The disk-shaped structure of the Fairmount Park Welcome Center hides in plain sight, upstaged by its more flamboyant neighbor, the LOVE sculpture. With its 360-degree, floor-to-ceiling glass face and round cornice, the building embodies a Space Age vision of the future that now seems quaint.
But the architectural Welcome Center – often compared to a pillbox hat or a flying saucer – may be replaced with an updated visitor center if some of the City of Philadelphia’s plans for Love Park’s redesign are adopted. Originally marked for preservation in a 2011 proposal, the city’s effort to introduce green space into the park will go ahead with or without the existing Kennedy-era structure.
This has piqued the interest of local groups like the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, however. The group argues that the building should remain as a testament to the inventive, if eccentric, spirit of midcentury modern architecture in the city.
“There is a large cult following for midcentury architecture … but there are people who really get it and people who really don’t,” said Ben Leech, the advocacy director for the organization. While not a personal favorite of his, he said the building’s distinctive looks complement its once-novel purpose.
“No one knew what the idea of a ‘visitor center’ was in 1960,” Leech said, leafing through yellowing press clippings for the building, which was originally called the Philadelphia Hospitality Center. But he thinks this fact might escape the average passerby. “Some people look at it and say, ‘You’re concerned with that?’”
Commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce in 1959, the structure was designed by architect Roy Larsen and unveiled the following year. Love Park followed five years later. The Fairmount Park Welcome Center is now jointly operated with the Independence Visitors Center, located on Independence Mall.
Lauren Drapala, a co-chair and founding member of the Young Friends of the Preservation Alliance, said that the building’s round design is no mere affectation.
“Its iconic design and visual transparency function primarily to attract attention and emit a sense of approachability, which is why it works so well as an information resource for the public,” Drapala said in an email.
Of circular buildings in general, Leech called it an “architectural meme” of the times and said that buildings of its era exist in a lurch in the public’s opinion.
“They’re too new to be historic, but too old to be useful,” Leech said. “It’s like a gray hair. People just want to pluck it.”
Others are less adamant about the building’s survival. Mark Focht, first deputy commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and spearhead of Love Park’s redesign, said that there are practical concerns with the building that trump aesthetics.
“The building has continued to deteriorate over the years,” said Focht, who went on to enumerate the building’s issues with age and building code like its lack of air-conditioning, its energy-inefficient single pane windows and a roof that “leaks like a sieve.”
At the forefront of his concerns, however, is the fact that the building is only nominally handicap-accessible. Its construction predates the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandated that accommodations be made for wheelchair-bound and other disabled patrons.
“The whole building would have to be gutted down to its concrete shell and completely restored,” Focht said. “Even then, where do you put an elevator? There really isn’t any room.”
Leech said he disagrees with the idea of a whole new structure being built.
“If you’re talking about sustainability … the greenest building is the one that’s already there,” he said. Leech said that the total landfill contribution of a renovation would be minimal compared to that of an entirely new building project.
Following the popularity of the city’s South Street and Independence Mall pop-up beer gardens, the idea of the saucer-shaped building becoming a kind of “Jetsons”-style cocktail bar is popular. Both Leech and Drapala are fans of the idea.
“While the design is unusual, the materials are fairly standard: concrete, tile, steel and glass,” Drapala said. “The difficulties of repurposing are primarily space related. It’s figuring out how to make the building [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant, how and where to put in ‘public’ bathrooms, where to put in an elevator … and how to introduce new systems into the building.”
Designs have not been finalized yet, as a civic engagement program overseen by PennPraxis, a design group at Penn, and partial funding by the William Penn Foundation has yet to fully gauge the public’s opinion.
A social-media campaign under the hashtag “#savethesaucer” has been launched to engage Philadelphians with the unique structure and lobby for its remaining a part of Love Park.
Sunil Chopade can be reached at email@example.com