At the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society Building by Howe and Lescaze, 1932 was the first year of the modern era
Donald Albrecht and Thomas Mellins -- Interior Design, 3/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
"Russell and I just returned from a motor trip to Philadelphia and Washington and I hasten to tell you that the most thrilling experience. . .was your bank. . . ." Thus did Philip Johnson, then head of the department of architecture at New York's Museum of Modern Art, write in the late summer of 1932 to architect William Lescaze, who with George Howe had designed the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society Building. Johnson and the architectural historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, who'd visited only days after its official opening, had included PSFS in the elite roster of buildings selected for MoMA's "Modern Architecture: International Exhibition" that February. PSFS, Johnson enthused, was "not only by far the most interesting piece of modern architecture in this country but, because of its size and elegance, unique in modern architecture of the world. . . . You and Mr. Howe deserve the greatest credit for having started America in such a magnificent way on the path of modern architecture."
Advertised, in point of fact, as "nothing more modern," PSFS was the first International Style tower in the U.S. The syncopated, asymmetrical composition of unadorned forms was simply unlike that of any other American skyscraper at the time, and the design incorporated numerous aesthetic and technological innovations that would become standard features of offices to follow. In curating an exhibition on the building for the Yale School of Architecture in 2004, we became convinced that the enduring significance of PSFS also rests on its status as a distinctly American phenomenon: a building that is at once an efficient machine for profit and a sumptuous work of architecture and interiors.
PSFS culminated the search, on the part of both client and architects, for a truly modern design vocabulary. As a partner in Mellor, Meigs & Howe, the latter was best known for his historicist country houses before he began to incorporate modern elements in his traditional branch banks for PSFS. Then, in 1926, bank president James M. Willcox hired Howe to design what would become the PSFS Building: a 36-story downtown skyscraper housing a bank and executive offices, rental offices, and retail space.
Given Howe's increasing interest in progressive design, he solidified his commitment by choosing to collaborate with Swiss-born William Lescaze, who had already completed a number of buildings and interiors in the new style, among them the streamlined Capital Bus Terminal in New York. In 1929, the two men founded their own firm. Though it ended acrimoniously in1935—Lescaze once accused Howe of being a "hick"—it did produce one acknowledged masterpiece: PSFS.
Modernism's emphasis on transparency, reflectivity, lightness, and asymmetry unified the building's exterior and interiors, from the facade's strip windows to the double-height banking hall's tubular furniture and chromed-steel desk lamps and the restrooms' chrome faucets. The architects even designed clocks and had them made by Cartier, in different colors, for the elevator lobbies. Walls of highly veined marbles and exotic woods replaced the conventional bank's applied decoration, reflecting the modernist ban on ornament while enhancing the bank's image as a trustworthy repository.
Such materials were possible because the budget, determined before the stock-market crash of 1929, went much further than expected during the buyer's market of the Great Depression. The scarcity of off-the-shelf modern objects and the desire of manufacturers to experiment with materials and production methods contributed to the far-reaching program.
Founded in 1816, primarily by Quakers, as a financial institution with a mission to work hard for local people of modest means—the very first customer was an African-American—PSFS naturally emphasized thrift and moneymaking as well. At the same time, PSFS required a building that would express authority. The second-floor banking hall was a brilliant example of this twin identity, allowing for revenue-producing street-level shops while alluding to the piano nobile of Renaissance palazzi.
Depositors ascended to the banking hall, rendered largely column-free by an enormous steel truss, via a broad stair and escalator hall clad in highly polished black marble. High-speed elevators provided access to the building's penthouse, which comprised two dining rooms, a boardroom, a lounge, and a solarium that afforded executives a privileged eye-to-eye view of William Penn atop City Hall.
Among the building's many other technological advances were aluminum-framed ribbon windows that let in an unprecedented amount of daylight; acoustical ceiling tile carried on metal frames; radio outlets in every office; and thermostat-controlled heat. Most important, central air-conditioning, or what corporate promoters dubbed "manufactured weather," made PSFS the second—and the tallest—air-conditioned building in the U.S. (The first was the 21-story Milam Building, completed by George Willis in San Antonio in 1928).
"Will you sample our weather?" Carrier's advertisement for PSFS asked readers. "Philadelphia may swelter or freeze, but here you'll always find the comfort of a pleasant spring day." The Philadelphia Record columnist dubbed "Rex Rittenhouse" quipped that PSFS president Willcox, who suffered from hay fever, was kept "prisoner by the air conditioning of his $7-million skyscraper until the allergy season passed."
By the late 1990's, PSFS had become obsolete in a changing business world, and Bower Lewis Thrower Architects, historic preservation consultants Powers & Company, and Daroff Design + DDI Architects converted the building into the Loews Philadelphia Hotel, preserving as many modernist features as possible. Amusingly, while PSFS is now being enjoyed by a generation that views hotels as entertainment, the connection between architecture and popular culture was apparent even at the building's inception: "If architecture is frozen music," Architectural Forum noted, "the [Philadelphia Saving Fund] Society has gone Gershwin." Just as George Gershwin's songs have become jazz standards, PSFS continues to celebrate architectural modernism, a style once defined as the end of history—but now a part of it.