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How Louis Kahn’s Last Commercial Work Fell Quietly in Philadelphia

Coward Shoes at 1122 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia on April 25, 1949 (photograph by Greenfield, via Free Library of Philadelphia)
Coward Shoes at 1122 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia on April 25, 1949 (photograph by Greenfield, via Free Library of Philadelphia)

Last year, the only surviving commercial work designed by architect Louis I. Kahn was torn down with little fanfare in Philadelphia. Designed in a partnership with another Philadelphia-based 20th-century architect, Oscar Stonorov, the Coward Shoes store at 1118–1120 Chestnut was completed in 1949 at the height of the area’s commercial success. In the years since, the street and the building fell into decades of decline as shopping moved to the suburbs. The first floor of huge windows were converted, and its modernist façade blending into the dilapidation. By the time a permit was issued for its demolition in 2014, most people had forgotten it was anything other than an eyesore.

William Whitaker, curator and collections manager of the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, wrote this of the building’s leveling in a thorough article for Hidden City Philadelphia in August:

It deserved better. Better recognition as an exceptional work of architecture with ties to two internationally significant architects; better recognition as an early (if not the first) example of postwar Modernism on Chestnut Street and further, as the last surviving example of commercial architecture that Kahn is associated with. The fact is that too few saw it for what it was.

“If you take a modernist building like Coward Shoes, if you do even relatively small things to the exterior, it absolutely wrecks it and it makes it difficult for people to recognize what was great about it,” Peter Woodall, co-editor of Hidden City Daily, told Hyperallergic. “I walked by the Coward Shoes building a million times and never knew there was anything remotely special about it. I think it’s tough for buildings if they don’t have an immediate visual appeal to get people to rally to protect them.”

The demolition-in-progress of the Coward Shoes storefront (photograph by Ben Leech, Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia)
The demolition-in-progress of the Coward Shoes storefront (photograph by Ben Leech, Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia)
The demolition-in-progress of the Coward Shoes storefront (photograph by Ben Leech, Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia)
The demolition-in-progress of the Coward Shoes storefront (photograph by Ben Leech, Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia)

Along with other structures on Chestnut, Brickstone Realty is redeveloping the site into 96 apartments and 80,000 square feet of retail space as part of a $60 to $70 million project, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. It’s not a total razing — the Oppenheim, Collins & Company will remain and be integrated into the design. The Kahn and Stonorov store with its free-floating displays and elegant simplicity in its use of light was itself was a mid-century revamping of a 1902 commercial space, so in a way the loss of the building is just part of the often temporary nature of commercial architecture.

The fate of the Kahn building is not dissimilar from the demolition in 2013 of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Hoffman Show Room on New York’s Park Avenue. Its interior was a leased space, and had been altered over the years from its original 1955 machine age glamor, with a sloping ramp for displaying cars as a sort of miniature of the grand spiral of the nearby Guggenheim Museum. By the time the demolition permit was approved, it was too late to generate public and official support, and the fact it had one of the most prominent architect’s names behind its design was mostly forgotten.

When Coward Shoes was included on the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s list of 2013 Endangered Properties, they noted that it and another mid-century commercial space, the Robinson Store at 1020 Market Street designed by Victor Gruen and Elsie Krummeck from 1946, suffered “from character-obscuring alterations and deferred maintenance, leading to a general lack of appreciation of their significance.” The detailed balance of natural light and form that defined Kahn’s greatest works, like the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and the colossal National Assembly Building of Bangladesh, was in recent years only hinted at in the upper floors.

“From our perspective at the Alliance, and speaking personally as someone who values the hodge-podge diversity of architectural forms and styles you often find along commercial corridors, it’s a big loss when buildings from the more recent past get scrapped before being given a chance at rehabilitation,” Ben Leech, director of advocacy at the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, told Hyperallergic.

He notes that while the Kahn association was important, it was “hard to argue that this was an architectural masterpiece,” especially after the decades of dilapidation. “But it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to have value,” he added. “Given more time, these ‘everyday’ commercial buildings will start to accrue more of the charm and interest that buildings from earlier eras have, and smart designers and tenants will be able to take advantage.”

The Coward Shoe storefront in June of 2014 (via Google Maps)
The Coward Shoes storefront in June of 2014 (via Google Maps)

At the end of last month, Kahn’s Clever House from 1957 went on the market in bad need of restoration, its concrete, boxy angles topped by a peaking gabled roof looking more like an Iron Curtain relic than a welcoming home. It’s one of just nine homes built from his designs, and it will be interesting to see if it finds the right owner for its preservation. Only decades after their construction, many mid-century architectural marvels are facing challenges as their once-pristine concrete exteriors get stained and crumble, and the public drifts away from embracing their often stern shapes.

“The hope is that the next time something like this comes up, people will be a little bit more ready and a little more open to thinking of these buildings as important and historic, even though they are commercial and are modernist, and if they have been altered in unfortunate ways,” Woodall said of the Coward Shoes demolition. Perhaps if more people notice its slow demise, and the quiet loss of similar mid-century architecture around the country, more of these structures can get on local preservation lists and attract the supporters they need to survive as part of 20th-century architectural history.

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