BY BRADLEY MAULE
The clearing of three blocks north of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in the 1950s not only meant a new, open vista of Independence Hall but also created park-side real estate for private investment. The Rohm and Haas Company became the first company to buy in to the newly christened Independence Mall, securing the southwest corner of Sixth and Market Streets. The resulting Rohm and Haas corporate headquarters, a hulking nine-story concrete structure delicately wrapped in the company’s signature Plexiglas from a design by EwingCole with Pietro Belluschi, is now 50 years old: a testament to collaborative design and robust modernism. The building recently received a Special Recognition Award at the Preservation Alliance for Great Philadelphia.
Philadelphia's EwingCole collaborated with Rohm and Haas' in-house architect, Stan Cole, to produce a serviceable initial design. But Rohm and Haas leadership insisted that a design consultant with an international reputation be added to the project. In 1962, Pietro Belluschi, fresh off a controversial design with Emery Roth and Walter Gropius for New York’s Pan Am Building, and at the time dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, became that consultant.
Alec Ewing, now 93, recalls the ensuing collaboration vividly. In a statement prepared for the Preservation Alliance award ceremony, Ewing wrote: “Stan [Cole] and I would go to Cambridge, Massachusetts [where Belluschi was the dean of MIT’s school of architecture] for critiques from Pietro or he would come to Philadelphia and work with us. The process began by my associate Sandy Toland and me developing pre-schematic alternates and Pietro producing his suggested design. Together, we designed an excellent structure.”
One requisite of that excellent structure came from Rohm and Haas directly: the incorporation of the company’s most successful product, Plexiglas. Taking cues from Eero Saarinen’s John Deere World Headquarters, the Ewing-Cole-Belluschi team crafted a series of louvered sun screens made of corrugated Plexiglas to wrap the otherwise concrete structure. While Otto Haas, Jr. and his brother John lobbied for a sky blue color, Belluschi suggested that a blue would overpower neighboring Independence Hall, and convinced them instead to use an earth tone. The resulting bronze panels appear dark, almost black from Independence Mall, but indeed emit a translucent bronze hue when viewed through the screens in natural sunlight.
Inside the building, Plexiglas proves its versatility on the diaphanous walls of the boardroom, the undulating ceiling of the elevators, and most memorably, in the first floor light fixtures by Hungarian artist György Kepes. Kepes, a contemporary of Belluschi’s at MIT, designed several cruciform-shaped light fixtures featuring hundreds of Plexiglas rods each, a striking design element in the airy lobbies. The lobbies, fashioned of prismoidal concrete forms supporting teak walls with aluminum sconces, are intentionally tall to provide views of Independence Hall.
In addition to diffusing morning sunlight, the exterior’s Plexiglas panels softened the otherwise bulky concrete structure, contrasting with its colonial neighbors in a decidedly subdued fashion. The Haas brothers demanded an excellent, but not flashy building, with a grand entrance via stairways to a plaza atop a plinth. And while the plinth has largely fallen out of favor since the urban renewal era, this one is enjoying a second life as the brand new Independence Beer Garden populates the newly landscaped plaza just above the Sixth Street sidewalk.
The potential for this activity stems directly from one of Belluschi’s early recommendations: to turn the building 90 degrees to maximize the street life of the Mall. Flaring concrete columns frame the large windows of the ground floor, as well as a portal leading to a courtyard connecting to the parking garage next door—a garage designed to withstand the addition of a tower. Had that happened, a footbridge several stories above would have connected the tower with Rohm and Haas.
Today EwingCole keeps its offices in the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia—another product of Ewing-Cole-Belluschi teamwork. Following an encore collaborative project, West Philadelphia’s University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation (which recalls a number of Belluschi’s religious structures, particularly St. Philip Neri Catholic Church in his hometown Portland), the Fed needed new facilities for its Philadelphia Region, which serves eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware. Belluschi, then a consultant for the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington, recommended EwingCole for the commission.
Opened in 1976, the Philadelphia Fed represented a government-civilian collaboration, with corporate offices reserved above the government’s floors. EwingCole moved in in 1979 from 400 Market Street—where the firm had grown since Belluschi joined Alec Ewing and Stan Cole there for late night sessions refining the Rohm and Haas Building.
“Representing the first private investment on the Mall, the Rohm and Haas Building was highly regarded by Philadelphia’s city planners, who hoped it would serve as a stimulus to other private investors and set a standard for subsequent redevelopment buildings,” Meredith Clausen writes in her 1999 book, Pietro Belluschi: Modern American Architect. “Applauding its sensitivity to the site and the way it related not only to the fine texture and small scale of Independence Hall but also to the expansive landscaped Mall, architectural critic Wolf Von Eckhardt of the Washington Post, who had only recently decried the Pan Am Building, acclaimed the Rohm and Haas structure as ‘probably the most handsome building in Philadelphia.’”
Indeed, it has aged well. Bucking tradition of waiting at least 50 years for a building’s nomination, Rohm and Haas was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
Reflecting on the Rohm and Haas Building’s role in his firm’s foundation, Alec Ewing reminisces over Belluschi’s guidance. “There are very few Pietros in any generation… He fully understood that it takes dozens of well trained and fully experienced architects and engineers to develop the design of a building like this one.”
Editor's note: the original version of this post (which has been amended for Portland Architecture) was published by Hidden City Philadelphia.