Urban Planning

100 years of the signage debate in Market East

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A 1911 photo of a hodgepodge of signage covering buildings on
North Juniper Street.

Just over a hundred years after this photo of North Juniper Street was taken, businesses in the Market East corridor may once again find inspiration in the jumble of advertisements adorning this row of buildings.

Late last year, Philadelphia adopted a revamped Zoning Code that promises to have important implications for the city’s attitude toward signage, particularly in the struggling central area along Market Street that spans from 7th to 13th streets. The new rules loosen the restrictions on commercial signage and, according to the New York Times, require a minimum investment of ten million dollars, making the sign licensing a way for developers to generate new revenue to enhance redevelopment.

The policy change combined with the Inquirer’s move to the old Strawbridge and Clothier building at 8th and Market (think enormous news crawler and four total digital signs) are supposed to be a one-two punch that will make the area more exciting and appealing to new businesses.

“The city has been embroiled for years over whether signs are evil or merely disgusting and terrible, but when you look at cities, and this goes all the way back to ancient Rome, commercial districts have always been filled with signs,” George Thomas, a Penn Lecturer on Urban Studies and adjunct faculty at Harvard Graduate School of Design in the strategic and critical conservation program, said. “They’ve always been about communication and connecting people with words and images.”

The realization of the city’s dreams for Market East may take some time. But the genesis of their central assumption — that signage can improve a neighborhood, not blight it — already marks a shift in the way the city thinks about the urban experience.

One hundred years of urban planning finds the city once again in support of the sort of building signage — multistory, LED — that makes the collage of ads in the photo above seem benign. So what happened in between?

At the time this photo was taken, these large, bright, crafted forms of signage were part of a dying breed, according to Thomas. Late in the 1800’s the purifying City Beautiful movement, which frowned on large scale commercial signage, was already on its rise to dominance in the cadre of urban planning paradigms.

Thomas, who is also a partner in architectural consulting firm Civic Visions, says the signs were already being treated as imagery-non-grata in rich areas, like Rittenhouse Square.

“In a larger local frame it was also part of the shift from valuing the engineering and industrial culture that we had created in the Workshop of the World to one that denigrated commerce — with Philadelphia elites losing their connection to the physical world,” Thomas said.

What’s odd is that the haphazard pyramid of antique typefaces seems beautiful today, the randomness of so many commercial entreaties adorable, thanks to the benefit of a century of nostalgia.

“Buildings spoke and people were bombarded with commercial information,” Thomas said.

But those responsible for urban renewal over much of the 20th century, particularly through the 1950s and 1960s, saw no such whimsy in the blunt signage. The broader erasure of so many signs from building picked up pace during these years as stricter sign restrictions became ever more closely tied to urban renewal and modernism.

“The historic preservation movement of the 1950s and 1960s also valued primarily colonial and federal era architecture – hence a great deal of great Victorian architecture (and a lot of [Frank] Furness buildings) got demolished in that era and we adapted a somewhat stylized idea of preservation in which lots of signage from federal-era buildings in Society Hill was also removed,” Center City District President Paul Levy said.

Fifty or so years later, enter the most recent controversy over signage in Market East. In 2007, the city began investigating what new signage rules might mean for Philadelphia by observing other cities, like New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston. What Philadelphia learned, Levy said, was that it could relax signage restrictions without turning Market East into Times Square, a major concern for some stakeholders.

“The goal was not to cover every building with a sign, as in Times Square, but rather to use these signs as a tool to help prompt redevelopment,” Levy said. “Developers would have to do substantial renovation or new construction in order to be eligible for a sign and then would have to animate and open the building at street level (primarily the Gallery) to enhance pedestrian activity.”

The controversy over signage in downtown Philly hit an apex in advance of the Zoning Code passage in December 2011, but Thomas says decades of opposition to signage has scared companies like Unisys out of the city and into the suburbs where commercial signage regulations are friendlier to businesses.

“Commerce was and is a language and a meeting point of a community — and the commercial zone reflected this. Notably when cities were at their most vital they were also at their most communicative. And note too that as sign ordinances and controls began to limit commercial real estate, business moved to malls where signs are the dominant interior landscape feature and keep the quality of the Victorian street.”

The hope now, is that a modern vision inspired by the 1911 photo above, will act like an abstract version of an electric billboard to draw some of those companies, and many of those jobs, back to Market East.

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