Philly’s Art Deco Treasures

Originating in France in the 1910s, the Art Deco movement was embraced by Philadelphia architects in the 1930s. It was a breakaway from the Art Nouveau Movement, featuring angular, geometric forms. These Jazz Age buildings combined modern style with decorative themes from Nature, Ancient Egypt, Antiquity, and Native American design. It also included curved exterior walls known as “streamline.” 

While Philadelphia isn’t typically known for its Art Deco architecture, our city houses many fine examples of the style. We encourage you to take a walk through Center City to view some of the grandeur of these buildings firsthand and gain a deeper appreciation of Philly’s architectural heritage.

Beury Building, Broad & Erie

When Architect William H. Lee designed the National Bank of North Philadelphia in 1926, the 14-story limestone, brick, and terra cotta structure was considered a masterpiece of Art Deco design. Renamed the Beury Building, it was topped by a three-story penthouse with a pyramid roof.

In 1985, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Following forty years of abandonment, the property was renovated into a Marriot in 2019. The ground floor continues to display an elegant Art Deco archway with magnificent windows. 

Lee also designed many of Philadelphia’s opulent Art Deco movie palaces. Although most are gone, several remain including the Sedgewick, Anthony Wayne, the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, and the Hiway.

PSFS, 12th & Market

In 1932, the first skyscraper in the International Style in the United States, the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society (PSFS) was greeted with both praise and criticism. Designed by architects William Lescaze and George Howe, some felt it was too sterile.

The 36-story building was a radical departure from the traditional Greek and Italian-inspired bank architecture. Lescaze and Howe went on to design PSFS branches all over the city, including the Logan Branch, now a Citizen’s Bank, a beautiful example of Art Deco at 5000 N Broad.

PSFS Building exterior. Image: Jack Boucher, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress
PSFS Building exterior. Image: Jack Boucher, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress

In 1969, the PSFS building received the “Building of the Century Award.” But by 1992, the skyscraper was 85% vacant. It was auctioned off and is now a Loews Hotel. The building is still topped by a red neon 27-foot PSFS sign that can be seen for 20 miles.

Interior of the PSFS building, 1932. Image: Hagley Digital Archives.
Interior of the PSFS building, 1932. Image: Hagley Digital Archives.

Perelman Building, 2525 Pennsylvania Ave. 

Designed by Zantzinger, Borie, and Medary in 1927, the Perelman Building is a registered national historic landmark. It features a stunning, three-story, arched cathedral entrance with decorative windows. The exterior décor includes relief sculptures of animals and people, typical of Art Deco design. 

Perelman Building. Image: Philadelphia Museum of Art
Perelman Building. Image: Philadelphia Museum of Art

Originally built as the headquarters for Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company, the building reopened in 2007 as an extension of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The façade renovation received a Grand Jury Award for Exterior Restoration and Adaptive Reuse from the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia.

WCAU Building, 1622 Chestnut 

WCAU building facade. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The WCAU building stands out as one of the most recognizable Art Deco buildings in Philly. Designed by Harry Sternfeld, it was the first building in the nation designed specifically for a radio station. Over the years, it has been a Woolworth’s, the Art Institute of Philadelphia and now it is an Old Navy.

The Ayer, 210 W Washington Sq

Built 1927-29, the Ayer was originally designed by Ralph Bencker as the headquarters for N.W. Ayer, one of the oldest ad agencies in the country. Now a condo, its Art Deco features are still prominently on display both inside and out, including the elaborate bronze front doors, decorative lobby, and the large monumental figures at the top of the building.

Ayer building door details. Image: Newyorkitecture
Ayer building door details. Image: Newyorkitecture

The Drake, 1512 Spruce St

The Drake. Photo: Brookfield Properties
The Drake. Photo: Brookfield Properties

This 33-story masterpiece is one of the landmarks of Philly’s skyline. Originally a hotel, it was designed by the architectural firm Ritter and Shay.  Who hasn’t looked up in wonder at its iconic terra-cotta dome or marveled at its Spanish Baroque interior? Today, it is an apartment building with a penthouse swimming pool.

SEPTA Suburban Station, 1600 John F Kennedy Blvd

Suburban Station’s Art Deco design owes its opulence to a collection of architects, including Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, and Thalheimer & Weitz. The building originally served as a terminal for Pennsylvania Railroad trains. Today, it is an office building and train station, with retail located below. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

30th Street Station, 2955 Market St

30th Street Station Interior. Image: Amtrak
30th Street Station Interior. Image: Amtrak

While the exterior is neoclassical, the interior of 30th Street Station is pure Art Deco designed in 1929-34 by Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White. Now considered one of the last remaining grand stations in the country, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

More Art Deco Architecture

Other fine examples of Art Deco architecture in our city include the Market Street National Bank at One East Penn Square and the Automat Building at 818 Chesnut Street where the first Horn & Haddart Automat opened in 1902. Want to see more? The Preservation Alliance offers Art Deco walking tours in Philadelphia and the next one is on Saturday, September 18th. Visit their website for the schedule and to get tickets. 

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