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Thursday, 29 October 2009

History ...

Block by Block

Junto Photos: Richard Carreño

By Richard Carreño
Junto Staff Writer

Thanks to a local building conservatory known as Save Our Sites (SOS), a group of about 20 building preservationists, architects, artists, and other boffins of sacred piles recently time-tripped, architecturally-speaking, along Spring Garden Street, hopping from the mid-20th century at Guild House, to the early 19th at Poe House, and winding up in the late 19th century at the ‘Victorian-styled’ German Society of Pennsylvania at 7th Street.

‘Actually, not "Victorian,"’ scolded Otto Reicher, who, along with Tony Michels, the society’s executive vice president, showed us around the three-level behemoth on Saturday. But wasn’t the building constructed in 1888, the height of America’s Victorian period? ‘Wilhelmentic style,’ corrected Reicher, pointing out a geographical distinction -- as well as a royal one -- between Queen Victoria and Emperor Wilhelm II.

That semantic controversy settled Reicher, well known the architect of the intricate, vest-pocketed Academy House on Locust Street, behind the Academy of Music, introduced us to the breathtaking results of a recently-completed renovation of the building’s concert/meeting hall and German-language library.

To my mind, the library, ringed by at second level by a wooden catwalk, is among the top, non-bowdlerized library spaces in town, including the Athenaeum, Van Pelt’s Rare Book Room at Penn, the Free Library’s Rare Book Room, and, maybe, the library at Girard College.

The group also got on-site reviews of the exterior Guild House, a post-modern housing unit constructed by Robert Venturi in 1965, and of the interior of the Poe House, the home of Edgar A. Poe in the early 1800’s.

Heather Brown, a senior associate of Venturi’s Philadelphia-based firm, noted that a recently completed renovation of the 90-unit Guild House cost $9.7 million, including the updating of mechanicals, sprinklers, and the like. The total building tab in 1965 was $970,000, she observed.

Our tour of the Poe House was conducted by Alvin Holm, an artist who many years ago drafted some of the exterior views of the house for the National Park Service, the agency that oversees the building.

The group ended the tour in the German Society’s rathskeller where Michels was offering almost two dozen varieties of German beer.

David Traub, a Philly architect who is SOS’s founder, said the group based itself on the principal, ‘If it’s good, we like it. It [a building] doesn’t need to be old or new.’

At SOS’s Annual General Meeting earlier in the month, the group discussed placing the SS United States, moored on the Delaware, and the Reading Viaduct on its endangered site list, as well as arranging possible tours of those sites.

The group has already cited on its most current endangered list of 15: the Grand Lobby of the former Main Post Office, the Royal Theatre, and the DeBenneville Burying Ground.