Why Philly Matters: Ribbons in the Skyline

Springsteen famously sang about the streets of Philadelphia, but our most stunning achievement lies a bit higher. Touring the city’s breathtaking, sadly unheralded architecture, CAMILLE PAGLIA offers a simple piece of advice: Look up, people

NEARLY 25 YEARS ago, when I moved here from New England to teach at the University of the Arts, I instantly fell in love with Philadelphia architecture. It’s a consuming passion whose flame has never dimmed.

Every day when I drive in from the western suburbs past the airport for my morning classes, I’m still awed and mesmerized by the looming Center City skyline, which has radically changed over the past two decades. Once, the hat brim of William Penn’s colossal statue on City Hall (just a few blocks up Broad Street from UArts) marked the unofficial height limit for downtown buildings. Spreading out from that monumental center point, Philadelphia still seemed anchored by its sober Quaker past.

Then came a giant burst of commercial splash and flash. Center City’s building boom began in 1987 with architect Helmut Jahn’s spired skyscraper, One Liberty Place, a postmodernist homage to New York’s Art Deco Chrysler Building. Jahn’s Two Liberty Place followed in 1990. Passing clouds are reflected in the glassy skin of these beautiful blue-green buildings, which change color with the weather and time of day. The effect is serene, even contemplative.

I tell my students to stand on 16th Street between South and Lombard for an unusual full-length view of One and Two Liberty Place, stunning in the distance. The surly, blocky pylon of the Comcast Center has now joined them — looking a bit like a schoolyard bully next to two ballerinas. Center City’s east-west chain of spires and towers, ending with the surreal mirrored trapezoids of Cesar Pelli’s graceful Cira Centre near 30th Street Station, gives this immense city of low-rise neighborhoods its spectacular spine. What a gorgeous panorama Philadelphia offers when seen from a circling jet plane or a car on the Walt Whitman Bridge, particularly at night.

My all-time favorite Philadelphia tall building, however, is the Drake Tower, a 30-story apartment house on Spruce Street near 15th. Designed as a hotel by the architects Ritter & Shay and opened in 1929, the Drake has the smooth verticals and plain, mathematically regular windows that would characterize New York’s Empire State Building, whose construction began a year later. The Drake is an Art Deco masterpiece with a Spanish Baroque red-tiled roof and turrets and sculptured terra-cotta ornaments. However, its sooty facade is badly in need of sandblasting. The warm orange brick has turned brown and lost its magic glow. Through the end of the ’80s, the Drake’s proud, solitary outline had a breathtaking grandeur, above all when crisply outlined in the early morning light.