Changing Skyline: You won't recognize this block of Chestnut Street :: Blackney Hayes Architects

Changing Skyline: You won't recognize this block of Chestnut Street 

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As Center City has shined up over the last couple of decades, Broad Street became the dividing line between the increasingly upscale west side and the stubbornly scruffy east. Philadelphia's most stylish shops and restaurants tended to gravitate to the west side, close to Rittenhouse Square, even while fine 20th-century commercial buildings sat half-empty and unkempt on the east. 

The 1100 block of Chestnut Street was one of the worst spots, a black hole of blight. Trash swirled in the doorways of dollar stores, while the vacant upper floors became canvases for elaborate graffiti narratives. A 2013 study by the Center City District found that the dreary block had the lowest pedestrian counts of any commercial street in its survey, an extraordinary statistic considering its proximity to City Hall and the Convention Center.

If you haven’t been that way recently, it’s worth a detour now that Brickstone Cos. has removed the construction fence around its new apartment building, The Collins. The Cinderella transformation is sure to make you want to return.

While similar apartment projects are underway nearby, the completion of the 112-unit luxury building is the clearest sign yet that Center City’s east side is catching up with its western sibling. Center City’s first Target store opens July 20 at The Collins, and a new-look State Store – complete with chandeliers and a tasting room – will follow. Other retailers are being courted.

The Collins is more than just a good development in a neglected location. The design by Blackney Hayes is a model of sensitive design, good urbanism, and preservation. While not the sort of architecture that gets the attention of glossy design magazines, its approach comes as a welcome relief to the generic, metal-skinned apartments that are dominating Philadelphia’s high-rise boom right now.

Named after the building once occupied by the Oppenheim, Collins & Co. department store, at 1126 Chestnut, The Collins at first appears to be four buildings, each roughly 40-by- 60-feet wide. Blackney Hayes intentionally divided the facade to prevent the long, mid-rise building from overwhelming the intimately scaled street.

From the start, Brickstone’s president, John J. Connors, said he was determined to reuse the stately department store, a six-story limestone building trimmed with modest neoclassical details. The company has a long record of salvaging old buildings, most famously Lit Bros. and Wanamakers. Blackney Hayes ran with the idea and made the store’s facade the template for the rest of its design.

Each of the three new sections has its own identity, but they are clearly all part of a piece. The section nearest to Oppenheim, Collins was given a respectful limestone frame. Moving east, Blackney Hayes employed traditional red brick, then switched to a more contemporary, iron-spot black brick. There are metal panels, but used as an accent, not the star of the show.

It’s the small details that elevate the design. Even though the three new sections use different materials, their windows and cornices line up with the department store to unify the composition. It also means that all the ground-floor retail spaces have the same 21-foot ceilings as the Oppenheim, and enormous, beckoning shop windows.

In deference to the old store, those windows are slightly recessed and framed in silver metal. The redbrick section also features a white bay, while the black-brick section steps back at the roof for terraces. Modest though they are, these openings and protrusions add texture to what could have been a dull, flat surface.

Breaking up the facade also enabled Blackney Hayes to maintain the traditional rhythms of this quintessential Philadelphia shopping street. Like the city’s other original streets, Chestnut was lined with townhouse-size buildings. By the late 19th century, merchants began combining lots to create commercial buildings. Yet, well into the late 20th century, it was still rare for building facades to be more than 60-feet wide.

As a result, Chestnut and Walnut Streets in Center City are still packed with the kind architectural variety that has been lost in most American cities. On a typical 400-foot block, it’s not unusual to find a dozen unique structures. The rich assortment of styles and materials draws us from one building to the next, making the area such an irresistible place to meander.

Because of the new interest in the east side, generally referred to as East Market, that incredible diversity is likely to come under pressure from developers seeking large building sites. Yet smart developers, like those behind the large mixed-use project at 11th and Market, are working to replicate the neighborhood texture by breaking down the scale of their sites and reviving small streets.

The Collins is less successful on the Sansom Street side, where lower-cost materials were used. Even though the retail serves an urban market, the developers agreed to Target’s request for a 56-car parking lot, which creates a gap in Sansom Street’s continuity.

“Parking is a security blanket,” Connors conceded. But he envisions a day, not long off, when the lot might not be necessary, and a new building could be inserted in the space. Meanwhile, Brickstone has acquired an old garage across Sansom Street and plans to build an apartment tower.

East side, west side. Soon the lines of demarcation won’t matter anymore.