Philadelphia’s Brutalist Police Headquarters Has Preservationists Already Worried

The din surrounding Chicago’s Prentice Women’s Hospital may, regretfully, be silenced soon enough, but in Philadelphia, another curvaceous concrete landmark may be next to inspire petitions, court cases, and endless blog posts. For years, Philadelphia Inquirer critic Inga Saffron has dished out modest praise for her city’s Police Administration Building, a brutalist civic landmark nicknamed the Roundhouse for its twinned-barrel structure (and simplistically likened to a pair of handcuffs for the same form). Now, her public affection for the Geddes Brecher Qualls and Cunningham-designed building has come out under slightly more exigent circumstances: The city has reportedly hired a consultant to transform the neoclassical Provident Mutual building into a viable new headquarters for the city’s police force, thereby counting down the days until the Roundhouse is emptied of its occupants and its original function.

As Saffron reported for the Inquirer last week, deputy mayor Everett Gillison has projected plans to break ground on the Provident Mutual renovations within three years, so, as Saffron sees it, “it’s not too early to start worrying about the Roundhouse’s future.” Further evidence that the building’s days are numbered — and have been for a long time: A 2009 rendering of a master plan surrounding the Roundhouse shows the site of the 1960s structure replaced with a contemporary tower.

Thus, Saffron takes on her duty as a critic to change some hardened opinions about the building, one of several brutalist colosses that many love to hate. She argues that the Roundhouse is among the “swankier, more sophisticated members of the [brutalist] group,” and with its noteworthy pedigree, which can be traced back to a school of architecture centered on Louis Kahn and Robert Venturi, the Roundhouse carries distinction as a vital artifact of an illustrious architectural heritage. The strongest point that Saffron brings up, however, is that critics of the design may have difficulty looking past certain ideas and aesthetics that have come to be associated with the architecture.

It is hard at first to dismiss the building’s disheveled current condition and the “fortress”-like appearance that likely first manifested when Frank Rizzo became Philadelphia’s police commissioner and implemented his “head-busting tactics,” as Saffron described them in her personal blog, shortly after the Roundhouse opened its doors in 1963. Brutalism takes on an exaggerated meaning at the Roundhouse, making it difficult to perceive of the building’s pioneering pre-cast concrete facade and unusual rounded form as architectural gestures rooted in the more progressive politics of Philadelphia’s postwar mayor Richardson Dilworth. Seen in a different light, however, the Roundhouse might not be one of the “soul-crushing, monumental… and often atrociously maintained” products of a concrete-crazed movement.

An image published in a booklet shortly after the Roundhouse was dedicated, revealing the positive public image that the building sought to promote. Photo: The University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives, via Save the Roundhouse.

The lobby interior. Photo: The Earle D. Oakes Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

A student-led initiative to “Save the Roundhouse” may help us do exactly that: see the Roundhouse in new (or, perhaps more accurately, old) light. Photos of the building in its early years, assiduously dug out from historical archives by the preservation group, help reveal the original ideas behind its conception. The Roundhouse’s design, which employed new construction techniques in hopes of building new realities, captures the bold spirit of postwar social revitalization. The Roundhouse’s roundness departed from the conventional rectilinear box, hailing instead the liberating properties of fluid concrete. Its beton brut, meanwhile, added texture to the cityscape, grounding the building in a tactile reality that seems to dissipate all too easily in today’s glass-skinned high-rises. Though years of poor maintenance have left the building in an impoverished condition, the Roundhouse can still — if we give it the chance — evoke a more optimistic past and inspire us to conceive of and reflect on a time different from our own.

- Kelly Chan