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Renovation as Preservation

Philadelphia is filled with architectural gems. Our rich history (and fire-proof construction) has left us with a rich inheritance of historical styles, building construction methods, and carefully crafted urban space. As architects we see ourselves as operating within this tapestry. We often mend the urban fabric by renovating and revitalizing existing structures before they outlive their building systems or uses. We contribute to the fabric when we are called on to replace them.

Some projects lead us to confront our urban history head-on. Such was the case with a recent gut renovation near Rittenhouse Square. The property, originally built in 1915, was not necessarily architecturally significant in its own right. It was a simple concrete frame structure with a brick facade. It was, however, a part of a larger historic street where brick facades and similarly scaled buildings created a quiet ambience of trees and residences. As property values in the area steadily rose, its use as a parking structure for cars was beginning to feel under-valued. The building itself did not require much maintenance to accommodate vehicles, but as time passed the building fast approached a threshold at which a larger investment would be required to keep the structure in good working order.

It is at this point that we, as architects, often engage with historic structures. A study was done to assess the viability of updating the structure and determine to what uses the building could be put to preserve its place in the future of the block.

With significant investment, the building could be revitalized as a series of apartments. While the structure was found to be generally sound, work was required to remediate the chemicals that cars brought with them onto the site, and the windows sadly could not be repaired. While the facade was altered as little as possible, a courtyard was cut into the center of the building, bringing light into the deeper spaces. The work prescribed to the building would make the street as a whole healthier, and would give the building new life.

It is gratifying to see an old building made new again. It shows how a community values its history without being limited by it.

When I walk past an historic but perhaps neglected building, I often wonder,

If the investment to rehabilitate this building for a new use is not made soon, how long might it sit unrestored, or potentially vacant?

Will it fall into disrepair and eventually be demolished for public safety?

Will a new structure replace it?

Who is going to design it? :)

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