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Wawa the Destroyer is blanderizing Philadelphia’s architecture | Inga Saffron

Consistency is a good thing when it comes to food preparation, but not when you’re taking over historic buildings.

Wawa plans to dramatically alter this distinctive Mid-century modern facade at 16th and Ranstead in Philadelphia. The design has survived numerous retailers since the original tenant, Quaker City Federal Savings and Loan, commissioned the facade in the 1950s.
Wawa plans to dramatically alter this distinctive Mid-century modern facade at 16th and Ranstead in Philadelphia. The design has survived numerous retailers since the original tenant, Quaker City Federal Savings and Loan, commissioned the facade in the 1950s.Read moreJim Fennell

The good Wawa sponsors Philadelphia’s annual Independence Day events, hands out free coffee at celebrations, holds parades, and sells affordable sandwiches.

Then there is its alter ego, Wawa the Destroyer, a malevolent force determined to spread dullness across the land.

Right now, Wawa the Destroyer is on a relentless march through central Philadelphia, where it picks off architectural trophies, runs them through the brand’s blanderizing machine, and spits them out as indistinguishable clones.

A year ago, it was Horace Trumbauer’s elegant Public Ledger building at Sixth and Chestnut that received the Wawa treatment. Fine walnut paneling was stripped off its soaring Georgian Revival columns and covered over with generic white ceramic tile.

Now, another Center City building is scheduled to be purged of its identity, a mid-century-modern gem at 16th and Ranstead, a rare survivor of the urban renewal incursions around City Hall. Wawa plans to replace its sleek marble-and-stainless-steel facade with earth tones, gray brick, and its signature red details, the very same combination you see in every other Wawa.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been only a decade since Wawa unceremoniously jilted Center City, closing all its stores and leaving them to the Old Nelsons and 7-Elevens of the world. Now Wawa is bent on achieving market domination. The convenience store — known in the trade as a “quick service restaurant” — is colonizing new locations at what seems like a rate of one per season. The company is up to 11 stores in Center City and three in University City. I’ll bet you a Shorti and Wawa Mango Green Tea that there will be more popping up soon on city corners.

Given all the heartbreaking demolitions we’ve been seeing around Philadelphia and the city’s plodding efforts to craft an effective preservation policy, Wawa’s ham-fisted modifications might seem like a relatively minor offense. Retailers come and go, and their storefronts and interiors are modified all the time. A certain amount of churn is a normal, even welcome, part of city life.

But the two cases mentioned above aren’t just about subbing in new retail trade dress. These buildings are works of serious architecture and deserve respect. What makes Wawa’s treatment of them particularly frustrating is that the company could have easily taken over without destroying key architectural features.

Not only is the Public Ledger building listed on the National Register, Trumbauer is one of America’s most celebrated 20th-century architects. His Philadelphia-based firm designed storied mansions, institutional buildings, grand apartment houses, and high-toned offices.The fluted, honey-colored classical columns he installed on the Public Ledger building’s ground floor in 1924 turned what could have been an ordinary retail lot into a palace for the people.

If Wawa couldn’t come up with a strategy to incorporate those works of art into the store’s interior design aesthetic, couldn’t it have at least boxed them in, so they could be recovered after the company moves on? Instead, the wood paneling is now being sold to the highest bidder at and is likely to be removed forever from Philadelphia.

Wawa’s plan for its new store on 16th Street is equally gratuitous in its disdain for the past. Built for Quaker City Federal Savings and Loan in 1955, the freestanding structure is one of a handful of mid-century commercial facades in Center City to have survived largely intact. It’s now hemmed in by the towers of Centre Square and Liberty Place.

The bank was designed by Sydney Jelinek, who got his start as a theater architect, and the facade evokes an exhilarating period in Philadelphia’s commercial history. Having survived the long stagnation brought on by the Depression and World War II, the city’s retail businesses were eager to expand their operations in the early 1950s. But because money was still tight, they were limited to renovating their existing buildings.

That didn’t stop Philadelphia’s architects from trying to be creative. Many had been influenced by the innovative designs of modernist architects, like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Richard Neutra, who used large sheets of glass and stainless-steel trim to give their buildings an otherworldly lightness. Their use of new materials conveyed a buoyant optimism about the future. Even though Philadelphia architects were just designing facades, the result was a flowering of modest but inventive new forms, concentrated in Philadelphia’s retail core, according to a 1992 history written by Jeffrey L. Baumoel, a graduate student in Penn’s Historic Preservation program.

The facade that Jelinek devised for Quaker City was especially ambitious, Baumoel wrote. The bank had acquired a boxy, two-story building a block from City Hall, and was eager to make it more attractive to passersby. At the same time, it needed a large office space.

Jelinek segmented the design to support the different functions. The glass facade is set on a sharp angle, creating a sizable canopy that marks the entrance to the bank’s retail space. At the opposite end of the building, Jelinek contrasts the recess by popping out a vestibule, clad in corrugated stainless steel. He unified the composition by outlining the facade in bands of black and white marble. The sharp line made the silvery stainless pop. A protruding sign, which once included a clock, announced Quaker City’s presence.

Quaker City was eventually absorbed by Commonwealth Federal Bank (which was later absorbed by Citizens Bank), but Jelinek’s design lived on. A series of tenants, including an AT&T store and a hair salon burrowed in to the jaunty mid-century building, making a few alterations but not dramatically altering the building’s essential character. MM Partners acquired the building in 2017, hoping to lease it to a clothing store or other retailer. It sat vacant for nearly two years until Wawa made an offer.

To adapt the building to its brand, Wawa would squeeze out much of the personality remaining in Jelinek’s design. The sharp black banding that defined the edge of the building would be erased and the large glass shop windows would be broken into smaller sections, altering the original scale and rhythm. The corrugated vestibule would be papered over in bland brick. You can say goodbye to the distinctive clock, too. Wawa seems to think that using natural materials, like ceramic, wood and terrazzo, will somehow convince people that its ingredients are all natural.

In response to my questions about the changes, a Wawa spokesperson, Jennifer Wolf, wrote that the renovations were necessary to bring the building up to code. She also described the changes as merely the latest in a series of modifications to the original Quaker City design. Wolf said Wawa’s version is intended to pay “homage to the mid-century design features.”

That '"homage" seems as generic as a turkey hoagie. Philadelphia, like much of America, has been slow to recognize the enormous accomplishments of its postwar architects, especially the everyday designs they did for retail clients. Even though we spend more time shopping than visiting museums or concert halls, store designs get no respect.

Despite the history Baumoel uncovered in his 1992 thesis, most of Philadelphia’s mid-century designs do not have the protection of the city’s Historic Register. A recent attempt to recognize Robinson’s Department Store, designed by the renowned Victor Gruen, was mysteriously reversed. The fate of another prominent design, the former Colonial Federal Savings Bank on Chestnut Street, became more uncertain recently after its current tenant moved out. Perhaps the most important design, the award-winning Mercantile Library, is moldering away under a shroud of plywood.

Wawa argues that its store designs need to be consistent to telegraph its brand. But that can be done without making every store identical. Wawa’s store at the Princeton train station, designed by Arizona’s Studio Rick Joy, is so distinctive and compelling, it’s worth a trip just to see it.

No one will ever say that about Wawa’s proposal for its 16th Street store. But Wawa the Destroyer still has time to become Wawa the Good, since exterior work hasn’t yet started. All the company has to do is cancel the order.