Letter: Is the newly renovated building better than ‘plain vanilla?’

Posted 11/24/22

Architects notice so many details and ask so many questions that it can make a client's head spin. 

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Letter: Is the newly renovated building better than ‘plain vanilla?’


Architects notice so many details and ask so many questions that it can make a client's head spin. 

Everything is a decision. Is that the best color? What materials and texture are needed? What shape should the doors and windows be, and what proportions? Does it fit in? Is it better than its surroundings, and does it set a new standard? 

Many questions could be asked of the newly renovated retail building on Germantown Avenue, where East and West Mermaid Lane meet at our somber and reverent World War Memorial. 

Most people might say the building there began as just plain vanilla. But vanilla has a pleasant taste, and the original building was far from pleasant. 

Is the altered building an improvement? It is easy to forget that the plain vanilla building had been screened by a row of very attractive trees years ago, before they were cut down, needlessly exposing this non-conforming wound of a building even more glaringly.

To begin, please note that the original building was placed on the wrong part of its site, an old Wissahickon Schist quarry. Why wasn't it placed forward along the sidewalk with parking on the street or in the back? It is just a one-story building, after all, with a blip of a second story on the right. Could this wrong location have been used beneficially for the success of the renovated building?

The scale of shop fronts is important and tells the story, as card players say. Are the sheet metal cornice, the false roof line, big windows, commercial looking doors with commercial finishes, and flat brick and plain stucco elevation crying out, "I want to be in a suburban shopping mall, but I am lost and stuck among the intimate textures of Chestnut Hill?" 

Why doesn't the renovation reflect the intriguing aspects of Chestnut Hill buildings? And a detail so important locally: Why are the stone bases not laid up properly in a mason's workmanlike manner, since "Chestnut Hill knows it's schist?" A messy tell that reveals much!

The tells are confusing; the three tall middle doorways in brick and their horizontal mullions suggest fire station doorways, which might be fun if other elements followed that visual game. Was that intended or a random mistake in the imagery? 

The "not quite all the way up" brick pier on the south corner seems confused and unclear of its purpose. "Should I be much taller to hold the corner against the dramatic stone cliff of the old quarry or just be a stubby, incomplete halfway thingie?" 

The heights of the roof line are confusing, being eight feet taller than the ceiling of the shops, recalling the false fronts in old Westerns way out on the prairie, where the facades were built a story taller than the one story shops below. Why was that pretend facade so boastfully built in the old quarry, with no whimsey or playfulness to it? Sneak behind and take a look. Why?

Why is the paving at the entry doors mundane and unadorned concrete? Why not edged, or of bluestone or brick? Something to welcome customers, please.

I like designs which provoke questions for which the answers are challenging, ambiguous and could be this or that depending on that or this. Like a stimulating conversation that veers off hither and yon, where opinions are respected and can be challenged, to keep the discussion lively.

Hard to have a conversation about this rather tongue-tied renovation, which, after one glance, the conversation is finished. Now, if anyone wants a thoroughly delightful hither and yon conversation, we could wander up to our new fire station addition and renovation and talk about its delights ‘til the cows come home.

Gardner A. Cadwalader

Chestnut Hill