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

ARCHITECTURAL PHILADELPHIA IS a wonderland for art students. Within a few blocks of UArts, one can trace virtually the entire history of architecture. For example, across the street from the trim neoclassical temple of Hamilton Hall are the square medieval towers of the Chambers-Wylie Memorial Presbyterian Church (now the Broad Street Ministry), built in 1899-1901. With its arched windows and sculptured ornaments, it is a prime specimen of the 19th-century Gothic Revival, whose most famous example is St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

Half a block up Broad is the Atlantic Building, built in 1922 for the Atlantic Refining Company (later ARCO). Though rarely noticed by passersby, it is a fine example of the high-rise steel-frame structure that was developed by Chicago architect Louis Sullivan and led toward the modern skyscraper. Despite its modernistic plain windows, there are still ancient decorative accents in the white terra-cotta facade, such as a Greek geometric band at the fourth story and leafy Greek finials around the rooftop.

Continuing up Broad toward City Hall, we find the landmark Academy of Music, built as an opera house in 1855-’57. It was never meant to be red brick: The white marble facing wasn’t installed because of a financial crunch. With invitingly wide platform steps, a glittering bank of glass doors, and gas lanterns flickering even in daytime, the Academy seems like an elegant visitor from the Victorian era.

Farther up Broad is the Bellevue, the former lofty citadel of Philadelphia high society, a densely sculptured French Second Empire extravaganza with a grand mansard roof. Once, the Bellevue so towered above Center City that it could be seen from the suburbs. Just before reaching City Hall (also in the Second Empire style, and the tallest all-masonry building in the world), one can pop into the Ritz-Carlton hotel, formerly the Girard Trust Company Bank, to gape at its exhilarating rotunda lobby, whose soaring dome is based on the Roman Pantheon.

Philadelphians must raise their eyes from street level to appreciate the city’s wonderful hybrid effects. A phenomenal example of Philadelphia’s stark juxtapositions of period and style can be seen from the Chestnut Street exit to Macy’s (formerly the magisterial Wanamaker’s). At the intersection with quaintly one-lane Juniper Street, there is a fluorescent-lit budget store, Valu-Plus, with a grimly generic facade. But that first story is carved out of an enchanting vintage building. When one glances up, one sees the strangely thin and block-long Penfield Building in all its shabby decay — its dull lemon stone rising for seven more stories with colonnaded balconies and a sprightly turret.