It’s a building that many Philadelphians love to hate – a gray, concrete, distended kidney-shaped island rising in a sea of traffic. The Police Administration Building, better known as the Roundhouse, is associated with crime and punishment, Frank Rizzo and the era of brutalism – on city streets and in streetscapes.
But as an example of Mid-Century Modern architecture and innovative engineering, the building at 700 Race Street is also becoming a rallying point for preservationists. The Roundhouse was one of several city-owned buildings named to the Endangered Properties List of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia last month. And it’s now the subject of a social media campaign being waged by grad students in the historic preservation program at the University of Pennsylvania.
There are no immediate plans to demolish the Roundhouse, but Mayor Nutter has announced that police headquarters will be relocated to West Philadelphia over the next few years. The administration has resisted efforts to study possible reuse of the building and appears to be promoting new construction at the site, according to the Preservation Alliance.
The Penn students have heard that the building does not appear on the city’s as-yet unpublished Philadelphia2035 comprehensive plan for the central district. “The Roundhouse is listed as a development parcel on the plan, according to those who have seen it,” said Penn masters candidate Kimber VanSant.
The Roundhouse was chosen as one of several studio projects for the second-year Penn grad students in the fall.VanSant helped compile the background and history of the building. And she and fellow students launched a new Facebook page, www.facebook.com/SaveTheRoundhouse
, in December. The page includes drawings and promotional photos of the building’s exterior and interior from the early 1960s, and other images over the decades it has been in use.
The building is a landmark of the Philadelphia School of architecture, the Preservation Alliance says, and was designed by the firm of Geddes, Brecher, Qualls & Cunningham. When it was constructed in 1959-62, the architects used a pre-cast, pre-stressed concrete system called Schokbeton. The building was assembled from more than 2,000 pieces of pre-cast white concrete that integrated the structural and mechanical systems for heating and air conditioning. Engineered by August Komendant, a pioneer in the field of reinforced concrete who worked on several buildings with Louis Kahn, the Roundhouse was one of the first structures of its kind in the U.S.
It was also part of the Center City redevelopment effort of the 1960s championed by Mayor Richardson Dilworth and city planner Edmund Bacon.
Structurally, “the building has held up really well,” VanSant said. While some mid-century concrete buildings have begun to crumble and allow water to seep in, the Roundhouse has had “minimal spalling and has required minimal maintenance.”
She has also come to appreciate the “curvilinear skin” and interior architectural details of the Roundhouse, from round elevators to circular exit signs. “I used to walk past concrete buildings” without glancing up, she said. “But the windows on the Roundhouse have become sculpturally beautiful to me.”
Even those who consider the building an eyesore should think of the city as “layers of history,” added over centuries and a variety of styles. “Do we need to wipe out everything that is made of concrete? We have to raise appreciation for the building beyond the aesthetics,” VanSant explained.
So far, the Facebook page has 136 followers, most of them new fans of the Roundhouse. The social media component is “just starting the conversation” about the preservation of the building, VanSant said.
Another Penn student has written the nomination of the Roundhouse to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which will be submitted over the next month or so. Then the students will tackle the process to get it on the National Register.
They are also talking to developers and neighborhood groups about potential repurposing of the building. PennPraxis and the Preservation Alliance have discussed coordinating a design competition for the building’s reuse.
“Once the city announce plans for demolition, we’ll start talking to other potential coalition partners” to preserve the Roundhouse, VanSant said.
“It’s in an area that’s developing,” she added. “This building would be awesome for a reuse as a hotel. Or some kind of public-private partnership could work very well there.”