Right from the 17th century, when the first settlers arrived in Philadelphia, the city has seen diversity in its architecture. With no particular style overpowering any other, 18th century saw a trend in brick and 19th century saw growth in Victorian architecture because of architects like Frank Furness. The architecture is a mix of historic and modern styles with many iconic structures dotting the city and here are a few, every architect must visit when in Philly.
1. Philadelphia Museum of Art
With its famous steps, Louvre-inspired architecture, and prime spot right at the end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of the most well-known and well-loved buildings in Philadelphia.
Comprised of three buildings—the Rodin Museum, which sits on a different part of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and the Perelman Building, which is just north of the main building, and the central museum itself—it holds over 240,000 artefacts, objects, and works of art, including everything from sculpture and paintings to armour, decorative arts, and entire rooms meant to evoke other times, civilizations, and parts of the world.With its large space and high visitor count, the museum is among the largest and most visited museums on Earth. This museum may house some of the world’s greatest works of art, but the building is its own work of art. It is home to over 200 galleries that span 2,000 years, although, in accordance with the Uni
versity of Pennsylvania and their collection of museums, they do not have any Egyptian, Roman, or Pre-Columbian artefacts. Aside from being home to many works by artists such as Rodin, Picasso, Dalí, Duchamp, and Brancusi, it also has several features unique to a museum of its stature, including its massive armoury featuring suits of armour from throughout the medieval period. Its rarest and most notable feature is the several architectural marvels located throughout the Asian wing, including a full Japanese teahouse and garden, a Chinese palace hall, and a 16th-century Indian temple.
2. Wanamaker Building
Inspired by two great central markets, London’s Royal Exchange and Paris’ Les Halles, John Wanamaker decided it was time to bring what would become one of the first department stores to America. He envisioned a grand shopping hall which would sell his already established menswear and would expand to sell woman’s clothing and dry goods.
Opened in 1877, the store was the first to use electrical lighting (in 1878) and the first to use a pneumatic tube system for transporting cash and documents (in 1880). By 1910, Wanamaker had begun updating his store, slowly phasing out the old Moorish facade that followed the Grand Depot styles of London and Paris, in favour of the lavish, Florentine style it still has today. The new building featured the incredible Wanamaker Organ, formerly the St. Louis World’s Fair pipe organ. Despite the organ’s imposing size, it was decided that it was not large enough to fill the Grand Court with its music, and was expanded by Wanamaker’s own staff of organ builders. After a period of a few years, the organ had become the largest in the world.
3. Kimmel Centre for the Performing Arts
The brightest light on the Avenue of the Arts is the Kimmel Centre for the Performing Arts, a dazzling regional performing arts centre whose discreet brick exterior rises to a bold 150-foot glass vaulted rooftop for startling views of the city.
The spacious and acoustically vaunted facility is rarely dark and on any given weekend might presents a jazz quartet, French circus, The Philadelphia Orchestra and pops or family events. The 21st century centre’s main stages are the elegant Verizon Hall, whose red mahogany 2,500-seat interior is shaped like a cello and features adjustable acoustical panels, and the 650-seat Perelman Theatre, with an unusual rotating stage and equipment that enables chamber music, dance and drama.
4. Comcast Centre
Comcast Centre, also known as the Comcast Tower, is a skyscraper in Centre City, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The 58-story, 297-meter (974 ft) tower is the second-tallest building in Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania. First announced in 2001, the Comcast Centre went through two redesigns before construction began in 2005. Comcast Centre was designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects for Liberty Property Trust. Designed to be environmentally friendly, the skyscraper is the tallest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified building in Philadelphia.
Relatively new to Centre City, the imposing glass Comcast Centre looms over Market Street, and with its enormous light displays throughout the year, inventive art and statues, and enormous glass facade, it’ll certainly catch your eye. Comcast’s presence in Philadelphia has been growing steadily for years, but this is its flagship tower, with several more to follow in the coming years. Be sure to stop by the upscale food court for everything from sushi to artisanal cheese and charcuterie.
5. Independence Hall
The first capital of the United States and the place where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed, Independence Hall is a must visit stop on a tour of Philadelphia. Visitors can acquire free tickets at the visitor centre, head over to check out the Liberty Bell, and finish up right in time for their scheduled tour of the iconic building. The tour goes through the east wing, where visitors get the chance to see the historic rooms and learn more about the history of nation from experienced guides.
Independence Hall touts a red brick facade, designed in Georgian style. It consists of a central building with bell tower and steeple, attached to two smaller wings via arcaded hyphens. The highest point to the tip of the steeple spire is 168 ft, 71⁄4 inches above the ground.
6. 30th Street Station
One of Philadelphia’s major train stations also happens to be one of its most beautiful buildings. 30th Street Station was built in the early 20th century and is a main hub for SEPTA, Philadelphia’s local transit system, as well as Amtrak, serving as part of both the Northeast and Keystone corridors. As Amtrak’s third busiest station, the building is also on the register of National Historic Places, and was originally built by the now-defunct Pennsylvania Railroad. If you’re travelling in or out of Philadelphia by train, be sure to stop in, visit the bustling food court, and marvel at the building’s stunning columns, high ceilings, and majestic exterior.
Chances are you are one of those million-plus passengers who have passed through here, whether it was on your way to New York’s Penn Stationor to hop onto the SEPTA Regional Rail. Either way, happening upon the station’s grand concourse, with its five-story-high windows and Art Deco chandeliers, is no doubt a highlight of many travellers’ experience.
7. Vanna Venturi House
The iconic Vanna Venturi house in Chestnut Hill was designed by Philly starchitect Robert Venturi for his mother and built in 1964. It’s often considered the first post-modern home in the country and has been named one of the 10 Homes that Changed America. Many of the basic elements of the house are a reaction against standard Modernist architectural elements: the pitched roof rather than flat roof, the emphasis on the central hearth and chimney, a closed ground floor “set firmly on the ground” rather than the Modernist columns and glass walls which open up the ground floor. On the front elevation the broken pediment or gable and a purely ornamental appliqué arch reflect a return to Mannerist architecture and a rejection of Modernism. Thus the house is a direct break from Modern architecture, designed in order to disrupt and contradict formal Modernist aesthetics.
The house was constructed with intentional formal architectural, historical and aesthetic contradictions. Venturi has compared the iconic front facade to “a child’s drawing of a house.” Yet he has also written, “This building recognizes complexities and contradictions: it is both complex and simple, open and closed, big and little; some of its elements are good on one level and bad on another its order accommodates the generic elements and of the house in general, and the circumstantial elements of a house in particular.”
8. The Fisher Fine Arts Library
The library’s plan is exceptionally innovative: circulation to the building’s five stories is through the tower’s staircase, separated from the reading rooms and stacks.
The Main Reading Room is a soaring four-story brick-and-terra-cotta-enclosed space, divided by an arcade from the two-story Rotunda Reading Room. The latter has a basilica plan – with seminar rooms grouped around an apse (like side-chapels) – the entire space lit by clerestory windows. Above the Rotunda Reading Room is a two-story lecture hall, now an architecture studio. The Main Reading Room, with its enormous skylight and wall of south-facing windows, acts as a light well, illuminating the surrounding inner rooms through leaded glass windows. The three-story fireproof stacks are housed in a modular iron wing, with a glass roof and glass-block floors to help light the lower levels. It was designed to initially hold 100,000 books – but also to be continuously expandable, one bay at a time, with a movable south wall. Furness’s perspective drawing highlighted this growth potential by showing nine-bay stacks, although the initial three-bay stacks were never expanded.
9. Boathouse Row
Boathouse Row actually consists of 12 buildings, not one. Boathouse Row is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable landmarks in the city. The boathouses date back to the 19th century and were designed by architects like Frank Furness and the Wilson Brothers. They range in styles from Victorian Gothic to Mediterranean to Colonial Revival and they all continue to be used by rowing clubs to this day. Fun Fact: The Sedgeley Club boasts the only lighthouse in the city.
Local boating clubs take great pride in their historic 19th-century boathouses, which line the Schuylkill River just west of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At night, lights outline one of the city’s loveliest views, aptly named Boathouse Row.
10. Cira Centre
The Cira Centre is a 29-story, 437-foot (133 m) office high-rise in the University City section of Philadelphia, across the Amtrak’s 30th Street Station. Developed by Brandywine Realty Trust and designed by César Pelli, it was built in 2004-05 on a platform over rail tracks.
The building, a silver glass curtain wall skyscraper with 731,852 square feet (68,000 m2) of floor space, includes retail and restaurant space, a conference room, a nine-story parking garage and a pedestrian bridge that links the Cira Centre’s lobby with 30th Street Station. The building‘s lighting, designed by Cline Bettridge Bernstein, includes a wall of LEDs on most of its facade that can change colour to create various patterns and effects.
11. Barnes Foundation
When plans were announced to move the immense and quirky art collection of Albert C. Barnes from his home in the suburbs to a new museum on the Ben Franklin Parkway, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects’ designed the Barnes Foundation, built for $150 million in 2012. The museum has already won a slew of accolades, including a 2013 AIA Institute Honor Award. It was also named one of the most iconic works of architecture by Architectural Record, along with the Vanna Venturi house and the PSFS Building.
Set on four-and-a-half acres of landscaped grounds, the Barnes Foundation boasts an impressive collection that features 181 Renoirs (more than any other collection), 69 Cézannes (more than in all of France) and groundbreaking African art.
The Barnes Foundation also hosts groundbreaking temporary exhibitions, including a major retrospective of works by female impressionist painter Berthe Morisot and an installation by the pioneer video artist Bill Viola.
12. Eastern State Penitentiary
This colossal Gothic Revival prison in Fairmount is steeped in history, and when it opened in 1829 it became one of the most famous and expensive prisons in the world and the first penitentiary in the country. Designed by architect John Haviland, Eastern State Penitentiary was groundbreaking in that it was the first prison designed to make prisoners feel true regret and penitence for their crimes. The penitentiary sat on 11 acres of farmland called Cherry Hill. When Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829, spectators from around the world marvelled at its grand architecture and radical philosophy.
Once built, it was the most expensive construction in the United States at the time.
After 142 years in use, Eastern State finally closed its doors as a prison in 1971. It has since been named a National Historic Landmark. Today, the historic landmark is open for daily tours year-round and nightly tours during the Halloween season.
13. Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul
The Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul at Logan Square holds the title of being the largest brownstone structure in the entire city, as well as the oldest building on the Parkway, with its massive stone columns and highly recognizable great dome. Open since 1894, the basilica was designed by local architect Napoleon LeBrun, who was only 25 at the time. The interiors, considered some of the most beautiful in the city, feature murals, mosaics, and stained glass windows by Constantino Brumidi.
Opened in 1864, the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter of Paul serves as the principal or Mother Church of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, as it houses the chair or “cathedra” of the Archbishop.
The largest Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, the Basilica was modelled after the Lombard Church of St. Charles in Rome and is the only cathedral in the United States built in the Roman-Corinthian architectural style.
14. Christ Church
Christ Church in Old City is one of the oldest churches and buildings in Philadelphia. The Georgian-style church was modelled after the work of an English architect by the name of Sir Christopher Wren. Construction and designs are attributed to John Kearsley. But the most prominent feature of Christ Church, its 196-foot-tall wooden steeple, was not added to the edifice until 1751-54. From that point on, Christ Church would remain the city’s tallest building for the next 100 years.
A beautiful example of Georgian colonial architecture, Christ Church is bordered by a tree-lined brick path, a small park and a cobblestone alley, which provide the perfect setting for this historic treasure. Notably, the tower and steeple made it the tallest building in America until 1856. Guided tours dive into its 300-plus year history and the prolific role that the Church played during the American Revolution.
15. Pennsylvania Academy of The Fine Arts
Designed in 1871 and built five years later, the Historic Landmark Building at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is considered by some as the first modern building in America. Designed by Frank Furness and George Hewitt (they parted ways a year before the building opened in 1876), it resembles a jewel box both inside and out and is a lesson in functionality, heavily influenced by the industrial boom that Philadelphia was relishing in at the time.