Four years ago, Ian Smith walked into the charred husk of 2122 Locust St., in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse-Fitler Square Historic District, to see firsthand the devastation that only a four-alarm fire can bring. As the founding principal of local firm Ian Smith Design Group made his way through the remains, he gained a rare view into 19th-century craftsmanship. “The one thing you wish you could do as an architect is basically see how an old building was constructed,” Smith says.
The fire had gutted the four-story brick tenement structure, which was originally designed by local firm Baker & Dallett and built in 1899; its entire fourth floor and much of the lower three floors were destroyed. Smith recalls a massive void in the center of the building: “You could almost look at it like a big, inverted catenary curve, like a parabola. It went all the way through the middle and down into the basement.”
Through the rubble, he marveled at the intricate, Georgian Revival detailing, the woodwork behind the ornamental cornice, the hidden drains, and the bricks that were barely mortared in place. “There were a number of things that were really delightful,” Smith says. “You could see how people thought.”
With support from the City of Philadelphia and historic preservation tax credits, the building owner, William Penn Realty, decided to restore the 21-unit apartment building. Former ground floor apartments would ultimately become double-height lofts, for a total of 16 new rental units. The renovation also would recreate the project’s historic elements, from the entryway to the rebuilt fourth floor. IS-DG oversaw the rehabilitation alongside AR Engineers and preservation consultant Powers & Co.
The first step, Smith says, was to document every inch that remained of the original architecture. He took hundreds of photographs, but also hand drew dozens of elevations, sections, and details. “This is an opportunity for us to draw,” he recalls telling his team. “You go out, get what you can, and extrapolate it.”
The architects worked with several fabricators, including A.C. Gentry, to create replicas of the original entry door, window details, and exterior metal cornice. They also restored the building’s mosaic tile floors and repurposed building artifacts as decor for the newly appointed residential units. To recreate the missing fourth story, Smith pored over historic photographs but also had the fortune of one building-scale clue: 2122 Locust’s architectural twin just next door. Aside from superficial differences—a rounded versus a faceted bay, for example—the building offered an invaluable guide to recreating the original fourth floor’s exterior recessed brick panels and ornamental wood cornice.
Among the project’s biggest challenges was adding a new structure—the fourth floor—atop the existing historic one. While the 19th-century brick masonry walls are load-bearing, Smith simplified construction of the fourth floor by capping the third floor and then switching to a conventional wall system with 2x6 wood framing and batt insulation. He finished the interior with painted gypsum wall board and clad the exterior with a brick veneer. The approach saved time and money and also allowed the structural load to be transferred “all the way to the ground through the existing] wall, based on direct loading as opposed to some kind of shear loading situation with anchor bolts,” Smith explains. “I like to avoid that if ever possible to create a better lateral and compression load resistance throughout the building. It’s just a simpler detail.” In areas where the floor could not bear directly onto the existing four-wythe masonry wall, Smith worked with his structural engineering consultant to transfer gravity loads through wood stud furring inboard of the existing brick wall.
To match the red-and-black brick exterior of the original structure, Smith’s team salvaged bricks from the debris for the veneer and sourced the rest from Glen-Gery Masonry, in Muhlenberg, Pa. Because 2122 Locust Street is itself listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, nearly every aspect of the rehabilitation had to be approved by the city’s historical commission, from the color and quality of the brick to a full-scale wall mock-up for the reconstructed fourth floor.
In the end, the project earned the approval of not just commission members but the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, which awarded the project with a 2019 Grand Jury prize. Although the 15,289-square-foot project took more than two years, Smith says the careful restoration of so many historic details “was really about being a good citizen, and the preservation of the city’s character, this place, and its allegiance to Rittenhouse Square.”
On a more personal level, Smith found the project to be an invigorating puzzle. “I’ve grown to find that I like being the solver of problems,” he says. “And I love these details because I was trying to show where the existing ended, how it was built, and how we extended it up in order to solve those things, which was a lot of fun for us—at least for me.”