The miserly renovation of the Inquirer building is a crime against the police and the public

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It’s been a full decade since the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News sold their white tower on North Broad Street and moved into the women’s clothing section of the long-defunct Strawbridge & Clothier department store. Now the Philadelphia Police Department is ditching the Roundhouse, a product of the city’s heralded 1950s reform era, and moving to the lower floors of the Inquirer’s classic newspaper building.

Such is the cycle of life in the modern city: institutions evolve. Space requirements change. Survival beats sentimentality. As the Inquirer struggled to reinvent itself for the digital age in 2012, its new quarters allowed the media company to shed the baggage of its print history. Given the reckoning the US police department has faced since the murder of George Floyd, leaving the cramped Roundhouse on Race Street – with its abuse-tainted history and the lingering ghost of Frank Rizzo – could also give the beleaguered force of Philadelphia a chance to forge a new approach to policing.

But from what I’ve seen on a 90-minute tour of the Inquirer’s former home (once my job was also home), it’s hard to imagine the renovated building will provide a environment conducive to much-needed change. The $280 million construction project, which was jointly managed by the Kenney Administration and developer Bart Blatstein’s Tower Investments, has produced a dismal municipal bunker, isolated from the surrounding city and the people the police are meant to protect.

» READ MORE: A final farewell to “Tower of Truth”

While the historic Inquirer Tower, designed in 1925 by Rankin, Kellogg & Crane, rises 18 stories, the police department will only occupy the lower seven stories. The upper floors will be mothballed and most of the building’s 1,200 occupants will be housed in the five-storey horizontal podium along Callowhill Street, a cavernous space originally built to hold the Inquirer’s mighty presses. After the print shop moved to the suburbs in the early 90s, this area was converted into one of America’s most inspiring newsrooms, a two-level cathedral of light with 40-foot ceilings. Yet somehow the city and its design consultant, USA Architects, managed to transform the sunny interior into a maze of windowless, low-ceilinged offices.

As the media tour of the city moved along the long dreary corridors, there were so few views of the outside world that reporters began to lose sight of their location. Whether they were on the Broad, Callowhill or 15th Street side of the building, many wanted to know. Hallway floors are finished in a checkerboard of black and white vinyl tiles, which resemble something you’d see in a school cafeteria in the ’60s. The busy pattern further compounds the disorientation. The walls are painted a cerulean blue, as if to suggest a sky that no one will see.

Once we hit the homicide division, the claustrophobia only intensified. The 100-person unit, which is fighting to reduce Philadelphia’s deadly gun violence, has been huddled together in one room. While detectives no longer have to share offices, as they did in the Roundhouse, their new office has no one-stop-shop. Several electric typewriters were lined up in a row of filing cabinets. They were brought in from Race Street, although they were labeled “broken”. Their presence gives the place an aura of built-in decay.

Things aren’t much better in the medical examiner’s office and the morgue. The city managed to provide a shower stall, so pathologists could wash off dangerous bacteria after performing an autopsy. But the design is closer to something you’d see in a prison. Meanwhile, the video conferencing room was given the best seat in the house, with a wall of windows overlooking Broad Street. The problem is that the abundant natural light requires the blinds to be stretched during calls.

Yes, the restoration of the building’s historic exterior and lobby is magnificent. At some point in the past, the Inquirer received a coat of snow-white paint, which ended up obscuring the rich texture of its terracotta and brick exterior. Now that the paint has been removed, we can see that the tower is more of a rich ivory and the once industrial gray base of the building is a warm buff.

Each keystone, shield, medallion and urn stands out in relief. The Westminster chimes in the steeple, which was designed to echo early American versions atop Independence Hall and the Merchants Exchange, once again chiming on the hour.

Such an immaculate restoration is the least the public deserves, considering Blatstein received $40 million in historic tax credits from the federal government to subsidize the work.

How, then, did USA Architects make such a mess of the interior? The firm is the same one that designed the black and white striped tower on the Camden seafront for South Jersey political boss and insurance executive George Norcross. But I suspect that even the best architects would probably have struggled to carve up the lower floors into pleasant offices. This long horizontal podium, nearly 400,000 square feet, is extremely deep and most of the windows are on the Callowhill and Broad Street side. Once private offices were built along the window walls, the rest of the interior was left in darkness. As the journalists were not allowed to see the space provided for the 911 call center, it is impossible to assess what the working conditions will be there.

Most modern office buildings these days are designed to bring in as much natural light as possible. Managers have come to understand that employees are much more successful when they can peek outside as they work. The upper floors of the Inquirer’s slender tower would have provided offices with many windows. But the city chose to concentrate police duties in the lower, more horizontal part of the building.

Although the police department had been looking for a new home for over a decade, moving to the Inquirer building was a last-minute decision. In 2016, after extensive consultations with former police commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, Mayor Nutter selected a vacant office building at 46th and Market for the new police headquarters. It was a huge property, with plenty of room to park and easy access to the Market-Frankford El. But soon after taking office, Mayor Kenney canceled that plan and signed a lease with Blatstein for the Inquire building.

READ MORE: Find out how The Inquirer has printed its newspapers over the years

The explanation for this change was that it made more sense for the police to be downtown, close to courthouses and government offices. But I’ve come to think of the abrupt change as “Rizzo’s Revenge.” The Inquirer and Daily News have a long history of investigating police misconduct and regularly tangled with Rizzo when he was police commissioner. After construction workers blockaded the building in 1976, protesting a satirical column about their union activities, the Inquirer claimed that Rizzo turned a blind eye to the situation. No police came to the Inquirer’s aid. Instead, the newspaper was forced to ask federal marshals to clear a path so employees could return to work in the building.

Having now seen the conditions inside the Inquirer building, it seems revenge isn’t so sweet. The police would have been much better off at 46th and the market, in the old Provident Mutual Life Insurance building.

Just like the taxpayers of Philadelphia.

The Nutter administration borrowed $52 million to renovate the Provident, and exterior work was virtually complete when Kenney reversed course. While he promised the city would recover its costs by selling the Provident to a developer, the city was only able to secure $10 million for the building. According to Councilman Allan Domb, an expert in real estate financing, this folly alone will ultimately cost taxpayers $90 million, since the city still has to repay the rest of the loan, plus interest.

The price of moving the Inquirer will also add up, Domb argues. Over the next nine years, the city will pay Blatstein $140 million in rent. After that, the contract provides for the city to buy the building. Domb estimates the purchase price could be close to $400 million. When you add up those numbers, the total cost of Philadelphia’s new utility building could reach $630 million, far more than the city has ever spent on a construction project. Of course, by the time the bill comes due, another mayor will be in office.

After the last police department employees moved to the new utilities building in July, the city hopes to recoup some of that money by selling the rotunda, along with the large lot nearby.

Designed by GBQC architect Robert Geddes and engineer August Komendant in 1959, police headquarters is probably Philadelphia’s most misunderstood building, in part because an unfortunate fence, erected later, spoils the view . Architecturally, its curved form is deeply sculptural. Think of it as Philadelphia’s answer to Eero Saarinen’s TWA building at New York’s Kennedy Airport, now a boutique hotel. The Roundhouse is also the product of one of the most progressive periods in Philadelphia’s history, when Mayors Joseph S. Clark and Richardson Dilworth struggled to usher a declining industrial city into the modern age.

To get there, they knew Philadelphia needed to upgrade its civic infrastructure. They invested heavily in new libraries, health clinics, fire stations and police stations, and went out of their way to hire the best architects of the time. After the Roundhouse was completed in 1963, the design was featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Conservatives are now organizing to have the Roundhouse placed on the city’s historic register, which would prevent it from being torn down after it is sold. An application was submitted in February. The Planning Commission also agreed to hold community meetings before putting the building on the market. But given the Kenney administration’s past treatment of the city’s historic properties, the future of this important mid-century icon is by no means a sure thing.

It’s hard to believe that the same city that made such an ambitious civic statement as the Roundhouse could also produce such a mean, seedy interior at the Public Services Building. City officials told reporters last week that there were no plans to put up a sign above the gate. Maybe they are too embarrassed? This project is not just a missed opportunity; it is a generational failure.

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