The Ugliest New Construction Trend in Philadelphia

Our city is becoming an eyesore—and this time, it’s not about being dirty.

Philadelphia’s a dirty city.

Unlike some of Philadelphia’s other stereotypes it’s quite well earned, and even if we do clean up, it’s not a reputation that’s going to be easy to shake. “‘Filthy-dirty’ has been one of Philadelphia’s pseudonyms for almost three centuries—at least,” local historian Bob Alotta writes in Mermaids, Monasteries, Cherokees and Custer: The Stories Behind Philadelphia Street Names. “In fact, Robert Venable, a man with a remarkable memory born in 1736, recalled hearing that descriptive title used in youth.”

People were stereotyping Philadelphia as dirty in the 18th century! The Center City District will have to buy thousands more of those blue trash zambonis to even make a dent.

Okay, so the city’s dirty. But it’s also pretty! And that’s a reputation we can be proud of. Hear me out on this one. This is Cypress Street, which sits behind Delancey, one of the nicest streets in the city.

Also, the Fairmount Park system is lush and gorgeous—and huge. The Parkway’s dead at night, but it does make those occasional Paris comparisons make sense. (Well, some sense.)

And the buildings! There’s gorgeous Beaux Arts architecture on the Parkway and elsewhere. The skyscrapers are great. The trinities and Georgian townhouses downtown hold up over a hundred years later. Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy are rich areas in part because they’re gorgeous. West Philly’s giant porches give the neighborhood a welcoming feel. The tree-lined, porch-fronted streets elsewhere are inviting, too. The straight-throughs in the Northeast, yards and all, have their charms. Even the Korman construction in the Far Northeast and Eastwick uses a lot of red brick. Some of the city’s housing stock is in bad shape, but even in disrepair it looks cool.

And yet, I foresee a time when this won’t be a pretty city anymore. And the culprit is the ugly, boxy bay window that’s dominating our streets.

Look at the above photo! That gorgeous red brick is simply dominated by the boxy bay windows jutting out from the side. Is this a building worthy of the hilarious name Knights Bridge Estates? I think not! Nowhere is this architecture trend more pronounced than Graduate Hospital, where giant boxes protrude from the upper floors of much of the new construction done in the past decade or so.

I’ve noticed this for a while now, but it’s really noticeable when browsing The Philly Skinny, the spreadsheet that tracks new Philadelphia construction projects. Pick a residential rendering, and you’re likely to see boxy bay windows all over it. The only project with non-boxy bay windows on that list is 1244 Ridge Ave., which is a rehab.

Bay (and bow!) windows are great, of course: They extend the floor space of the house, and they bring more natural light inside. Great. But sometime in the last decade builders stopped deciding to make attractive, rounded or hexagonal protruding windows and started hammering giant window boxes into the sides of buildings. What happened? Why does so much new construction look like a giant office park?

There was actually a push against this two years ago; many of these windows are such monstrosities, they skirt the city’s codes for building projections. Nothing came of it; honestly, the size isn’t really the problem. New construction is great! Bay windows are great! But why do they all have to be so damn ugly?

  • tsarstruck

    Not saying that they still can’t build traditional shaped bays, but I don’t believe the bays pictured on Cypress Street would not meet current code.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=709386964 Steve Glanz

    Lol – that “gorgeous red brick” is heinous stamped concrete that looks like it cost all of 5 cents. I agree about the windows, but I actually think that facing is much worse!

  • Denise Lehmann

    Dan, I just came across this article you wrote a few months ago; and I feel your pain!! I’ve had this same complaint myself! I am a Philadelphia developer/builder. I specialize in sustainable building and that includes what I call Sustainable architecture; buildings that will stand the test do time; be desirable and valuable decades from now. Check out my latest project, Sheldon Crossing in Manayunk. I think you will be pleased!! I’d love to hear your thoughts.