It has been a rough few months for modernist civic buildings. First, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks denied Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital landmark status, and then came the demolition of Richard Neutra’s Gettysburg Cyclorama, and now the future of The Roundhouse, Philadelphia’s Police Headquarters, hangs in the balance. Last week, during his budget address, Mayor Nutter brought to light the city’s plan to renovate the Provident Mutual Life Insurance Building at 4601 Market Street and turn it into the new police headquarters (to be shared with the City Morgue and the Health Center). Nutter said that the move would mean selling the Roundhouse, along with several other municipal buildings. PlanPhilly reported that the city would pay for the renovation of 4601 Market Street with long-term borrowing, but the costs of the project “would be offset by the sale of the three would-be surplus municipal properties.”
The Roundhouse—designed by architectural firm, Geddes, Brecher, Qualls, and Cunningham (GBQC)—is constructed of structural pre-cast panels and was awarded the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal Award for Best Philadelphia Architecture in 1963.
Right now, graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania’s Historic Preservation Graduate Program have teamed up with Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture to come up with different reuse strategies for the Roundhouse. Two graduate students at UPenn, Kimber VanSant and Allee Berger, have launched a campaign, Save the Roundhouse, on Facebook.
VanSant and Berger point out that in the Philadelphia City Planning Commission’s “In Progress” Philadelphia 2035 plan for the Franklin Square Neighborhood, the Roundhouse is labeled as “Likely for Redevelopment” or referred to as “Police HQ lot,” which indicates that the Roundhouse building might not factor into the overall redevelopment of the area.
Berger and VanSant plan on pursuing landmark status for the building, but fear that with a backlog of nominations waiting for approval at the Philadelphia Historical Commission, time might run out before the city’s development gets underway. The two preservationists are also concerned that city officials have misrepresented the condition of the building.
“Through the campaign, we’re trying to make it clear that the building is in excellent shape and a great candidate for reuse,” said VanSant.
VanSant and Berger said that the next steps will be centered around public engagement, speaking with developers, and eventually forming a coalition with local preservation and modernism groups.
“This building is a physical vestige of when Philly was really going through some transformative changes in the late 1960s. There were a lot of urban renewal campaigns going on at the time. It was a very pivotal time for the city,” said Berger. “The building is a tour de force of architectural engineering.”