Tuesday, March 8, 2016

This Isn't Just Any Alley

Some of the finest architecture in Philadelphia stands next to this alley, which today, as you can see above, is largely devoted to the storage of trash. Welcome to the 1400 block of Moravian Street, just west of Broad Street, south of Sansom, north of Walnut. Two blocks from City Hall. But more importantly, this is where the people who really ran things, for many years, used to hang out.

To the left, in the picture above, is the Union League. To the right the big building, with the columns well above ground-level, used to be the Philadelphia Stock Exchange. The Drexel building, which we will see in a minute, is to the right, facing 15th Street and Walnut.

Years ago, I used to work in lower Manhattan. One day I was walking down Broadway near Trinity Church, and I passed a group of tourists who were standing at the head of Wall Street, by the church. An older gentleman placed his bag on the pavement with an air of arrival, straightened up, looked down Wall Street, and said, "Ach so, die Zentrum der Platz."

So that was Wall Street, and the alley above was essentially our Zentrum from before World War I to after World War II. I wonder what it was like when all the financiers crossed Moravian to eat lunch at the Union League, and when they went back to their offices after their steaks and succotash. Did they have dumpsters in those days?

I think most people don't even know this alley exists. Below is Moravian at 15th Street, the Union League to the left, the Drexel and Company building to the right. Looks thoroughly respectable, doesn't it? To see the alley, you need to be standing in the right place, and you need to be looking for it.

The Drexel family has a university named after it, but the eponymous building here was the brainchild of Edward T. Stotesbury, who in addition to running the Drexel firm found time to dabble in the sport of racing rowboats. The Stotesbury Cup, held on the Schuylkill every spring, is named after him.

The design of the Drexel and Company building is based on the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. The Strozzi were rivals of the Medici, and they had a better architect. The Drexel building went up between 1925 and 1927.

And here's the Broad Street end, with the Banana Republic and a pile of condo apartments on the left and the Union League on the right.

You'll notice that this end of the Union League looks a lot different from the 15th Street end. That's because they're two different buildings. The building on Broad Street dates from 1865; the Renaissance palace fronting 15th Street was designed by Horace Trumbauer and went up between 1909 and 1911.

These two very different buildings joined at the hip can be a bit disconcerting to the modern eye. But I've gotten used to it. And this isn't the only building on Broad Street that looks like this. A few blocks to the south, at Pine Street, stands the main building of the University of the Arts, Dorrance Hamilton Hall. The front of this structure, which like the Union League extends through to 15th Street, was designed by John Haviland and built between 1824 and 1826, with wings added in 1838 by William Strickland. The back part was designed in 1875 by Frank Furness in his own style.

I've taken to walking down the 1400 block of Moravian on my way to the Reading Terminal Market. It's not a pretty place. Recently I've noticed that it's cleaner than it used to be. That's true of a lot of the alleys that I walk down. I haven't seen a dead rat in quite a while.

But still it's ugly. My best story comes from last year, in the warm weather. I was walking down the middle of the street, dodging puddles of slime - you need to watch your step in these alleys - and almost missed a man sitting on the sidewalk with his back resting against the old Stock Exchange building. He was a homeless man, bearded and quite dirty, and he was naked. His clothes were on the sidewalk next to him. I could relate. It was a warm day, his clothes were very dirty, and so was he. It probably felt good getting some fresh air on his skin.

But still. What would Mr. Stotesbury have said?

I'm not one of those who wishes that the homeless would just disappear, and doesn't particularly care what happens to them when that happens. Again, though, this should be one of the premier pedestrian streets in Philadelphia.

Just have a look at the front facade of the Stock Exchange building, over on Walnut Street. This is what the Moravian Street facade should look like as well, instead of having those lovely arched openings at ground level blocked in ways that only the Department of Licenses and Inspections could love.

The other Walnut Street frontages, below, show a similar sense of possibility.

If you go all the way back to the first picture, you'll notice that several of these buildings have fire escapes on their Moravian frontages. Show stopper, you say. Well, no. Andy Nicolini has been working on giving the 2000 block of Moravian, next to the Shake Shack, a makeover, and he and his design crew have come up with some very nice ways to make fire escapes cute, and even fun, without reducing their effectiveness in an emergency. (See Center City Quarterly 5:3, Fall 2015, p. 15.) Now he just needs to get his funding, so we can stop looking at drawings and actually go to the alley and look at the real thing. I think when that happens people will finally understand the value in these alleys - and, to use a real estate term - they may even feel motivated to unlock that value.

Finally, here is a shot of something that few people see. It is the south side of the Union League's new building - the extension built by Trumbauer in 1909-1911.

I like to think that, at some point, that naked homeless guy looked up and saw this.

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