Celebrate the weekend with Howe and Lescaze's iconic PSFS Building.
There might not be another city that illustrates the 300-year history of American architecture as completely as Philadelphia. The city is a hub for architectural "firsts." It is a place where the nation's most formidable architects (William Strickland, Frank Furness, Daniel Burnham, Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi- the list could go on) have honed their skills, shaping not only the local landscape but the future of the discipline. In a place brimming with significant structures, one of the most iconic, the Philadelphia Saving(s) Fund Society (PSFS) Building, stands as a beacon of early American Modernism, a gleaming skyscraper dominating the city's historic skyline.
Here are 10 things to know about Philadelphia's PSFS Building.
1. Designed by the firm Howe and Lescaze. Originally a commission that belonged to Philadelphia architect George Howe from his time with the firm Mellor and Meigs (Howe designed two Beaux-Arts branch offices for the bank), the PSFS Building was one of the earliest projects undertaken by Howe and his Swiss-born partner William Lescaze. The partnership only lasted a few years, but their modern skyscraper design remains one of the most important moments in American architecture.
2. (Arguably) the first International Style skyscraper in the United States. The bank's President James M. Wilcox encouraged Howe and Lescaze to design something modern and “ultra-practical.” With its unique massing, gridded curtain walls, curved surfaces, ribbon windows, and lack of ornament, the PSFS Building anticipated the luminescent towers of glass and steel that would define American cities during the second half of the twentieth century.
3. Completed in 1932, the skyscraper provoked immediate controversy. Hailed as a breakthrough by many, the bank charted a new course for America's tall buildings. Even before its completion, Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson included the design in their groundbreaking MoMA exhibit on Modern architecture. But the structure did have its detractors. Most famously, the Architectural League of New York left the building out of its 1932 exhibition.
4. The PSFS Building is visually divided into three sections. The 36-story, steel-framed structure includes three major components- the base (a polished black granite), the office tower (a light gray limestone), and the vertical service spine (glazed and unglazed black brick).
5. Howe and Lescaze designed the skyscraper as a “total work of art.” The pair were involved with the entire design including the streamlined furniture, bathroom fixtures, clocks (produced by Cartier), and that famous sign.
6. The design utilized high-end materials (during the Great Depression!) Although the building was constructed after the 1929 stock market crash, the bank invested in high-quality finishes and materials (including Macassar ebony, rosewood, and brass fixtures), demonstrating their long-term commitment to the city. The building cost $8 million (something like $115 million today!) when completed.
7. One of the first skyscrapers to be completely air-conditioned. According to a 1931 article in the The New York Times, the Carrier Engineering Company won the contract to install the system.
8. The famous PSFS sign is 27 feet high. A focal point of the Philadelphia skyline for more than eight decades, the marquee remains the most visible feature of the building. At night the initials are illuminated by red neon lights.
9. The skyscraper now houses the Loews Philadelphia Hotel. In 1998, Loews began a complete renovation of the building costing more than $100 million. The conversion rehabilitated the structure's original facade (in need of serious repairs) and preserved the legacy of Howe and Lescaze's original design.
10. Listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. No argument here.
Photographs are part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, available here.
Historic American Buildings Survey. George Howe and William Lescaze's Philadelphia Saving Fund Society, Twelfth & Market Streets, Philadelphia, Philadelphia County, PA. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, pa1068.
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