Atlantic Cities

How a Political Convention Helped Save America's First Modernist Skyscraper

How a Political Convention Helped Save America's First Modernist Skyscraper
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The Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) building has always carried a sense of significance since its opening in 1932. It can claim the title of America's first Modernist (or International Style) skyscraper, and was originally conceived as the new home to America's first savings bank. But a skyscraper boom 50 years after its opening and a bank crisis that ruined its creators jeopardized the building's future.

The 36-floor structure, designed by William Lescaze and George Howe, ushered in a new era of corporate architecture in America, a style more synonymous with the public plazas and curtain walls of architects like Mies Van Der Rohe. The T-shaped tower on the corner of 12th and Market Street allowed for more sunlight and floor space than the typical early 20th century office building. The base of the tower reflects Bauhaus values, a curved wall that hugs the intersection and provides first and second floor commercial space all highlighted by ample glass and black marble.

It's also a source of local pride. Neon red letters spell out 'PSFS' on its roof at night, serving as a symbol of the city's history, not to mention its most benevolent financial institution — one that promoted savings accounts for children and established a loan pool for low income minority families.

The tower was added to the National Register of Historic Places and listed as a National Historic Landmark on the same day in 1976. Ten years later, a changing downtown and banking industry put PSFS and its headquarters on a perilous path.

Mark Byrnes

The building faced middle age at the same time as Philadelphia's unprecedented skyscraper boom, a frenzy of building fueled by economic deregulation and the breaking of a gentleman's agreement to let City Hall remain the the city's tallest structure. PSFS headquarters went from being the city's second tallest building before the boom to the 13th tallest. That new inventory also contributed to the tower's vacancy rate reaching as high as 85 percent. "The building was in the wilderness then," says Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron, grappling with a deadly combination of ownership turnover and commercial obsolescence. "In the '80s, they [developers and tenants] were going nuts for large floor plates," something Philly's new towers provided in abundance.

PSFS was still loyal to its building but business decisions were pushing the bank toward extinction. The company reached beyond the traditional role of a savings bank and began to operate as Meritor Financial Group. After a series of unsuccessful investments, it became one of the victims of the Savings and Loan crisis, officially going defunct in 1992.

Then-mayor Ed Rendell was keen on wooing either the Republican or Democratic National Convention, something the city had not hosted since 1948. A major obstacle to landing such an event was the city's lack of adequate hotel inventory. With a new convention center in 1993 and arena in 1996 (where the 2000 RNC ended up taking place), developers quickly started eying the PSFS building for a hotel conversion. The modernist icon finally saw its future secured in 2000 when it officially opened as the Loews Philadelphia Hotel just months before the Republican National Convention began.

Image courtesy Flickr user DannyBirchall

The timing of the hotel's opening was important, especially after a planned Hyatt Regency failed to open in time for the RNC. Creating a bit of a headache for tourism officials, much of the city's older hotel stock received mediocre reviews from convention attendees. The Loews, hosting the Florida delegation for the event, stood out as one of the few hotels to receive high praise.

Philadelphia's downtown hotel occupancy has fallen since the 2000 RNC, calling into question the long-term economic benefits of building up hotel inventory to help land large conventions. According to the Charlotte Observer, downtown Philly generated 547,000 room nights in 2000. It fell to 336,000 by 2007 and dropped even further to 312,000 in 2011.

Image courtesy Flickr user lsc21.

While PSFS isn't the official name of the building anymore, the red neon letters still glow nightly. The feature is so important to Philadelphians that when Mellon Bank acquired PSFS and subsequently shut off the sign in 1990, a persistent stream of local outrage forced the bank to turn it back on. 

Concerns over the sign's fate boiled again when the Loews project was announced at a press conference in 1997. The first question asked by the local press at the event was about the sign and what Loews would do to it. The hotel chain originally contemplated switching the letters with its own name but eventually decided otherwise, with Loews chairman Jonathan Tisch telling The New York Times in 2000, "I was very proud to say, 'We're leaving it alone." Since then, its cultural significance has evolved, with adventurous local newlyweds choosing the roof of the building for their wedding photos.

Conventions and the hospitality work that come with them are still seen as a big part of Philadelphia's post-industrial growth. The downtown convention center was expanded last year and the city hopes to see more hotel rooms built as a result. Economic questions aside, the city's development strategy helped accelerate the path to preservation for one of America's most important buildings, and one of Philadelphia's most treasured.

Mark Byrnes is an associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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