When one thinks of cities with iconic American Art Deco architecture, New York and Los Angeles dominate. The Empire State Building is, of course, our most famous Art Deco structure. However, New York and Los Angeles are not the exclusive homes of American Art Deco architecture. Philadelphia has its own Art Deco gems too.
As one of the oldest major cities in the United States, it is only natural that Philadelphia has snapshots of the architectural movements in our history. The Art Deco movement, however, is somewhat overlooked in this architectural photo album. This is an absolute shame because not only does Philadelphia have stunning Art Deco architecture, the buildings of the style here exemplify the diverse portfolio of styles that fit the term. One and Two Liberty Place in Center City are the second- and third-tallest skyscrapers in Philadelphia. They are modern constructions (completed 1990) that were designed as an homage to the Art Deco movement of the 1920s through the 1940s. The architect, Helmut Jahn, was an admirer of Art Deco and wanted to bring it into this age with the all-glass face of modern standards.
Moving back in time to 1935 brings us to the incredible United States Post Office — Main Branch building at 30th and Chestnut streets. Roughly the size and coloring of 30th Street Station, the Post Office — Main Branch building is its stylistic complement. The Post Office — Main Branch building is overwhelming at street level the first time you see it. It looms dramatically with its tall, narrow windows and smooth masonry edifice; I positively adore it. Besides City Hall, I feel that it has the most consuming presence of any structure in the city.
The eye is compulsively carried from its perfectly square base by the windows up to the decorative top. There it is softened by the carved geometric patterns that repeat around the top of the building on two inset layers. It achieves a deeply pleasing sense of purposeful minimalism that is not often seen in the otherwise opulent style of Art Deco architecture. Moreover, in the nature of Philadelphia’s Art Deco community, the Post Office — Main Branch building demonstrates the breadth of the style. While most of the movement’s buildings were concrete or brick, the post office is a beautiful pale gray stone.
As stunning as the Post Office — Main Branch building is, there is another Art Deco structure in the City of Brotherly Love that is better yet. The Art Institute of Philadelphia main building is the city’s most wonderful Art Deco building. As wide as two row houses and 10 stories tall, The Art Institute of Philadelphia building is Art Deco at its absolute best. The building is symmetric about the center plus a side column for the stairs. The first few floors feature connected windows that span the width of the building. Between these layers of windows are windowsill-like adornments in a silver and brass color scheme that are reminiscent of the Bentley logo wings.
The upper floors have a stunning thin vertical window feature that gives off the most pleasant warm yellow glow at night. The sides of the window are ornamented with fanned geometric patterns in the classic Art Deco fashion. But more than I like the individual aesthetic aspects of the building, I love the drama and most of all the glamour it has. When I look at this building, it is no struggle to imagine how thrilling it must have been to be a part of the nightlife of the Roaring Twenties. And for a well-executed art style to transport an onlooker to another time is something truly special.
Sage Magee is a sophomore architectural engineering major at Drexel University. She can be contacted at [email protected].