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Washington Square Resurrected

THE EVENING BULLETIN, March 28, 2008 Philadelphia – Philadelphia’s Washington Square used to be a no-man’s-land of brown bag winos, stale Chinese buffets and bars that smelled of mold. Upscale ambience here a mere 10 years ago often meant a new Arby’s restaurant, but otherwise this neglected square has always managed to look underappreciated. True, the occasional tourist would saunter though on his or her way to Independence Hall or the Curtis Center. There was also the occasional scholar crossing the square to visit the Athenaeum. Yet, by and large, the area could not escape a look of desolation, as if the ghosts of Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic (many of the victims lay buried beneath the square) had somehow contaminated the ground. The very opposite has been true just 13 blocks west of Washington Square in the city’s other square, the posh Rittenhouse. Lauded in history books, documentary films and in the world of real estate, Rittenhouse Square has always enjoyed a high degree of prosperity and celebrity. If Rittenhouse ever suffered a decline, it was so brief that nobody ever noticed. The disparity between the two city squares is already history. However, since Washington Square has now made the U-turn its fans had always hoped it would make, that gap may be closing. With the building of the elegant Saint James apartment building, the addition of many new restaurants along 7th and Chestnut Street, and an attractive new Stephen Starr restaurant, the writing is on the wall: Washington Square is alive with the best the city has to offer. Recently, Money Magazine, that national forecaster of the ebb and flow of fortunes to be made and lost, named the Washington Square west neighborhood of Philadelphia as the fourteenth best area in the entire nation to retire. Accessibility to health care and the “walk-ability” of the neighborhood were cited as the area’s most attractive features. Perhaps no other new building exemplifies the “new” Washington Square better than the Ayer. Built in 1929 and designed by Philadelphia architect Ralph Bencker, designer of the Ethical Society and the iconic restaurants/cafeterias of the Horn and Hardart chain, this Indiana limestone Art Deco gem was once the headquarters of NW Ayer & Sons, the nation’s first advertising agency (NW Ayer created enduring ad slogans such as, “Diamonds Are Forever,” “When It Rains It Pours,” and “Reach Out and Touch Someone”). Nestled among the Curtis Center Empire (publishers of The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal and Holiday magazine), the Athenaeum, and Philadelphia writer Christopher Morley’s house just off the square, NW Ayer in 1930 helped define Washington Square as headquarters of the commercial written word long before the start of the square’s decline in the 1960s. Ralph Bencker’s original design included industrialized reliefs on the building’s spandrels, Egyptian-style Deco sculptures along the top of the building, and imposing basilica-style bronze doors illustrating Mayan temple shapes set amidst a sunrise. This was the age when buildings were built with the sort of dedicated craftsmanship that medieval artisans lavished on cathedrals. An era ended when NW Ayer left Philadelphia for New York City. The Ayer, like Washington Square itself, was then forced to rest on its laurels, its empty corridors and silent rooms evoking memories of a lost age. That changed a couple years ago when David Mercuris, vice president of development for The Goldenberg Group, saw the building for the first time and had an idea. “Ken Goldenberg, who grew up here and who’s head of our company, knew about the building for some time, but when I saw the building for the first time, I started screaming and yelling through the phone, saying ‘We’ve got to do this building. It’s going to be a great project. Let’s do it!’” Mr. Mercuris recalled. The Goldenberg Group soon moved into action, although this was no three-step process. A design team was consulted to help decide parking logistics, and after that came the complicated and extensive approval process. Philadelphia architect Wesley Wei, a designer of beautiful city houses, including a large home on Rittenhouse Square and middle-income housing in New Kensington, teamed up with PZ Architects to transform the 12-story Ayer into the city’s premier address. The renovation included restoration of the building’s façade, beautifying the stunning Egyptian-style sculptures, the reliefs and pressed metal work, as well as transforming the interior. The $75 million renovation birthed 56 condos and four penthouses with state-of-the-art German Miele stainless steel kitchen suites, master baths with imported white marble from Greece, Dornbracht and Duravit bathroom fixtures, Lagos Azul tile from Portugal and Broughton Moore tile from England. The Ayer opened in September 2007 and is already 75 percent occupied. In turn, the Ayer – and the other projects that it is inspiring – has instigated a sweeping re-evaluation of Washington Square’s history, greatness, and, above all, its potential as a commanding urban space that is uniquely its own and easily the equivalent of Rittenhouse Square. The one-, two- and three-bedroom residences range from 1,200 to 7,000 square feet and start at $850,000; the penthouses command $4 million. Ceilings are a generous 11 feet high and 21 feet high in the penthouses. Balconies grace many of the units, with views encompassing the Ben Franklin Bridge and the Delaware River, Center City and Washington Square. “A limestone building like this could not be reduplicated today. The cost would be overwhelming,” said Mr. Mercuris. “There are intricate carvings and reliefs on the sides of the building, as well as views of some of these reliefs from some units.” Wesley Wei’s choice of materials and the way that they interplay with natural sunlight produces a fascinating alchemy. The effect “produced” borders on the translucent. Sunlight on the white marble interior in some of the master bathrooms has a quality reminiscent of the light in Italy or the Greek Isles. In the larger rooms, the effect isn’t so noticeable. The Egyptian reliefs in the lobby, now superbly highlighted and polished, were originally designed as a celebratory gesture honoring the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. The population in the 1920s, wild about everything Egyptian, made the most of this discovery and incorporated it into the many Art Deco designs. The lobby’s (decorative) Australian eucalyptus wall strip creates a mural-like effect. The eucalyptus theme extends to the concierge’s desk, into the elevators and onto each residential floor, a most harmonious unifying theme. “People who prefer a more sedate lifestyle want to live in Washington Square,” says a Philadelphia real estate expert, “and the history of the Ayer is helping to bring people back to this destination. They love to live in Art Deco splendor.” So how did Mr. Wei, who has been influenced by architectural masters such as Corbu, Alto, Mies and Kahn, blend history (Art Deco) with modern design? “By respecting as much of the original details as possible, we juxtaposed large open spaces to complement the tall ceiling and enormous windows unique to The Ayer,” Mr. Wei said. “We also used rich stones and wood veneers that, while not mimicking species commonly used in Art Deco interiors, were selected for their warmth and character.” Mr. Wei also notes that he was fortunate to have worked on another revived Ralph Bencker building, the Rittenhouse Plaza on Rittenhouse Square. “Bencker had a keen sense for material detail and proportion of space that I appreciate, and I was able to counterpoint my modern details and use of materials in the renovation. “The challenge with any building as magnificent as The Ayer is for the renovation architect to just not screw it up,” he concluded. Thus far, no such fate has befallen Washington Square’s vigorous second coming.