The Record Building

 

Philadelphia, in respect of its commercial architecture, is undoubtedly the most backward and provincial of American cities. Of course, in so great a square mileage of brick and mortar, there must be here and there an embodiment of an architectural idea, which may be studied with interest, if not always with pleasure, and in a town of a million people there must be some educated architects among the mass of “architects,” and some evidence of their education and of their knowledge of and conformity to the standards that are acknowledged by educated architects elsewhere. “Evidences of design” in the building of Philadelphia may be collected by a hard-working teleologist. It remains true one of the oldest and richest and most American of American towns, is, in its commercial building at least, the crudest and most violent, that Philadelphia is architecturally far more Western than the West, and that Chestnut street has pretentious edifices that would be revolting to the inhabitants of Omaha, and that their authors would be ashamed or afraid to erect in Kansas City.

 

We are not speaking, it is to be noted, of the work of the speculative builder. That is about as bad in own town as in another. Philadelphia possesses, and which are the more admirable because their authors have taken intelligent pains with them without any encouragement from public appreciation. In truth it is evident from the look of Philadelphia that there is no constraint upon the architects either from the professional opinion, which elsewhere keeps designers out of the maddest excesses, or from a lay opinion that betokens an interest in the subject that, through ignorant, is willing to be enlightened. What the aspect of commercial Philadelphia does indicate is a complete architectural apathy on the part of the public and a settled determination on the part of the architects to break in upon that apathy at any cost. One derives from the title of “The Quaker City” a sense of demureness and sedateness and dull propriety, which is exactly antithetical to the rampant loudness that does in fact characterize its conspicuous building. What one would expect to the tamest of American towns is by far the wildest. The one object that the designers of its commercial palaces evidently have in view is to make sure that their respective buildings shall be notices, and Chestnut street accordingly recalls that comparison of Carlyle’s of a villabe society to “an Egyptian pitcher of tamed vipers, each struggling to get his head above the others.

 

To select any particular viper as the ugliest and most offensive, and therefore the most typical of this tendency, is to intimate that it has succeeded in attaining a preeminent conspicuousness. That would be invidious if not unjust as to the other activity. It might even be taken as a compliment by the selected serpent. We hasten to say, therefore, that it is impossible to particularize any single structure as supremely characteristic of the imbroglio of Chestnut street, as impossible as it would be to represent the Laocoon or a scrimmage at football by picking out one contorted leg.

 

The Record Building, herewith illustrated, is not exactly a specimen of the commercial architecture of Philadelphia, for a peculiarity of that architecture is that as it is not a species, it has no specimens. What the architects of the commercial buildings try for being conspicuousness, they try for it by being carious, and their success is in proportion to the degree of difference that they attain, not only from themselves and each other, but incidentally from the principles of the art of architecture. It is a pathological collection, an assortment of anomalies, that the business quarter presents. It will be argued, however, that the Record Building is of a weird and wondrous ugliness, and also that from the Philadelphia point of view it is a highly successful since it is absolutely certain of being noticed. It is also commercial – there is no doubt about that. The piers are thinned down to the lowest requirements of stability, and the bands between the stories apparently to the actual depth of the floors, so that the building does not give the impression of a building, but of a sash frame in masonry. This is a common disposition. It is not favorable to architecture, but if the designer skillfully makes the most of such masses as are left him, and attains an effective proportioning of his stories, the result may be at least an inoffensive building, and may possess the repose that is the first essential of any work of art. In fact the danger of the arrangement lies rather in the direction of weakness than of restlessness. Yet the designer of this edifice has continued to make his building as uneasy and restless, with the repetition of a single rectangular opening, as if he had changed the motive at every story. It is necessary to an architectural composition that either the vertical or the horizontal lines should predominate. In the present sash-frame neither predominate, for neither are at all developed. The on projecting member that is repeated throughout the front is the moulded block that seems to have been suggested by the offset of a Gothic buttress. It has no meaning here, because the plane of the pier to which it is applied is the same from bottom to top, and the projection has the effect not of a modeling of the pier, but of a piece of foreign material glued on to its face. It is glued on at the intersection of the pier with the band that forms that floor-line, and it this interrupts the pier at every story and the band at every bay, so as to leave no continuous line, vertical or horizontal. The device would be ingenious if it were a means to an architectural end. The end it attains is to cut up the building at the corners of every window, or pair of windows, and to render what night be a respectable and unpretentious sash-frame, an uneasy front that nobody can respect. How great an improvement it would be in the look of the building if all these absurd projections could be chipped down to the face of the wall! It is true this excision would remove all the architecture from the fronts, between the basement and the upper story, which are equally ridiculous and unmeaning, though less offensive; and excepting also the treatment of the lintels, which by some inadvertence has a meaning, and is rather good, though it becomes tiresome by repetition.

 

The basement has some architecture in the application against the piers of little pilasters, which might be supposed to strengthen the piers, if they were not stopped on corbels at the bottom, so as to show that they are quite useless. The banded columns at the entrance constitute a highly Philadelphian feature, and are as bad as bas can be. Comparatively delicate shafts are imposed on ugly and stilted bases and rudely interrupted by shapeless masses of stone projected from the walls and carry other shapeless masses, which carry conical masses retreating against the pier to assure us that the whole feature has no meaning at all but is pure architecture.

 

The top is the most grievous of all. Nothing could be more wild and Western that the cornice and its cresting, with the gross lumpy pinnacles into which the piers are produced, unless it be the treatment of the tower. To put a very solid and massive tower upon a very thing and weak sash-frame, and then to whittle down its angle piers at the bottom, so as to support them upon slender shafts, banded into lumpy projections, is a nightmare that might cross the imagination of an erratic architect anywhere, but it only in Philadelphia that he would attempt to body it forth in actual stone.

 

This edifice is even more revolting by comparison with its neighbors, which appear in the illustration, that if it were isolated. The old front at the left is a relic of a time when Philadelphia was properly called the Quaker City. It is thin and weak and dull, but it is decorous, and it rises into distinction alongside of its bustling and noisy neighbor. The Renaissance warehouse on the right would not be very noticeable elsewhere but on Chestnut street it seems, by contrast, not merely a gentlemanlike, but an artistic performance, breathing the spirit of grace and repose. It is not this respectable edifice, however, but the awful Record Building that is typical of the contemporaneous commercial building of Philadelphia.