One of the surprising facts I learned from talking to Maimon about the new Bulletin design is that the printing presses were never in Howe’s building, despite its solid, industrial-style facades. They were housed in a separate, one-story building next door. It seems that Howe designed those sheer blank walls to give the Bulletin building the monumentality to stand up to 30th Street Station.

As the designer of PSFS, the first International Style building in the U.S., Howe clearly wanted the Bulletin to be a departure from the traditional, soaring, Gothic-style newspaper buildings — buildings like the former Inquirer building on North Broad Street. In recent years, the city’s institutions have experienced a kind of architectural musical chairs, with the Inquirer moving into the former Strawbridge & Clothier department store, and the Police Department relocating to the Inquirer building.

Because the Bulletin building is the flagship for Schuylkill Yards, the project’s name will be spelled out in 12-foot letters on the roof, recalling both the Bulletin sign and the iconic sign on the PSFS Building, now a Loews hotel. KieranTimberlake’s design borrows many bits and pieces from the city’s past. That makes its reimagined Bulletin Building a very Philadelphia story.