1/16/2014 – Public Federal Savings Bank

Places We Love – Public Federal Savings Bank (for the Main Line Times version, click here)

You have probably driven by this building a million times without giving it a second thought.  It’s another mid-century bank building in transition and could be just another teardown.  It’s not listed on Lower Merion’s inventory of historic resources, not championed by throngs of residents and for many, not understood as an important resource.  However, it turns out that it absolutely is worth a second thought and I’m excited to share why.  This week’s Place We Love is the former Public Federal Savings Bank at the corner of Penn and Wynnewood Roads in Wynnewood.

Built circa 1951, this building is a good example of the mid-century modern style.  This style was applied to many bank buildings and they are being lost at an alarming rate.  Mid-century design is characterized by sleek, simplified geometry and clean lines. Designers of this style embraced the optimistic spirit of the time through experimenting with the newest technologies and materials in building and incorporating futuristic elements. It was a new architecture for the 20th Century that reflected the evolution of art and engineering instead of revisiting historical themes.

While this may look like just another bank building from the 1950’s, it is actually a very thoughtful urban design.  It is cleverly located, lighted and pedestrian friendly.  When it was constructed it was nestled into its space in a most careful way.  First of all, the unique pie-shaped wedge relates perfectly with its location on the corner.  The signage is also strikingly oriented to be visible at the exact right height and point of view for safely finding ones destination while cruising along Wynnewood Avenue, serving as a signal to the entrance of Wynnewood.  Secondly, apparently the original downlighting around the outside of the building is especially integrated and beautiful at night.  This is hard to appreciate from an unoccupied building.  Lastly, there is a path to the Wynnewood Train Station behind the building—incorporated to accommodate pedestrian-friendly access.

Considering all of these design elements, aren’t they the exact things that we want in our new developments?  Amazingly, this site already has them.  Not only would reusing this building preserve an element of our community fabric but it would be ‘green’ as well, reducing construction waste and the consumption of new natural resources.

A building like this can easily fall through the advocacy cracks but Christian Busch, Principal at 20th Century Preservation, LLC and active community historic preservationist has taken this project under his wing.  Advocating for the preservation of this building, Busch notes that its unique design offers a real opportunity.  As the property is developed, he is encouraging potential developers to consider synergistically adapting their national branding model to fit this special place, rather than the reverse.  He notes, “If treated properly, this building would be instantly iconic and the ultimate in terms of a Green Building!

As a community, we expect high quality design and we challenge design professionals to achieve something beyond the status quo—that is one of the things that makes the Main Line so special.  It often takes some effort to creatively reuse a site to achieve a greater end product but wherever it is possible it is absolutely worth the time and energy.  Those who are in a position to make the extra effort and take advantage of that opportunity deserve a very special thank you.

Next time you pass the Public Federal Realty Building take special note of its character.  If possible, we may see how a unique mid-century modern can transition into the 21st Century with aplomb.

Patty Thompson is the Executive Director and JulieAnn Murphy is the Historic Preservation Coordinator of the Lower Merion Conservancy.  They can be reached at patty@lmconservancy.org or JulieAnn@lmconservancy.org respectively.

For more on this issue, click here.