Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Underneath 3rd Street

There's been a lot of construction on 3rd Street between Market and Chestnut lately, mostly beneath the surface of the street, replacing sanitary sewer lines and other utilities. Given that the block sits squarely in the oldest part of the city, with the block probably among the first inhabited in the city, there's a lot going on underground. All the recent work lets us take a peek at everything that's happening beneath our feet.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Autumn Mural Construction - December 27, 2011

Construction is well underway at the controversial construction that will hide the Autumn mural at 9th and Bainbridge, with the foundation forms rising above the sidewalk.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

NextFab Studio Bringing the Future of Industry to Washington Avenue?

An item on the December Zoning Meeting agenda for SOSNA shows that West Philly-based NextFab Studio is considering opening a second location in the building below, 2025 Washington Avenue.
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NextFab is a membership-based cooperative digital fabrication laboratory, meaning that people can join and pay a membership fee to gain access to tools like CNC routers, laser cutters, welding electronics and other equipment. They offer student, individual and corporate memberships along side classes in different fabrication techniques. Access to all the classes, covering topics from software through to the inner workings of specific tools, is included in the price of membership. Individual rates start at $49/month.

It's a great concept, and spreads the cost of capital-intensive equipment over the membership. I think a use like this a great fit for Washington Avenue, a street with a long history of industrial use from Philadelphia's Workshop of the World epoch. Today the street is home to an odd mix of Chinese supermarkets, dollar stores, and lots of home improvement warehouse type operations. Next Fab would bring an element of 21st Century industrialism to the strip, and I'm sure that they would do a great job rehabbing a building that looks like it could be really cool. The aerial view show big light monitors on the roof and the building goes all the way through to Kimball Street.

It's definitely a suitable use, and seems like something everyone can get behind. Operations like NextFab are indicative of the exciting, forward-looking work happening in Philadelphia today, and their presence on Washington would certainly bring a great new demographic to the mix.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Block in Time - 700 block of South 19th Street

In the last week of March of 1954, a Department of Public Works photographer named Charles Bender was sent out on an assignment to photograph sidewalk and street repairs to the block of 19th Street between Fitzwater and Bainbridge. Today, 57 years later, the photos he took that week now reside in the Philadelphia Department of Records, and I reside on that block of 19th Street.

The Department of Records now has, a great, geo-tagged online home for its collection of historic photos of Philadelphia, and it was while browsing around that site that I found the pictures that Charles Bender took in 1954. Needless to say, there have been some big changes to the block in the intervening years. I thought that I'd step outside and see if I could re-create some of the pictures to look at these changes side-by-side. Here's what I saw...

Starting on the southwest corner of Bainbridge & 19th, this place exemplifies one of the most pervasive changes: the loss of retail. In 1956 there were a number of shops and office on the block, today there are none. This place has lost its storefront and neighbors to the south.

On the southeast corner, commercial space remains (the only one on the block), though I have no idea what goes on at this little office. While there have been some changes to the commercial space (smaller windows, accessible ramp, new awning) the upper floors are pretty original.

There were no trees on the northern half of the block in 1954, and only a couple today. Even those couple of trees make a big difference. The other big change is the surface of the street. Gone are the cobbled trolley tracks. Really, the tracks probably are not gone - like many things on the block, they've simply been covered over. The cracking on today's asphalt surface is a pretty good indication of where the tracks still lay buried. In 1956, 19th street was part of Philadelphia's remarkable trolley system. Take a look below at the 1954 map of the system near it's apex, when nearly every north/south street in Center City carried a line. The 1954 photo shows tracks that were not long for this world. By 1957, National City Lines had appeared in Philadelphia, and the 19th & 20th Street tracks had been abandoned, and the #17 trolley line was replaced by the #17 bus line, which still runs the same route as its predecessor, from a turnaround at 20th and Oregon, to one at 2nd and Market.
A 1954 trolley map of Center City Philadelphia. (via Philly Trolley Tracks)
This building, 703 South 19th Street, seems to have been subsumed into the adjacent commercial space, and got a new facade in the process.

Here's another less than thoughtful facade replacement on the west side of the block. At least the cornices were retained, though it is quite odd to see those finely-detailed cornices above the flat, poorly proportioned facade that's been added. 

Yet another unfortunate facade treatment, with the South Philly bad-renovation standards of vinyl siding over the original brick and cornice, fenced-in stoop, and the classic green awning. The rough treatment this place received is heightened by the better condition of its adjacent twin, though the evolution of satellite television isn't helping that one.
On the west side of the street, the addition of trees screens more facade replacements on 708, 710, and 712. Those buildings have lost their commercial spaces and gained additional apartments. A number of buildings farther north have been demolished and replaced with a community garden.

The northwest corner of 19th and Pemberton has lost its delicatessen, with its many signs and big shop windows. It's really surprising just how much small retail the area was able to support in the 1950's.

The southwest corner of 19th & Pemerton presented the most surprising change. In 1954, that corner site was home to a six-story building, and a good-looking one at that. I haven't been able to figure out what was in this building at the time, though the big windows seem to indicate a commercial use. I know that it wasn't there in 1910, when the site was home to two setback houses similar to the ones to the south. It appears on a 1962 map, and the houses there now were built in 2006. When it went up and when it came down remain a mystery, but I'd have to assume that it was demolished prior to the rejuvenation of this neighborhood in the early 1990's - it would be too valuable as a residential renovation one of the few tall buildings in the neighborhood. Pemberton seems an odd spot for a midrise, though CHOP was a block away at the time it was built. Need to do some more research on this one...

Across 19th Street on the southeast corner of 19th & Pemberton, a funeral home used to occupy the ground floor. The scoring on the stucco is gone, and the windows have been shrunk and blocked in when the space was converted to a residence. Thankfully, the upper floors and cornice remain in fine shape.

The three little setback houses all made it from 1954 to today. They all seem to have gone through some cosmetic changes; I assume that porches and fences have a lifespan that's less than 55 years. Two have gotten parking spots in the front yard. One other item from 1954 that didn't make it is the pole at the far left, which was a support for the overhead wires of the trolley system.

Down at the northwest corner of 19th and Catharine, another commercial space has become a covered-over first floor apartment. This building also lost a nice projecting bay and what looks like a great tree. The second house in has been demolished and replaced in the interim.

Here's another classic South Philly facade improvement - cast concrete 'stone' veneer. The loss of the cornice on that place is also keenly felt. The house on the right, has stayed pretty true, retaining its integral brick cornice, but gaining an unfortunate new door and coat of paint.

Looking up 19th Street to the north from Fitzwater, the church has stayed pretty much the same from this vantage. The trees screen some of the modern view of Center City, though the glass-gabled Fred G. DiBona building makes an appearance on the skyline. Interesting to see that the intersection of 19th & Fitzwater had traffic lights back then. These days the light has been replaced with a four-way stop.

This was another big surprise. The ratty church on the northeast corner of Fitwater and 19th used to be really gorgeous. What is today a flat roofline was once crusted with pinnicales, stained glass, and details. The rather insensitive renovation remover the pitched roof, and added the tan stucco band visible at the top of facade in order to allow for a flat roof. I can only wonder why this decision was made, though I wonder if the goal was to create two usable floors in the building. The original stained glass is also gone now, replaced by more stucco infill and cheap windows. The really unfortunate fact is that this past renovation has likely sealed the fate of this church, which will probably see the wrecking ball in the next few years, as have many of the other churches in the neighborhood. Given that this one has been so badly compromised already, it's unlikely that many will come to its defense. 

The likely demolition of the church will continue the process that seems to have occurred on the block in the 55 years since the first pictures were taken. Due to cultural and economic changes in the city, the mixture of shops, homes, and churches is becoming a homogeneous residential neighborhood. There's very little small retail in the interior of the neighborhood these days, and neighbors seem set against it more and more (see the Bedford Cafe saga). A lot of the visual and architectural diversity is sapped from the neighborhood when it is wall to wall three-story rowhouses, but the process does eliminate some of the use conflicts that can make city living difficult. Still, these juxtapositions are also what make the place hum. I hope that the coming fifty years bring more positive change to the block.

*All historic photos from the Charles J. Bender, City of Philadelphia Department of Records

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Architecture of John Lautner

A recent NPR article highlights the work of modern architect John Lautner one hundred years after his birth. Starting from the construction of a lakeside family home in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and a stint in Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin School, Lautner went on to design some of Los Angeles' most distinctive and recognizable homes. While I had most certainly seen some of Lautner's work prior to this article (you probably have too), I hadn't known much about the man himself and some of his lesser-known works.

Image via.
While much of his work presents an appearance of space-age, many of the designs are really rooted in the primitive, with cave-like spaces, and an intense, ever-present connection to the outdoors. Looking at his projects, many are ethereally peaceful spaces, safe and comfortable, apart from but tied to the wider world. The horizon always has a presence in Lautner's houses, and few are able to frame a great view as well as he does. This is architecture bordering on the sublime.

I spent some time this morning reading and listening about Lautner and think I'm better for it. I especially enjoyed a half hour discussion with the curator of a 2008 exhibit on Lautner's work, along with some great photos of the Sheats-Goldstein House (above), Judith Lautner's Picasa collection with images of many projects, and the thorough website of the John Launter Foundation.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Corner of Locust and Eleventh-and-One-Quarter Street

Reading a post about old Philly street names on Naked Philly yesterday by everyone's favorite snarky, potty-mouthed local architecture critic GroJLart, a commenter mentioned a failed 1894 plan for fractional numbering in Philadelphia.The system would have given names like Eleven-and-One-Quarter Street to Jessup Street, one of three streets running north/south between Eleventh and Twelveth Streets. An article in the New York Times described the system thus:

I had a couple of quibbles with the articles' discussion of Chicago's regular, but named street grid as an exemplary system. First, Chicago's system does have named streets, running east-west and going south from the Loop, and secondly, in a way, the coordinate system in Chicago accomplishes what the Board of Surveyors seemed to be trying to do in Philadelphia. While most streets are named, all intersections also fall on a coordinate point. For instance the (beautifully-named) intersection of Belmont & Ashland Streets can also be described as 3200N, 1600W.* So, while beautifully named, the Chicago system also overlays a set of geographic information, relating distance and direction from the downtown centerpoint at State and Madison Streets (0EW, 0N/S.) In the case of Belmont & Ashland, one is four miles north and two miles west of downtown. 

So, while I like the intersection Locust and Jessup more than Locust and 11 1/4, I see no problem with directing someone unfamiliar to Locust and 11 1/4 Streets. I can't recall ever hearing this in Philadelphia, but it seems to make sense that one could describe things in this manner, even though it doesn't work going North-South at all. Perhaps I just might use it one of these days.

*I tried searching Google Maps for the 3200N & 1600W Chicago, IL and it doesn't work. I guess the coordinate system only makes sense for cartophiles and a pre-Google Maps world.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Photo of the Day - On Change

For all the mess that we've had of late in politics, this was a great night; in Chicago on Election Day in 2008. The place was electric with the idea of big-C change. Whether or not the idea has come to pass, this was still a wonderful, unifying, and inspiring evening, with hundreds of thousands in Grant Park to celebrate another peaceful changing of the guard.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Trading Cities 5, from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities

In Esmeralda, city of water, a network of canals and a network of streets span and intersect each other. To go from one place to another you have always the choice between land and boat: and since the shortest distance between two point in Esmeralda is not a straight line but a zigzag that ramifies in tortuous optional routes the ways that open to each passerby are never two, but many, and they increase further for those who alternate a stretch by boat with one on dry land.

And so Esmeralda’s inhabitants are spared the boredom of following the same streets every day. And that is not all: the network of routes is not arranged on one level, but follows instead an up-and-down course of steps, landings, cambered bridges, hanging streets. Combining segments of the various routes, elevated or on ground level, each inhabitant can enjoy every day the pleasure of a new itinerary to reach the same places. The most fixed and calm lives in Esmeralda are spent without any repetition.

Secret and adventurous lives here as elsewhere, are subject to the greater restrictions. Esmeralda’s cats, thieves, illicit lovers move along higher, discontinuous ways, dropping from a rooftop to a balcony, following guttering with acrobats’ steps. Below, the rats run in the darkness of the sewers, one behind the other’s tail, along with conspirators and smugglers: they peep out of manholes and drainpipes, they slip through double bottoms and ditches, from one hiding place to another they drag crusts of cheese, contraband goods, kegs of gunpowder, crossing the city’s compactness pierced by the spokes of underground passages.

A map of Esmeralda should include, marked in different colored inks, all these routes, solid and liquid, evident and hidden. It is more difficult to fix on the map the routes of the swallows, who cut the air over the roofs, dropping long invisible parabolas with their still wings, darting to gulp a mosquito, spiraling upward, grazing a pinnacle, dominating from every point of their airy paths all the points of the city. 


From Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, a collection of prose musings about fantasy cities, which I recently read and much enjoyed. 

Photo of the Day - Philly's Working High Line

Freight trains fly over West Philly.

LINK: 10 Unconventional Bookstores

Flavorwire is running an awesome feature today about interesting bookstores. Definitely worth a look.

Flavorwire » 10 Unconventional Bookstores For Your Browsing Pleasure

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Monday, July 4, 2011

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Race Street Pier, Day and Night

When last I posted, the Race Street Pier was just a day away from its opening. I've made a couple of visits to the park since then, both day and night. Each time there were reasonable crowds, never busy, but never empty. These groups were always diverse ones, ranging from Fishtown hipsters to Port Richmond kids, from elderly couples to making out teens. I even saw a guy who looked like he was on his way to Old City wheel his Ninja motorcycle out onto the pier to pose for a few pictures taken by his girlfriend.

The last night I was there, the Camden RiverSharks happened to have fireworks after their game, which made for a great view from the terraced seating facing the river. The nighttime treatment of the pier is a real success, with sensitive and varied lighting that is complemented by the lights of the Ben Franklin Bridge soaring overhead. That success extends the daily life of the park and keeps it occupied up until its 11 o'clock closing time.

A new Friends group is starting to think about ways to program the pier to keep attendance up. That's a good thing, because drawing people will probably be this park's biggest challenge. Though it's well designed and certainly a unique setting in Philadelphia, it is off the beaten path. My visits were always intentional - unlike the Schuylkill Banks park or Rittenhouse Square, this is not a park that you happen into on your way somewhere. Even those who live nearby face somewhat daunting trips to the pier, either along six-lane, high-speed Columbus Boulevard, or under a series of underpasses from Old City. Hopefully the Race Street Connector project will make the latter a little more enjoyable. And with even more hope, perhaps the Delaware riverfront will evolve enough over time that more people have opportunities to wander into this great little acre of Philadelphia on the their way to somewhere else.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Race Street Pier Hard Hat Tour

In honor of tomorrow's opening of the much-anticipated and much-raved-about  Race Street Pier, I'm putting up the photo essay I made after a hard hat tour of the almost-completed project a few weeks ago. I was quite impressed with the project, and am looking forward to seeing the finished project tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Visit to Philadelphia's Magic Gardens

A couple of weekends ago, we finally made it over to visit Philadelphia's Magic Gardens on South Street, which was built by Isaiah Zagar over the course of some 14 years. Zagar and his family first settled on South Street in the late 1960's, when the area was threatened by Ed Bacon's proposed South Street Expressway. The expressway was to be the southern sister to the Vine Street Expressway, and would have replaced the block between South and Lombard with a six-lane highway trench. Given the uncertainty about the fate of the area, artists and others moved in to take over the strip while the prices were cheap, and created the creative, happening South Street of yore.

While South Street's fortunes have ebbed and flowed over the intervening 40 years, the Zagars have been stalwart and iconic residents. Isaiah's mirrored, painted, and ebullient mosaic murals came to define the streetscape of the neighborhood, and wife Julia's Eyes Gallery has been open continuously for over thirty years. In 1994, Zagar walled in a neighboring abandoned lot with his trademark walls, and began constructing the 3,000 square foot Magic Gardens. The site quickly became a landmark in the neighborhood and city. So quickly in fact that when the owner of the lot attempted to sell it in 2002, the community contributed to establish a non-profit that bought the land and will preserve the gardens in perpetuity. Like the best outsider architecture and art, the site is a monument to one man's pursuit of a project.

“Art is the center of the real world, and Philadelphia is the center of the art world.”
-Isaiah Zagar

There is a 2008 film titled In a Dream that chronicles the work of Zagar, and in the process reveals much about his history and strained relationship with his family. To view the movie and spend a couple of hours in Zagar's mind reveals the fine line between genius, obsession, and insanity. Like the Watts Towers or Cheval's Palace, these projects are never completed without a tinge of mania. It seems as though those who are least able to handle the stresses and trials of real life seem to be those most capable of realizing their fantasies.

And of course, we had to do a little video portrait to round out our visit. Click through to Vimeo to see it in full HD.

The Magic Gardens from Michael Burlando on Vimeo.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A New York Weekend

We spent a lovely weekend in New York in Mid-March. I just recently got around to putting up some of the pictures from the trip, which included visits to DUMBO, the new Michael Van Valkenburgh-designed Brooklyn Bridge Park, a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, Frank Gehry's almost complete Beekman Tower, Renzo Piano's New York Times Building, an evening at the Met, a Chinatown dim sum brunch, and a whirl around the Brooklyn Flea.

In terms of creative output, the highlight of the trip was probably the timelapse I made on the way into town. We took the Megabus and posted up in our favorite seats up top and in the front. About halfway through the trip we struck upon the idea of wedging the camera under the front handrail (with the assistance of and extra sweater) and I shot a timelapse from the Meadowlands through the end of the trip in Midtown. I think the results turned out great, and I'm looking forward to trying more videos like this one. (Click through to Vimeo for the full HD version.)

Meadowlands to Midtown from Michael Burlando on Vimeo.

One other thing that I was reminded of as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge was the New York Times' photo essay of the apartment atop the Clock Tower building in DUMBO. The building itself is great from the outside, but the Times' peek inside Brooklyn's most expensive apartment is definitely worth a gander.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Prayer for Philadelphia

Prayer for Philadelphia, by Coyopa Productions. (via Vimeo)

I came across this gorgeous video today, which the creator made from over 5,000 still images. This one gets me pumped for the coming summer, and a larger Philly timelapse that I'm hoping to put together. Hopefully that will come out half as nice as this one did.

Click through to Vimeo for the full video in HD.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Schuylkill River Cruising

From last fall's Friends of the Schuylkill Banks Cruise.

Mapping Location Through Cell Phone Tracking

A friend sent along an interesting New York Times article about German privacy advocate Malte Spitz's efforts to obtain the location information collected through his cellphone from Deutsche Telekom. After a court battle, he obtained the records collected via his 'handy' (love that nickname), and was given an astonishing spreadsheet, containing each of the 35,831 pieces of information that had been collected about him over the previous six months. That's more than one piece of data every 7 and a half minutes. As a privacy activist and member of Germany's Green Party, he chose to make his findings public, via Google Document, in an effort to show the extent of the data collected.

Working with Spitz, the German newspaper Die Zeit created an incredible interactive map of the data. In addition to mapping the location information provided by Deutsche Telekom, Die Zeit integrated Spitz calling and SMS texting use, and "augmented" that information Spitz's tweets, blog postings, and public appearances to create a full-bodied, interactive portrait of one man's life over the course of six months.

A screenshot from the interactive map of six months of Spitz's life. (via Die Zeit Online)

The resulting infographic is utterly fascinating. While its creator surely intended for it to be a frightening reflection of just how much personal data is collected by others, I'm more interested by the possibilities it opens then the fearsome Big Brother it reveals. Spitz's movements are thoroughly plotted across the map, and reveal information not just about location, bu about movement, and the relative speed of different modes of travel. Tied in with his blogging, tweets, and cell phone use, the data creates a remarkable chronicle of thoughts and activities, along with their ties to place. What was one looking at when a great idea struck and was tweeted? Where was one standing when they took a photo and posted it to Facebook?

I understand and appreciate the desire for privacy, and think that those who wish to remain anonymous should be able to, but my first reaction when I read this article was, "I wish I could get my records." The ties between space, time, and human activities fascinates me - for instance, I have been manually recording all of my movements through Philadelphia by foot and bicycle since October of last year, mostly as a way of keeping a diary through maps. Even now I can look back at the maps I've accumulated and recall the responsibilities and activities, both mundane and extraordinary, that propelled me around the city on any given day. I would love to be able to tie that movement data so closely to the other actions I took.

While the possibility of the misuse of data such as that found by Herr Spitz is plausible, and its abuse is conceivable, its power is undeniable. This data, severed of its links to individuals offers a wealth of information with already proposed data mining concepts, like traffic management. Without safeguards to protect anonymity, such tracking can be ethically murky, but the ability of this information to transform the way that we see cities and movement. Still, even severed from a specific identity, it's not too hard to figure out whose map is whose. A brief glimpse at the maps I've made clearly shows where I live, along with regular trips that I make, for instance to collect rents from my rental property and deposit them at the bank on the first of every month. Such maps of movement are incredibly legible and revealing - perhaps this is why they fascinate me so.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Evolution of Manhattan's Grid

Scrolling through the history of Manhattan's streets. (New York Times)

In honor of the 200th anniversary of the creation of the iconic grid that covers the northern three-quarters of Manhattan, the New York Times ran an interesting article recounting the history of the grid. Even more interesting was the accompanying interactive feature that layers the historical iterations of the map of new York over one another, along with a sliding timeline of street openings.

The timeline lets you check in on the map of New York at any point in its history. It's a fascinating way to see how living patterns evolved over the course of the city's history. Like reading tree rings, one can see periods of boom and bust as the map evolved from that of a growing boom town to a stable, mature metropolis. My other favorite element of this article was some of the trivia about the grid, like the fact that the Brevoort family fought the division of their land, and hence there is no 11th Street between Broadway and 4th. Both the article and the engrossing add-on are worth your time.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Academy of Music Chandelier

The Academy of Music Chandelier from high above. (Kimmel Center Flikr)

We went to see the Pennsylvania Ballet production of Swan Lake at the Academy of Music on Broad Street last night. The evening marked my first visit to the Academy which is a truly beautiful space - one that Philadelphia is very lucky to have. One of our favorite aspects of the theater is the fact that the grand chandelier raises and lowers to come in and out of view at each intermission. We were sitting in the nosebleeds and got a fine view of it during both intermissions. The chandelier, 20 feet tall, and 12 feet in diameter was originally gas-lit, and has been in the building since it opened in 1857. This evening I found some great up close shots of said chandelier during a $1.75 million 2007 restoration. You can view the full set on the Kimmel Center's Flikr here.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Penn Park Construction

Construction of the Paley Bridge extension in Penn Park. (Penn flickr)

The fine folks over at Penn's Communications Department have posted a group of photos from a tour of the construction at Penn Park, the new green space being constructed on the former Postal lands between Penn and the Schuylkill River. It looks like the project, which is heavily infrastructure-driven, is coming along well, and should open on time for the Fall 2011 semester. You can view the full set here.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Traces of Whitemarsh Hall

Recently, I've been commuting out to the Philadelphia suburbs two or three times a week for work. I loathe commuting by car, but the trip to the north suburbs is both blessedly and cursedly free of freeways, so most of the travel is on surface streets. My trip up Kelly Drive and through the Wissahickon is generally a pretty one, if not always pleasant. One of the unique little landmarks I pass each trip is a wildly out of scale entrance to a small neighborhood along Willow Grove Avenue in Wyndmoor. Two twenty-five foot tall, urn-topped limestone pillars flank a standard-looking suburban subdivision street.

I figured there was more to the story of these pillars than an overzealous tract house developer, but in the routine bustle of getting from here to there, I never took a chance to explore. The answer to this little riddle came to me in a rather roundabout way last night.

Perched on the couch a little after midnight, I was reading my current book, Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life. The book is a fairly manic one, framed as a history of the world told from within the author's home, and it pings among subjects, from rodent reproduction to a history of black pepper to a discussion of Victorian architecture in a single chapter. A number of the topics Bryson touched on have piqued my interest to the point where I've gone online to do more research, or seek out images. (This is one book where the reading experience is probably much enriched on a web-enabled e-reader) As I read last night, Bryson related the history of Eva Stotesbury, a legendary spender of her husband's money, as a way of introducing the tale of the fascinating architect Addison Mizner.* Mizner designed the Stotesbury's Florida home, but in the course of the introduction, Bryson briefly described their primary residence, Whitemarsh Hall in Philadelphia.

I'd never heard of Whitemarsh Hall, which Bryson describes as "a house so big that no two accounts ever describe it in quite the same way. Depending on whose figures you credit, it had 154, 172, or 272 rooms. All agree that it had fourteen elevators, considerably more than most hotels. It cost Mr. Stotesbury nearly $1 million a year just to maintain. He employed forty gardeners and ninety other staff there." Surely this was a house I should have heard of. Intriqued, I went to the net today, looking for pictures and history of Whitemarsh Hall.

The gatehouse and vista approaching Whitmarsh Hall at the time of its construction.

I came across this great site that has a thorough history of the house and lots of great pictures (some of which I borrowed below). Long story short: the house was built between 1916 and 1921, as designed by Horace Trumbauer, the great Philadelphia Classicist architect who also designed the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was the site of lavish parties throughout the 1920's though with the onset of the Great Depression and the death of Mr. Stotesbury, the house became less and less practical. The widow Stotesbury closed the house in 1938 and moved to Florida full-time. During World War Two, Whitemarsh Hall's two-mile long steel fence was dismantled and given to the War Department, providing the material for some 16,000 guns. The house was used briefly as a chemical research laboratory before being sold to a property developer who began the slow process of demolition by neglect.

Whitemarsh Hall during its deterioration in the 1970's.

In the end, Whitemarsh was demolished in April of 1980, and replaced by a townhouse development dubbed Stotesbury Estates. But the house wasn't eradicated entirely. Portions of its grand gardens, reminiscent of those at Versailles, were retained. A fountain or two, several pieces of statuary, the stepped garden wall, and the Classical Portico of the main house all remain, scattered throughout a vinyl-sided 1980's sub division.

Garden stairs and the original Ionic portico of the main house among their more modern neighbors.

This is why I love reading - one never knows when or how what they are reading will reveal some secret. Even if it's just the answer to the oft-wondered at pillars on the side of the road. So, as Bill Bryson wrote about the history of the rooms in his house in the English countryside, he's enriched my drive to work. One of these days, I'll have to make time to cruise through the neighborhood and see what remains.

*Mizner's story is a comical and fascinating one on its own, and as I researched this little piece, I found another connection to Philadelphia's great houses: Mizner designed La Ronda, the Mediterranean Revival tour de force in Bryn Mawr that had its own date with the wrecking ball on October 9th, 2009.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rush Hour at 19th and Bainbridge

19th & Bainbridge Nighttime Timelapse from Michael Burlando on Vimeo.

This is one of my first timelapse efforts, done the day that I got the remote and tripod. It's a simple shot from our balcony overlooking the intersection of 19th & Bainbridge Streets in Philadelphia. It covers a period of one hour from 5-6 pm on a frigid January evening. I took a 1.3 second shot every three seconds with my Canon EOS Rebel XSi every three seconds over that hour to make this video.

The longer exposure time gave some great drag effects which really seems to help to give the video a continuous look. From pedestrians and traffic zipping along, to parking spaces being vacated and filled, along with the regular arrivals of the 17 bus, it's amazing just how much goes on at any given intersection over the course of a rush hour.

You can click through to Vimeo to watch the Video in full HD.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

REALLY?: Boston's John Hancock Tower Wins the AIA 25-Year Award

I was surprised to read that Boston's John Hancock Tower received the AIA's 25-Year Award. Why surprised? Mainly because many people know this building more for its technical failings than its aesthetic triumphs. Designed by I.M. Pei, the construction of the tower was an unmitigated disaster. The temporary foundation walls buckled, damaging utility lines and nearby buildings,
including the adjacent Trinity Church. Once the building was up, it's trademark blue mirror-glass panels began failing, cracking in place, and frequently falling out of their frames and plummeting to Copley Square below. The problem was so bad that the building earned the nickname "the Plywood Palace," for all of its plywood replacement panels, and guards were hired to stand in the square and alert passerby of falling panes.After all the glass was replaced (at a cost of $5 to $7 million) the place finally opened, only to face yet another issue. The building's sway was so severe that upper floor occupants experienced motion sickness, necessitating the installation of a pair of 300-ton tuned mass dampers to keep office workers from vomiting at their desks. Even with these dampers, it was eventually discovered that the building might collapse under certain wind loading conditions, which demanded a fix involving 1,500 tons of additional diagonal steel bracing (and another $5 million.) All told, the building's opening was delayed from 1971 to 1976, and its cost ballooned from $75 million to $175 million. Hardly a success story.

But wait! The American Institute of Architects saw fit to confer a National Honor Award on the building in 1977. Granted, the building has its aesthetic successes, and many of its failures can be blamed on lackluster structural engineering, but can form alone make up for the debacle that was this building's construction? The building presents a novel form, makes some efforts to respect its historic neighbors, and did achieve a reflective monolithic appearance. Still the architects blew it with all the glass that made up that great monolith the first time around, and cost their client a fortune in the process.

And now, some 35 years later, the AIA has returned to lavish another reward on the building. It never ceases to amaze me how narrow the judgement of architects can be. It is reflective of a disconnect between the profession and simple common sense, where a project can't be considered an unmitigated success if it is as beset by problems as was the Hancock. Adding to this disconnect is the AIA's press release which heaps praise on the building, which it says, "has demonstrated excellence in function, in the distinguished execution of its original program, and in the creative aspects of its statement by today’s standards." Of course there is nary a mention of the many failings of the design. Perhaps though, all of the tribulations, the doubling of budgets, the infinite change orders, and design do-overs are worth it to achieve a great final product. But I don't think this building is all that great. And there must be better all-around projects that are far more deserving of this award.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

New York's North Brother Island

Yesterday Flavorpill linked to a gorgeous photo essay of New York's North Brother Island by Brooklyn-based photographer Richard Nickel, Jr. (I can't determine whether Nickel, Jr., whose blog is subtitled 'Guerrilla Preservation and Urban Archeology is related to the legendary photographer, Sullivan-chronicler, preservation martyr Richard Nickel. Perhaps this modern Nickel chose a nom-de-guerre that identifies himself as Nickel's intellectual progeny? Update: It's a pseudonym.)

The island lies between Rikers Island and The Bronx, and was uninhabited until 1885, when the Riverside Hospital relocated there from Roosevelt Island. (Sidebar #2: Riverside Hospital does not appear to be the same institution as Roosevelt Island's Smallpox Hospital, which in addition to being much more accessible than the ruins of North Brother Island, is New York's only landmarked ruin.) The island had several brushes with fame, including housing Typhoid Mary in quarantine for a time, and it was the site of the General Slocum's fire, New York's worst maritime disaster. After serving variously as a hospital, emergency housing for GI's after World War II, and a drug rehabilitation center, the island has been abandoned since the 1960's.

Nickel's photograph's are incredible, and I am continually amazed by how such ruins can still exist so close to the hearts of our cities. It's a wonder that such spots are not snapped up developers and investors, and both a blessing and a curse that they are so hard to access. Nickel's post is definitely worth reading, and this video tour of the island also has some merits.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Karl Lagerfeld's Library is Pretty Awesome.

Photo by Todd Selby via the Observer.

New York City in Timelapse

This is a gorgeous series of timelapse shots from around NYC. The maker is doing some cool stuff with panning that I'd love to figure out how to replicate. I just started playing with timelapses over the last weekend, and am hoping to have something put together soon. Hopefully one day I'll be doing stuff as nice as this!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Resolutions 2011

Apparently, new research shows that women are 10% more likely to succeed in achieving their New Year's resolutions if they make them public. I'm not sure why this is only true for women in the study, but it seems to make a lot of sense. I don't think I've ever even written down a resolution. This can't be helping my success rate. I might even be achieving goals that I completely forgot that I set. Hopefully a good list, and the accountability of a never-read corner of the internet will allow me to realize all my dreams in 2011. So, here's a few things that I like to do in the coming year.
  1. Run in three road races of 5k or more. One of these must be the 10-mile, fun-looking Broad Street Run.
  2. Continue my Gmap-Pedometer Project through all of 2011. I've been recording all of my travels by foot or bicycle each day, using Gmap-Pedometer. I've got some ideas about how all of this data could make for some interesting projects in the coming year.
  3. Refinish the cedar chest coffee table. This could be a great piece of furniture if I can get it cleaned up.
  4. Visit Forest Hills Gardens in Queens. I've read lots about this garden city development, but never been, despite the fact it's only a couple of hours away. Let's get there this year.
  5. Read more than 15,000 pages. Based on the reading I've done in the last couple of years, I think that this is a reasonable challenge for 2011.
  6. Learn how to do time-lapse photography. I've always loved time-lapses, and I now have most of the tools I need to make it happen. I'd love to do one a month, no matter the quality, each month this year.
  7. Do a nice, big water color elevation of a historic building in Philadelphia. I never finished the one of the Lehigh President's House that I started during undergrad, and always regretted it. I love drafting by hand and I miss it. The Juniper seems like a great candidate for this.
  8. Make a great vegetable garden. Our attempts at windowsill gardening went pretty much nowhere last year, but we've got much more to work with this season, given the size of our back deck in Philly. Corollary to this one: make and use a worm bin, despite Audrey's protestations.
  9. Make a habit of blogging. Post at least once a week, on whatever I'm working on or just anything that's grabbed my interest during a given week.
  10. Do at least one big group bicycle ride. The MS150 was a lot fun the two years that I did it, and I'd love to do that, the ACS Ride, or the New York Five Boro Tour again this year.
  11. Make a tile and mirror mural on the back deck, a la Isiah Zagar. I've always loved this type of mural, and we have the perfect canvas, and even some of the materials to get us started.
  12. Finally, make a point of recording my ideas for projects or activities. Historically, I have not wanted for ideas, only for follow through. If recording ideas helps me to take even one of them from concept to reality, it'd be well worth it.

Counting Coins

When I was a kid, my father, grandfather, and I would gather around the dining room table the day after Christmas. Grandpa's change jar would get emptied onto the table, and we'd sort, stack, and roll the year's change for deposit at the bank.

Every six months or a year since then, I have emptied my own change jar onto the coffee table and done my counting for the year. As with everything else I do (reading, walking, etc.) I make a note of how much I deposit each year. My 2010 year end deposit was a small one, given that I deposited change in August, in advance of our location to Philadelphia and the fact that Audrey regularly raids the jar for quarters to do laundry. My deposit for the fall was a measly $18.00.

On a related note, I've often gotten a hard time for picking up found change on the street. I'm sure that picking up a penny seems pointless and not worth the effort of bending down, but I was always raised to value money, and when one does it every day, those pennies start to add up. So, for all my friends that like to critique my change habit, I'm going to try something new and start a jar just for the change I find. I think it'll be interesting to see what all that picking up is worth over the course of the year.