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The Province of Dreams

February 14, 2008 By:
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One of my all-time favorite books is Lost New York, a compilation of photos, sketches and text that explain all the architectural wonders that we Americans somehow allowed people to destroy throughout the recent history of Manhattan. The long-lamented original Pennsylvania Station at 33rd Street -- one of the greatest creations of the fabled McKim, Mead and White firm -- was only the tip of the iceberg. The sense of loss you get when reading the book is often heartbreaking, but the nostalgia quotient can't be denied nor should it be resisted.

Now, Thomas H. Keels, with the help of Temple University Press, has applied the same premise to Forgotten Philadelphia: Lost Architecture of the Quaker City. For architecture, history and Philly buffs, it's an indispensible volume.

In its compact, rectangular form, the author and his photo editors have crammed a mass of wonderful information about Philadelphia places and buildings, and they cover a period that stretches from the city's very beginnings on up to the present. Keels even includes a chapter called "Projected Philadelphia," which looks at some spectacular architectural drawings made for improvements to our fair metropolis which, for some mad reason, the city fathers -- and at that time, they were all fathers -- saw fit not to approve. A number of them, not surprisingly, were rendered by the great Jewish architect Louis Kahn, who was treated quite shabbily in his hometown.

In the case of each forgotten piece of landscape, Keels has gathered the location, the date of completion, when the structure was demolished and the name of the architect. Where possible, there is a photo, though sometimes there's only a sketch, and in some case we even watch people -- often in the name of "progress" -- tear away at some extraordinary buildings.

Thanks to the editor, you can get to see what the original homes of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Masonic Temple looked like, before they were demolished in the case of the former or destroyed by fire in the case of the latter.

There are depictions of original Federal buildings from Colonial times, the first or second homes of some of the famous synagogues that still exist in this city, Central High's and Penn Charter's original buildings, and wonderful shots of grand Victorian homes built by the self-made men of the 19th-century robber-baron period (such as the P.A.B. Widener Residence, which stood at 1200 N. Broad until fire destroyed it in 1979).

I found the "Projected Philadelphia" chapter the most compelling, even though perusing the material managed to break my heart again and again. A quote from Kahn prefaces Keels' remarks: "What is the city but the seat of Availabilities?" You can see the great architect Paul Cret's ideas for improvements along the banks of the Schuylkill River and Kahn's sketches for the redevelopment of Center City. Looking at these beautiful architectural drawings is like walking directly into the province of dreams, and their pure optimism -- the sense of their rightness -- provides this book with a melancholy-tinged but fitting finale.

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