Debate over Franklin Court

http://www.quinnevans.com/files/photo-right-side/franklin-court1.jpg
(from Quinn Evans)

Should old structures remain at the expense of the new? More to the point, should renovated historic structures capturing a certain image of the past give way to convenience and a more modern design? That is the debate raging today over proposed restorations to Franklin Court, the Philadelphia museum and memorial to Benjamin Franklin.

Known as the "Ghost House," this beloved Philadelphia landmark stands on the site of Benjamin Franklin's home. Though the actual home was razed in 1812, acclaimed firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates (VSBA) designed the current structure in 1976 as a tribute to Franklin and evocation of his era. Their design won the AIA National Honor Award and is considered "arguably one of the most gratifying projects of the postmodern period in successfully integrating historicist subtleties with modernist clarities." (The Architect's Newspaper) Today, the National Park Service, with architecture firm Quinn Evans, hopes to expand on the original design with a new glass entry pavilion with gift shop, staircase, and an elevator leading to the underground museum. The new design would change the appearance and character of the museum's entry, while allowing improved visitor flow for large groups of visitors.

Part of Independence National Historical Park, the area of the museum includes 5 restored structures along historic Market Street. It was carefully designed to augment the classic pedestrian character of Philadelphia streets, evoking an intentional colonial feel and maintaining the museum as part of the city's public and pedestrian tissue. The original firm, VSBA, released a letter to the park on the proposed renovations. The general public was welcomed to publish comments as well, on the Park's website. Among several concerns, VSBA comments that "in the new entry plans as they now stand, the sequence [of pedestrian traffic] is broken." They add that "The pavilion's abstract Neomodern aesthetic seems confusingly close in character to the Ghost structure and out of keeping with the mellow brick, stone and wood of the site elements."

But the debate is not as simple as form versus function. It may be that the new design is actually less practical than it appears. Not only does it disrupt Philadelphia's pedestrian flow, the new structure features two small waiting areas instead of one, convenient large one. VSBA states that "the proposed access and entrance plan does not seem…to allow for the likely visitor volumes and flows on busy days, or to provide sufficient and well located waiting and marshalling space for school groups."

The debate spans form versus function, historic character against modern aesthetics. It is not surprising that public discussion surrounds the proposed renovations. What would you decide?

-Lillian Civantos

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