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Society Hill was an urban planning masterpiece. Will these new towers ruin the design? | Inga Saffron

Despite a legacy of great historic and modern architecture, Society Hill struggles to find a place for new buildings.

This image shows the relationship of the the proposed Dock Street tower to the iconic Society Hill Towers.
This image shows the relationship of the the proposed Dock Street tower to the iconic Society Hill Towers.Read moreBLT Architects

As much as Society Hill loves to play up its heritage as one of America’s great preservation success stories, the neighborhood was never meant to be a static place. The same, ’60s-era master plan that rescued its 18th- and 19th-century homes from urban renewal also made a point of encouraging new infill buildings. As a result, you can find modernist masterpieces and Georgian mansions happily sharing space today on Society Hill’s Colonial streets.

That thoughtful mixing of old and new is what makes Society Hill great, yet you wouldn’t know it by the neighborhood’s hard-line response to several recent development proposals. Armed with teams of lawyers, neighbors have launched major offensives against high-rise incursions like 500 Walnut and Stamper Square. Two years ago, the civic association went nuclear over a five-story apartment building on Fifth Street, the sort of project that has become ubiquitous across the city. Of these three projects, only 500 Walnut succeeded in getting built.

Given the tendency for such NIMBY-ish extremism, it is tempting to the dismiss the neighborhood’s latest hissy fit over two new tower proposals as just another example of Society Hill being Society Hill. Other Center City neighborhoods — Rittenhouse Square, Logan Square, Old City — manage to incorporate multistory apartment buildings without the earth spinning off its axis. Why can’t Society Hill?

In what has become a standard narrative, the Society Hill Civic Association complains that the two new projects — 1 Dock Street and the Dilworth House tower — would threaten its historic integrity. It has hinted at litigation. What’s different this time is that the neighbors are half right.

Other than their ability to unify the neighborhood in opposition, the two towers present very different issues. The more troubling project is 1 Dock Street, a 338-foot apartment building that would usurp the visual primacy of the iconic Society Hill Towers. In its current form, the design would destroy one of the city’s most beloved vistas, not merely for the well-heeled residents of I.M. Pei’s signature towers, but for any Philadelphian who likes to gaze up at the city from the Delaware waterfront.

By comparison, the Dilworth tower is a pip-squeak — a mere 150 feet — and would settle meekly onto its site overlooking Washington Square. Tucked into the garden behind the small, colonial-style house, the 10-unit condo building strikes me as an utterly harmless addition to Society Hill — a good design, even. Although a rear portion of the house would be demolished, the development would rescue a building that has sat empty for nearly 15 years.

Perhaps one reason the two proposals have inflamed such passions is that both occupy sites central to Society Hill’s origin story. Society Hill Towers, which is composed of three, 30-story buildings, was one of the first major projects executed under Edmund Bacon’s groundbreaking master plan. Completed in 1964, the trio sits on an artificial hill (built to hide the parking garage) that turns them into the most prominent feature on the Delaware waterfront. They serve as the prow of the good ship Philadelphia.

The Dilworth House is an equally potent symbol of Society Hill’s resurgence. At a time when people were still questioning the wisdom of investing public funds into restoring the rundown docklands, Mayor Richardson Dilworth announced that he would move his family to the neighborhood. Rather than renovate one of Society Hill’s existing Colonial townhouses, he commissioned architect G. Edwin Brumbaugh to build a new home.

A student of Georgian architecture, Brumbaugh produced a faithful replica of a Georgian house, down to the classical pediment over the door and the irregular brick pattern on the facade. The Dilworth family arrived in 1957, when Society Hill was still a sparsely populated redevelopment zone.

Society Hill still has plenty of room to evolve, but newcomers have a responsibility to live up to the high standards established by the Bacon master plan. That’s something 1 Dock Street fails to do.

Designed by BLT Architects for a regional development group called LCOR, the 31-story tower would be jammed up against the south side of the Sheraton Hotel, in what is now a small garden. The site, which faces the perennially underperforming Foglietta Plaza, is just 70 feet wide. While pencil-thin towers can thrill us with their sleights of engineering, this is rather dull rectangular shaft, indented slightly to make the east and west facades appear thinner. The facade treatment resembles a fat stack of gabion baskets, those rock-filled cages used to stabilize highway embankments.

The tower will dramatically alter our familiar riverfront views of Society Hill. Although LCOR’s building would be 195 feet away from Society Hill Towers, it would effectively turn the historic trio into an awkward foursome. Part of the reason it looks so ungainly is that it stands a full story above the Pei towers. If you’re going to upstage an icon, on a site so resonant with history, your design needs to earn its place in the sky.

The weakest part of the building, however, is at the base. In an attempt to distinguish 1 Dock Street from the redbrick Sheraton, the architects chose to clad the lower floors in dark brown brick. But that surface bears no relationship the woven aesthetic of the upper floors. Even worse, the building doesn’t seem to know which way to face. While LCOR claims that 1 Dock Street will help revive Foglietta Plaza, the entrance barely acknowledges the park’s existence. Its blank walls do nothing for Dock Street, which has become the main access street to Spruce Street Harbor Park.

Philadelphia’s Civic Design Review board said as much when it met last week to consider the design. While the board asked the developer to rethink the brown brick, the design’s problems go well beyond the base. If LCOR isn’t willing to invest in a better architecture, it should at least reduce the height of its tower. While not an ideal solution, it would allow Society Hill Towers to retain their historic prominence in the city. Better still, figure out a way to move the LCOR tower to the Walnut Street side of the Sheraton Hotel.

This isn’t any old site. This corner of the Dock Street site is believed to be the spot where William Penn first set foot in Philadelphia. During his stay, Penn met with a hardy band of settlers called the Free Society of Traders, the craft guild that gives Society Hill its name, and offered them a charter for the land that now forms the neighborhood. The 1 Dock Street tower would occupy the birthplace of both Philadelphia and Society Hill, yet its design is completely oblivious to that rich past.

That’s not the case with the Dilworth tower. Designed by Cope Linder for developer John Turchi, it acknowledges Brumbaugh’s Colonial replica in its modern facade. David Ertz, the lead designer, has proposed layering the exterior with zinc panels, arranged to mimic the house’s overlapping roof tiles. In contrast to aluminum panels, which tend to look dull, zinc exudes a rich patina. The clapboard arrangement, along with the balconies, promise to enliven the facade with shadow and texture. And unlike previous designs for the site, this one would be set back eight feet from the Lippincott building, to avoid blocking its side windows.

We know that development isn’t going to stop just because Society Hill wants it to. The alternative is to stop saying no and start encouraging developers to come up with designs that are worthy of Society Hill’s heritage, both the Colonial and the modern.