June 9, 2010
By Alan Jaffe
While a legal storm swirls around the deals made for a new Family Court at 15th and Arch Streets, clouds have also formed over the old building facing the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The neoclassical courthouse, erected in 1938-1941, is “among Philadelphia’s most significant public buildings,” according to the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which is circulating an online petition calling for a task force to study the future use of the site and asking for a transparent process in the decision-making.
At a May 21 press conference announcing the new court plan, Gov. Rendell promised $20 million in state funds to transform the old building into a luxury hotel and museum. Mayor Nutter said at the same event that the city would issue a request for proposals from developers this month.
But preservationists are worried the selection process may be rushed and result in bad choices for the Parkway site. The revelations about the legal deals and investigations surrounding the new site haven’t provided cause for confidence.
Modeled after a hotel
The architect of the building between 18th and 19th Streets on Vine Street was John T. Windrim, who a few years before had designed the Franklin Institute at 20th and the Parkway. Windrim, who also designed Wills Hospital, Jefferson Medical College, the Research Institute of Lankenau Hospital and Presbyterian Hospital, had been asked to create a building that would be a companion piece to Horace Trumbauer’s 1926 Free Library. The two buildings are meant to replicate the twin buildings of the Hotel de Crillon in Paris.
The Family Court was built by the Depression-era Public Works Administration, and its interior “looks as if no expense was spared,” according to Dave Schaaf, director of urban design for the City Planning Commission. Schaaf, who recently toured portions of the courthouse, said the interior is “very good condition. The building has been kept well” and has not been altered in “any significant way” since its opening.
“And that concerns me. Getting someone into position, deciding on the developer of this project hastily, could easily lead to the wrong choice.”
Check out Preservation Alliance outreach