Did you know that Philadelphia was home to the first row house in the United States as well as the country’s first modern skyscraper? In fact, Philadelphia is a hub of architectural firsts, famous architects and even more famous buildings.
Metropolitan Opera House
858 North Broad Street
Philadelphia, Pa. 19130
This storied building has a long and nearly tragic history. The Metropolitan Opera House was built in 1908 by Oscar Hammerstein (the grandfather of the lyricist) as a home for the new Philadelphia Opera Company. At the time, it ranked as the largest building of its kind in the world and sat more than 4,000 people. The building was sold to the Metropolitan Opera of New York City in 1910, but was destined to become used for less artistic purposes as the economy declined during the 1930s. It soon became a sports venue and was slated for destruction in the 1990s before being saved by the North Philadelphia Community Development Corporation and the Church of the Holy Ghost.
Philadelphia City Hall
1600 Arch Street
Philadelphia, Pa. 19103
City Hall is the largest all-masonry, load-bearing structure without a steel frame in the world–only the Mole Antonelliana in Italy is taller! Completed in 1901 after 30 long years of construction, City Hall remained the tallest building in Philadelphia until One Liberty Place was finished in March 1987. Legend has it that the ghost of William Penn (whose statue hovers over the city atop City Hall) was not happy and put a curse on the city’s professional sports teams due to his anger over being superseded by One Liberty, explaining Philly’s long-running inability to win championships. The curse apparently ended in Oct. 29, 2008, however, when the Phillies won the World Series, just four months after Penn’s statue was erected on today’s tallest building in Philadelphia, the Comcast Center. The mystery lives on!
204 Sunrise Lane
Philadelphia, Pa. 19118
Designed by Luis Khan and commissioned by Margaret Esherick, niece of famed Philadelphia sculptor Wharton Esherick, the Esherick house is considered one of Kahn’s most important works (behind the Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA). Kahn’s principles of light and geometry are clearly reflected in the Esherick House, which is constructed of concrete and Apitong wood. In 1992, the house received a Landmark Building Award from the Philadelphia chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The house went up for auction on May 18, 2008.
Philadelphia’s First Row Houses
The first row houses were built on a piece of land between 7th and 8th Streets and Walnut and Sansom Streets. Owner William Sansom modeled Union Row along Sansom Street after the houses he had seen in the United Kingdom. These were the first such row houses built in the United States, and when copied elsewhere in the country, they were later identified as “Philadelphia rows.”
Eastern State Penitentiary
22nd and Fairmont Avenue
Philadelphia, Pa. 19130
While a penitentiary may not be what first comes to mind when one thinks of great architecture, this structure has architectural significance due to its unique, spoked-wheel design, which served as a model for hundreds of other prisons across the country. The structure also has historical significance as part of the controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through “confinement in solitude with labor.” On April 3, 1945, a major prison escape was carried out by twelve inmates (including the infamous Willie Sutton) who, over the course of a year, managed to dig an undiscovered 97-foot tunnel under the prison wall to freedom. During renovations in the 1930s, an additional 30 incomplete inmate-dug tunnels were also discovered. ESP was designed by John Haviland, who is also given credit for building the Philadelphia Arcade, the ancestor of the modern shopping mall. Today, ESP no longer houses inmates, but operates as a (really neat!) museum.
1625 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, Pa. 19103
Designed by architect Helmut Jahn, who was influenced by the art deco Chrysler building in New York City, Liberty Place is the second tallest skyscraper in Philadelphia after Comcast Center. The slightly smaller Two Liberty Place was erected in 1990 within the same complex. Liberty Place was the first building to break the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” not to exceed the height of the William Penn statue atop Philadelphia’s City Hall.
Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Building (Now the Loews Hotel)
1200 Market Street
Philadelphia, Pa. 19107
PSFS, the city and country’s first international-style skyscraper, is a National Historic Landmark. The building was built specifically for the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society in 1932 and was designed by architects William Lescaze and George Howe. The building incorporated a T-shaped tower that allowed the maximum amount of natural light and space. PSFS was the second high-rise building in the U.S. equipped with air conditioning. The building went through a period of decline in the 1980s and was sold to Loews, which developed it into today’s Loews Hotel.