The future of a modest utopia

‘Philadelphia Builds: Essays on Architecture’ by Michael J. Lewis

5 minute read
A proper architectural history book that also appeals to the casual reader. (Image via
A proper architectural history book that also appeals to the casual reader. (Image via

The easing of stay-at-home orders calls for a fresh look at the buildings around us. Right on time, here’s the newest book from architectural historian Michael J. Lewis: Philadelphia Builds. These 22 essays are packed with insights putting the city’s buildings in their social and civic context and taking you to places you think you know and ones you don’t.

Philadelphia has nurtured still-famous architects, and others not so famous, like Paul Cret, whom the author admits leaving out of his “episodic rather than comprehensive” volume. From the start, the city was a breeding ground for architectural thought and urban planning, and Lewis digs right in with an early-days essay about William Penn and his “great experiment,” a familiar tale often glossed into a mythology.

Grids, plots, and greens

“William Penn’s Modest Utopia” (chapter 1) says Quakers eschewed theoretical learning in favor of practicality. According to Penn, “Much reading is an oppression of the mind and extinguishes the natural candle, which is the reason of so many senseless scholars in the world." Philadelphians were encouraged to devote themselves to learning not for self-improvement but for practical trades, creating the city's extant tradition of excellence in empirical endeavors like publishing and medicine.

Philadelphia’s grids, expansive plots, and open green spaces were designed to avoid the catastrophes (fires and plagues especially) that periodically leveled London. Its site between two rivers made it a colonial trading powerhouse, and as Quaker hegemony gave way to diversity and the city developed “a variegated tapestry of religious beliefs,” its “rich secular and civic life” became reflected visibly in buildings.

Girard and Germanness

Lewis visits the expected and not-so-expected. “Facts and Things, Not Words and Signs: The Idea of Girard College” (chapter 4) details the travails of creating this educational institution founded on “the Quaker suspicion of higher education and theory.” To address the plight of the orphan (white boys only), America’s richest citizen, Stephen Girard (1750-1831), left proscriptive curriculum suggestions and meticulous architectural directions, “down to the thickness of the wall and location of doors.” Lewis’s extensively illustrated essay probes how Girard’s stipulations were confusingly executed by Philadelphia’s (two!) City Councils in an ensuing “grab-bag of projects”—the greatest architectural competition since the White House—that became a free-for-all among 21 entrants, one of whom “pelted the building committee with irritable letters.”

“The Strange Germanness of the Academy of Music” (chapter 5) explores the building that “has perplexed Philadelphians since it opened in 1857.” Its interior “rewards both eyes and ears,” but the plain exterior is “a garbled memory” of the competition that produced it. There are renderings of all five architectural submissions, ultimately amalgamated into “a characteristic piece of Philadelphia art where cosmopolitan Venetian opulence was defeated by progressive German theory to produce something that even Quaker Philadelphia could admire and comprehend.”

Philly forays

Of course, there’s an essay on City Hall (“Silent, Weird, Beautiful”), including a look at sculptor Alexander Milne Calder, who worked there continuously from 1872 to 1894. There are pieces about the “starchitects” and their buildings—Louis Kahn, Frank Furness, Frank Gehry’s PMA (opening this week), and “The ‘New’ Barnes.” Eschewing hagiography, in “The Last Quaker” (chapter 13) Lewis gives a gimlet-eyed assessment of Robert Venturi, who “did to [the laconic International Style] what Andy Warhol did to Abstract Expressionism: make its heroic claims seem laughable.”

Lewis rewards the reader with unexpected forays. He considers the relatively new Museum of the American Revolution, “A Museum That Overcomes Its Correctness.” His chapter on “The Bibliophile” looks at then-prominent, now-forgotten Victorian Gothic Revivalist Henry A. Sims. “The Impresario” considers how “if you grew up Catholic in Pennsylvania, you have spent time, whether you knew it or not, in a building by Edwin Forrest Durang, who made the most of his limitations.” And a look at Peter A.B. Widener’s “mighty gilded townhouse” (North Broad and Girard) “reminds us that we swagger most arrogantly when we are most insecure.”

Love, exasperation, and irony

This is a proper architectural history book, with impressive credentials to satisfy the scholar and filled with those line drawings, period prints, and photographs beloved of historians. There’s a helpful appendix, and footnotes are neatly tucked at the back. But be not daunted—it’s eminently readable. The volume is easy to hold (not always the case with these tomes), and its chapters are perfect for episodic reading. You can even tuck it into a bag (well, a good-sized one) and take off on your own walking tour.

The publisher, Paul Dry Books, is one of those Billy Penn-approved pragmatic Philadelphia enterprises with a Center City address and an intriguing catalog. Its authors come from all over, but—like his publisher—Lewis is a proper Philadelphian. When not teaching at Williams College in Massachusetts, he lives in the city, which (just a guess) is most of the time these days.

Lewis writes about his native city “in a spirit of love, exasperation, and irony,” ending with “My Favorite Building,” an unexpected look at Pembroke, the “superb and stately dormitory that defines the Bryn Mawr campus . . . flawless, unlike its countless replicas with their air of amiable preposterousness.” Philadelphia Builds is filled with historical asides, injections of whimsy, and flashes of professional humor. It’s a quasi-tongue-in-cheek melding of Penn’s insistence on pragmatism with some just-for-its-own-sake “senseless-scholar” learning. Lewis confesses that “the author occasionally repeats himself, but then so does Philadelphia.”

Image description: The cover of the book Philadelphia Builds: Essays on Architecture, by Michael J. Lewis. An illustration of Philadelphia buildings crowds the bottom half of the cover, and the City Hall clock tower sticks up in the middle, with the book title written vertically on either side of it.

What, When, Where

Philadelphia Builds: Essays on Architecture. By Michael J. Lewis. Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, April 20, 2021. 373 pages, paperback; $19.95. Get it at

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