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Social Values

When restoring landmarks, Vitetta's historic preservation studio is mindful of the details but never forgets the larger reasons why we need to preserve.
By Kim A. O'Connell

On a sunny afternoon in May, I join a trio of preservationists on an unconventional tour of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Instead of ambling through the museum's period rooms, which house a world-class art collection, we ascend the metal staircase of a massive scaffolding rig sheathing the building's famous Greek Revival façade. The higher we go, the more sweat beads on my neck, either from the spring heat or my nerves. With the visitors ascending the museum's famous "Rocky Steps" getting smaller below us, I instinctively touch the side of the building, seeking comfort in its solidity. Located at the west end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, overlooking the downtown skyline, the museum is a shining example of the City Beautiful movement. It anchors Philadelphia, and on this day, it anchors me too.

Carefully turning my back to the city, I am treated to a rarely seen view – a row of Corinthian capitals that stretch out before us at one of the scaffolding's highest levels. I am astonished to realize that the terra-cotta detailing is glazed in shades of green, blue, white and orange-red (I read later that the building was one of the first major Classical Revival structures to use this polychromatic technique). The effect is dramatic, despite the cracks, small holes and black grime that have appeared over the eight decades since the museum was built. Carefully cleaning the walls and treating the decay, however, is a vast team of workers spread out across the scaffolding like bees in an apiary.

My companions – Michael Holleman, AIA, Lonnie Hovey, AIA, and Nan Gutterman, AIA – are no less awed by the building but are considerably more calm as they explain the process to me. Holleman is director and principal of the historic preservation studio of Vitetta, a multidisciplinary firm headquartered in Philadelphia, and Hovey and Gutterman are both long-time associates there. The studio has led a major master-planning process for the museum, which includes a rehabilitation of and an addition to interior exhibit spaces. Gutterman explains that the exterior restoration required a series of careful tests to determine the best cleaning method; ultimately, the team determined that only the mildest soap and water would do for the aging structure.

Details like this are important to the studio, which has restored dozens of landmark buildings over the past 35 years, as well as to its clients. The firm's portfolio includes such high-profile projects as Philadelphia City Hall, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, the Philadelphia Academy of Music and the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg. Beyond the needs of any particular project, however, the studio is also driven by the greater imperatives of historic preservation – to foster downtown areas, save cultural heritage, protect undeveloped land and do work that weaves together our social fabric instead of rending it apart.

"We're very fortunate in that we work on some of the most interesting buildings in the country for some of the most interesting clients," say Holleman. "We're challenged by the buildings and the technical issues that we find within them, but we're also challenged and inspired by our clients. I tend to look at our work in terms of social value. There are other firms who focus on private residences or very exclusive buildings that only a few people get to see. Our work is focused on buildings that everyone can use, and that's a wonderful thing."

Breaking Ground
In the early 1970s, the architect Frank Furness had been deceased for 60 years, and several of his most prominent works had been destroyed by an unappreciative public captivated by Modernism. Even in his native Philadelphia, where so many of his ideas took flight, it was fairly rare to hear anyone talk about Furness, at least not in reverential tones. Yet Hyman Myers, FAIA, who had earned a master of architecture at the University of Pennsylvania, was not afraid to do so.

Having been enthralled by the Furness-designed library at Penn, Myers brought his passion for Furness and the Victorian period to Vitetta, where he founded the historic preservation studio in 1973. Today, the studio employs about 20 people and plays an integral role in the larger firm, a multidisciplinary practice with more than 150 employees and seven offices around the country. "Hy was a Philadelphian through and through, and he recognized that our cultural history was being lost and many wonderful and important old buildings were being razed," says Holleman. "He really got into preservation on the grassroots side….It affected his moral code. He realized the true value of old buildings and recognized that there were whole schools of craftsmanship that went into them."

One of the studio's first major commissions was the restoration and modernization of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a building that is considered a Furness masterpiece. The academy was scheduled to open in 1976 in conjunction with the nation's bicentennial, so the project was highly visible and significant in the firm's growth. For the restoration, Myers placed great emphasis on the accuracy of the detailing, bringing abundant color and light back into the historic structure, and effectively sweeping out the cobwebs that lingered in people's minds about Victorian architecture. At the same time, the firm completely modernized the structure in an unobtrusive way, which is expected in preservation today but at the time was groundbreaking.

"It was unbelievable to many people that it could be done," say Myers. "It was a modern building, with all of the latest fire-suppression systems, concealed wiring, HVAC, and it met all the goals of the gallery space. Yet when you walked around, you knew you were in Frank Furness' building. That kind of established our restoration abilities on a large scale." Not long afterwards, the academy established its Frank Furness Award, naming Myers as the first recipient.

This early project led to other major works, including a $25-million tax-credit project to renovate Philadelphia's 1904 Bellevue Hotel, which had faced demolition after 29 conventioneers died there from what was later named Legionnaires' disease. After a group of civic leaders fought to save the structure, Vitetta masterminded two major renovations that revamped it as a 540-room luxury hotel, preserving its grand public spaces and ornate details.

At the National Gallery of Art's historic West Building in Washington, DC, Vitetta was retained to create a new oculus at the main entry on Constitution Avenue. The primary question there was whether the architects would best honor the John Russell Pope design by hewing closely to the original or by offsetting it with a more Modern scheme. Myers and his team ultimately chose a Classical design that fits seamlessly with the original 1941 building. "We all chose the Pope [style] design, but that's the antithesis of a design theory by the National Park Service, which is to make an addition look new," Myers says. "I did not feel that that was a responsible thing to do in that building, so we came to our conclusion, even though some senior staff members wanted the Modern intrusion." Apparently, the National Gallery of Art was convinced, because the institution has continued to hire Vitetta for other projects since.

Landmark Moments
On the south side of Philadelphia, I'm on more solid ground as Lonnie Hovey gives me a tour of another historic building, which happens to be Vitetta's headquarters. As the firm grew throughout the 1980s and '90s, it decided in 1998 to move its headquarters from the central business district to the recently decommissioned Navy Yard located where the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers converge. For its new home, the firm adaptively reused a 1910 Marine barracks, a massive horizontal masonry structure with a long arcaded porch, to set an example for reusing old military installations and to spur redevelopment in an underused part of the city.

"The project here involved every aspect of our firm – restoration, interior design, engineering, furniture, graphics – so it was a great opportunity to practice what we preach," says Hovey. "We were the first group to do this here at the Navy Yard, and it presented some challenges." Among other things, the building had three main entryways but only two monumental staircases on either end of the building, which required the firm to punch a new stairway and elevator column at the center. This meant convincing state and federal officials – involved because this was a tax-credit project – that the features could be accommodated while protecting the historic fabric. Despite the somewhat austere building and surroundings, the firm has built with a light touch in the interior, including a reception desk that vaguely resembles a boat and carpeting with a wavy nautical motif.

Perhaps the firm felt it could be somewhat whimsical with its headquarters because the stakes are so high and the work so serious at its other projects. At the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the preservation studio was tasked with developing a master plan that would allow for an 80,000-sq.ft. addition of gallery and public space, as well as the modernization and restoration of existing space in the museum's three historic structures: the main museum, the newly acquired Perelman Building and the Rodin Museum. Rather than block the museum's historic temple-like appearance with an obvious addition, the plan calls for two new light courts that will be created by excavating 30 ft. beneath the East Terrace. By day or night, museum visitors or partygoers will be able to look up through the glass ceiling to the full height of the museum above them, while having access to new underground facilities and exhibit areas.

"As architects, we've become more and more careful and done more and more tests to ensure that what we're doing is reversible," says Gutterman, who, like many of her colleagues, has worked to stay abreast of new conservation technologies through seminars and associations. "We want to make sure that what we're doing at the art museum and elsewhere is not having a negative impact on the building fabric. We did a whole series of tests on the stone and terra cotta to make sure we're not doing anything in a negative way."

A similar challenge exists at Philadelphia City Hall. Built between 1871 and 1901, the iconic Second Empire building – topped by an Alexander Milne Calder statue of William Penn – is the world's tallest load-bearing masonry structure. There, Vitetta has been at the helm of a multi-phase restoration that includes cleaning and repair of exterior masonry, as well as more than 250 Calder statues and carvings that adorn the building. The process is painstaking, with the team poring over the building and securing or removing loose pieces of stone, filling cracks, re-pointing the masonry and remodeling and replacing details such as a missing baluster here or a portion of a statue there. It's a massive project that will take many years to complete, but the Vitetta studio is used to that. "I've been fortunate to work on City Hall for eight years," says Gutterman. "My projects are all a part of me, so I can't say I have a favorite. You get to know your clients very well and your contractors very well. We all realize it's a team effort, and that's critical to any project's success."

New Dimensions
By the turn of the 21st century, Vitetta's historic preservation portfolio had continued to broaden. Among other projects, the studio rehabilitated the historic Reading Terminal Train Shed – with its awesome 90-ft.-high cast-iron trusses – as part of the firm's commission to design the Pennsylvania Convention Center. A multi-year effort at the Philadelphia Academy of Music restored the opera house to its mid-19th-century glory while improving the acoustics. At Glen Echo Park in Maryland, a former amusement park that now hosts arts and humanities programs, the studio carefully reconstructed the condemned North Arcade building and revived the park's elegant Spanish Ballroom.

If the studio's work has broadened in scope, one could also say that it has deepened, as the firm has increasingly embraced an environmental ethic. At the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC, for example, the studio is engaged in a planning and design process for an addition to the zoo's elephant house (formally known as the Asia Trail II, Elephant Trails project). This required the traditional skills of determining how to add onto an existing structure, as well as a profound concern for how to build sustainably, promote the health and well-being of an endangered species and transmit those messages to visitors. As a result, the addition will have operable skylights, natural ventilation and other sustainable features, and will have a gold certification under the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED system.

The studio is now in the early stages of a multi-phase project that will adapt a large historic property and grounds for environmental education and other stewardship activities. When talking about the project, Holleman ruminates not on typical preservation topics like architectural details or historic significance, but on stormwater and erosion, and how America's rural landscape has both altered the natural environment and been altered in turn by new development.

"It's engaging this process of preservation in a brand new dimension, which is everything we've been trying to build toward," he says. "As preservationists, we are trying to save our cities, but then we're also working toward a really dynamic way of living in the future. We recognize that there are so many tools available from the tradition we've inherited, but there's also many that we're now adding ourselves." TB

 

 

 
 

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