George Little Architectural Designer As I have walked around Philadelphia over the past year, I’ve…

Philadelphia’s “Brick Modern”

George Little
Architectural Designer

As I have walked around Philadelphia over the past year, I’ve come to notice a particular typology of modern home. By “modern,” I’m referring to the true sense of modernism, not the commonly misunderstood definition of “modern” meaning anything that doesn’t look like a traditional building. Modernism is often stark, focused on primitive geometry and function, often not interested in ornament or aesthetics. That is, aesthetics that would be considered applied, not the inherent beauty of simplicity and rudimentary form.

What I am coining as “Brick Modern” homes are defined by their strict adherence to basic geometry, gravitation toward secluded public space, and progressive yet perhaps outdated notions of urban cohabitation and unit tessellation. These densely packed developments can be found peppered throughout the downtown areas of Philadelphia, from Franklintown to Fairmount to Society Hill.

As I began to see more and more Brick Modern homes, I became curious about their origins – what drove the design and popularity of this typology? I began to dig to find some answers.

One of the most prominent of the Philadelphia Brick Modern homes is Bingham Court in Society Hill. The project consists of 28 multi-story townhomes, each in the true modernist sense, based on the Cartesian nine-square-grid. These townhomes are secluded from the hustle and bustle of the narrow streets of historic Philadelphia, but through their layout create private outdoor courtyards.


Photo of Bingham Court just after its completion.

The materials are simple: glass, aluminum mullions and, of course, red brick. The townhouses, arranged in a series of lines, create mid-block public courts that take advantage of adjacent existing colonial structures. As one walks the pedestrian streets that interweave through the multi-block development covered by the canopy of 60-year-old trees, a sense of both peacefulness and community are palpable.

In the early sixties, Society Hill, which is now one of the nicest neighborhoods in downtown Philadelphia, was considered a slum. Only a few blocks from the birthplace of our nation, Society Hill had fallen into disrepair and heavy deterioration. Ed Bacon, who is famous among many architects and urban planners for his ambitious plans to redesign Center City, took initiative to clean up and ultimately redefine Society Hill through a massive redevelopment plan. The commissioned architect, I.M Pei, FAIA, developed a plan for the neighborhood. Starting with three monumental concrete towers to the east, the development included multiple blocks of low townhouse buildings extending westward. The goal was to “echo in both scale and materials the many historic houses that were also restored under the plan. The gaps between these preserved structures became infill sites for sympathetic new construction.” More than the opportunity for infill sites, the townhouses provided a key ingredient to many urban architects: context.

This is what Bingham Court looks like today. This view is taken from the public court with the three towers in the distance.

This is what Bingham Court looks like today. This view is taken from the public court with the three towers in the distance.


Photo of Bingham Court as it looks today. This is a view showing mirrored units with their unique colored doors and private yards.

Photo of Bingham Court today. This is a view of one of the connecting promenades.

Photo of Bingham Court today. This is a view of one of the connecting promenades.

I can’t help but recognize, or perhaps question, the influence that this development had on similar architecture in various Philadelphia neighborhoods. On that note, perhaps the influence goes back to the work of a Philadelphia architect famous for his work in brick, Louis Kahn. A house designed by Kahn in 1960 on the outskirts of Philly, the Esherick House exhibits many of the same principals found in Pei’s work in Society Hill – the only major difference is its suburban setting. Drawing ties between Kahn and Pei is nothing new and isn’t my current interest; rather I am curious about the peppering of Brick Modern houses that popped up in the years following the completion of Bingham Court.

Photo of the Esherick House by Louis Kahn, a possible influence for I.M.Pei's Bingham Court.

Photo of the Esherick House by Louis Kahn, a possible influence for I.M.Pei’s Bingham Court.

Immediately south of Pei’s Society Hill Towers is Penn’s Landing Square. A project packed with townhouses, notable architect Louis Sauer carried on the modernist fascination with unit articulation that both Kahn and Pei had already started. What was known as “Urban Suburban,” became the catalyst for the design of Penn’s Landing Square, referring to a balance between urban life and suburban retreat. The townhouses were designed to have an urban street front complete with a stoop while also organizing the living and outdoor spaces to be private, despite the close proximity to neighboring units. However, the major difference between this project and Bingham Court is the dissolution of a singular communal courtyard – instead, a series of unique, non-square courts are found throughout the complex, each organizing 5-8 units as neighbors.

Siteplan of Sauer's Penn’s Landing Square.

Siteplan of Sauer’s Penn’s Landing Square.

Photo of Sauer's Penn’s Landing Square.

Original photo of Sauer’s Penn’s Landing Square. View looking down a internal street.

Original Photo of Sauer's Penn's Landing Square. View from the street.

Original Photo of Sauer’s Penn’s Landing Square. View from the street.

While these two projects represent the prominent architects who heavily influenced Philadelphia’s architecture, there are many other examples of this legacy throughout the city. Only a few blocks away, similar houses were crafted to fit snugly against their colonial neighbors. There are plenty of these small modern insertions throughout historic Philadelphia. I believe that these projects are stronger through their contextual dialogue with each other.

Photo of a Brick Modern home in Society Hill squeezed in between two colonial homes.

Photo of a Brick Modern home in Society Hill squeezed in between two colonial homes.

So what defines this typology? It seems that there are a few major architectural and urban elements that each of the above projects embody. Firstly, and somewhat most obvious, their construction:  brick. Secondly, these houses take a strong position in defining the urban block, with strict corners and privatized interiors. They often are introverted, minimizing fenestration on the street and maximizing visibility to the outdoors on the block’s interior. Additionally, nearly all of them are either driven by or encompass an exterior courtyard, hidden from both the public and neighbors. But most importantly, and very much in the modernist spirit, these houses are designed with rigorous geometry based on human scale – a fundamental value that harks back to the early modernist days of Le Corbusier’s modular. These homes are a defining characteristic of Philadelphia’s urban blocks. For me, they are beautiful in their subtly and contextual consciousness.


Below are a series of photos highlighting the various Brick Modern homes found throughout Society Hill.

These arched doorways are a prominent geometry found in Society Hill.

These arched doorways are a prominent geometry found in Society Hill.

A single opening along the street wall.

A single opening along the street wall.

Photo of a Brick Modern home at the corner of 5th and Pine Streets.

Photo of a Brick Modern home at the corner of 5th and Pine Streets.

View of a Brick Modern home from the adjacent corner of 5th and Pine Streets.

View of a Brick Modern home from the adjacent corner of 5th and Pine Streets with minimal fenestration along the street wall.

Photo of a Brick Modern building for the late sixties and a colonial house.

Photo of a Brick Modern building from the late sixties and adjacent colonial houses.

The same house pictured above, this photo shows the large open windows along the rear of the house and small fenestration along the public facades.

The same house pictured above, this photo shows the large open windows along the rear of the house and small fenestration along the public facades.

Photo of one of the more unique Brick Modern homes found in Society Hill.

Photo of one of the more unique Brick Modern homes found in Society Hill.

Detail shot of the home shown above.

Detail shot of the home shown above.

A common brick construction method used to achieve a cantilever above the sidewalk.

A common brick construction method used to achieve a cantilever above the sidewalk.


1. Pei Cobb Freed & Partners,
2. Architect Magazine.
3. Philadelphia Magazine.
4. philadelphia magazine.
5. philadelphia magazine.
6. All others: George Little

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Sandy Thieu Interior Designer Human beings are fascinated by small objects; Smart Cars, miniature pigs,…

Big Love for Tiny Homes

Sandy Thieu
Interior Designer

Human beings are fascinated by small objects; Smart Cars, miniature pigs, tiny hamsters eating tiny burritos (for some reason animal references keep coming to mind). Dating back to ancient Rome, architect and engineer Marcus Vitruvius Pollios established the classical ethos of architecture in his treatise De architectura, describing the human figure as the principal proportion among the Classic orders of architecture. To Vitruvius, the human body was “the greatest work of art and to understand its proportions was to facilitate the perfection of the art of building”. During the Renaissance in 1490, his vision came to fruition by way of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man, a pen and ink sketch of the human body inscribed in a circle and square, the fundamental geometric shapes of the cosmic order. Present-day architecture not only considers human proportion, but all factors that affect human comfort. Because we’ve been living and thriving in a world specially designed for humans for over two thousand years, it is no wonder that we find anything that contradicts the standard exceptional and exciting. Think about how relevant this is in our daily lives today! Pictures taken in oversized Adirondack chairs are a treat at the park. I’m guilty of being one of the first to jump into that chair and strike a pose. And movies like “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”, “Alice in Wonderland”, and “Ant Man” explore scale that is beyond our imagination. It begs the question, what would it be like to live in a world that goes against the cosmic order?


Among this paradigm shift is the Tiny House Movement (THM), which has captured our attention for the past few decades. It is internationally recognized but most active in the United States, especially in the residential architecture community. Thanks to popular TV shows like HGTV’s Tiny House Hunters, the movement has gained popularity and is trending. However, if we look past its novelty, tiny houses are a catalyst for fundamental architectural values that speak to an emerging new way of life called “simple living.” As a direct reaction to the financial and housing crashes as well as the impending environmental crisis, people across the globe are voluntarily reducing their space and material possessions. They are building closer to nature and choosing to live more responsibly for a greener and more holistic lifestyle. THM helps facilitate this way of life in many ways. It allows financial freedom from a mortgage payment and high utility bills, is ecologically friendly by building smaller and requiring the consumption of less energy to operate and, most importantly, it enables people to take back control of their time. Less time working to make payments and less time maintaining a large house allows for more time for everything else important in life! A smaller building footprint not only promotes a minimalist lifestyle, it liberates us from any burdens and obligations modern society has set as the basic standards of living.


Tiny houses come in infinite shapes and sizes. Compared to the average American single family home of 2,600 square feet, they range from 100 to 500 square feet. Some are permanent, some are mobile on wheels, and some are nestled in trees above the ground. The ambiguous nature of these structures make it very difficult to be confined to traditional building codes, especially that of zoning and land use regulation (Washington Post). Tiny houses can be built virtually anywhere, bringing a rest to the age-old “location-location-location” debate. As a result, homeowners take on the responsibility to create a spatial experience that harmoniously integrates their home with its surroundings. It echoes Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture teachings, which “blend(s) interiors and exteriors, and create(s) a built environment not separate or dominant from nature but as a unified whole” ( Based on this design concept, Wright went on to develop a series on homes called Usonian. On a large scale that encompasses all platforms of architecture, this concept has inspired new technologies such as passive solar building design, solar power harvesting, and stormwater management. This allows buildings to coexist with the natural environment for a more sustainable way of living in the modern world. From a THM perspective, integrated green features achieve the same goal. Products such as high performance insulation, solar panels, greywater reuse for gardening, and composting toilets help to maximize functionality without compromising the integrity of it’s the tiny home’s environment. For THM, this elemental design principle has been executed in the smallest scale possible to achieve human comfort.


According to Vitruvius, architecture requires three essential elements. Buildings need to be sturdy, useful and beautiful. In his mind, both form and function were important in their own right. THM has successfully executed this design foundation—tiny houses simultaneously prioritize overall good aesthetics and purposeful space design. As a designer in commercial interiors, that is what I strive to accomplish—an environment that is both the physical embodiment of a company’s vision and one which inspires employees and helps them perform to the best of their abilities. Like all other architectural spaces, the design of tiny homes is impacted by its location and its ultimate purpose (i.e., tree house, summer lodge, college dwelling, etc). Modest amounts of space forces the designer to be more deliberate in decision-making and to pay close attention to detail. I have found that many tiny homes unabashedly display the true integrity of their finishes, especially those that are local, sustainable materials. This once again reinforces the attentiveness to ecological conscientiousness. Finish materials are used to create an atmosphere, evoke an emotion and can provide clever solutions to optimize space usage by creating dual-purpose spaces, multifunctional furniture and built-in equipment and appliances. As an interior designer, the Tiny House Movement satisfies my love for artistic freedom. As a person of only 5’-0” in height, it fulfills my dreams of having everything literally within arms-reach. In my research, I have found that no two tiny houses are perfectly alike. When it comes to design, sky’s the limit!


Among L2Partridge’s broad portfolio, ranging from commercial buildings to residential projects, the Burns Cabin comes to mind. Driven by the client’s need to escape the hubbub of New York City life, Design Principal Bob Little, AIA, was tasked with designing a secluded cabin situated by a pond in rural Pennsylvania. The goals: keep it simple, modern, and under 300 square feet. Based on these requirements and the parameters of the site, the end result is a single multiuse living space, clad with weathered wood planks to aesthetically blend with the environment. The living space includes a full bathroom, small kitchen, murphy bed and small sound studio for the client’s work. Since no air conditioning system was implemented, energy efficient windows penetrate the walls to bring in light and air. An exterior structure encompasses the entire space to frame and showcase the landscape and create an outdoor patio area where floor-to-ceiling glass doors open up for a fluid transition between indoor and outdoor space. It is finished with cement boards on the side and zinc panels on the roof, both sustainable and low-maintenance materials. As you approach, the main walkway leads you directly through the frame structure and draws your eye immediately to the pond. Last but not least, my favorite feature of the Burns Cabin is the hearth. Piercing through the frame structure, the tall masonry fireplace is the main source of heat in the space and becomes the key focal point for the cabin’s entire indoor/outdoor experience.


Now, this is not to say that tiny houses are all rainbows and butterflies. First, the average cost of a tiny house is $200-400 per square feet—way more than your average American home, and that does not include the cost of land. One reason for this upcharge is because experts of this building type encourage building higher-quality for better performance that stands the test of time. In addition, one square foot in a tiny house goes a long way as compared to an average American house. It’s packed with newer, more integrated technology and is dense in functionality. Secondly, depending on the nature of a tiny house, traditional heating, cooling and plumbing systems could be replaced with new alternative and renewable sources of energy that require an entire lifestyle change. Finally, the sheer minimization of space is a deal-breaker for some. I mean, we are a country where “bigger is better.” Tiny houses and simple living cater to a certain demographic but are, nonetheless, intriguing and make us reevaluate our day-to-day living on a macroscopic level.

I realize that tiny houses are not for everyone, nor are they meant to be. If we break down the various attitudes and ideas about tiny home design, a few specific aspects become clear. Tiny homes are efficient in their utilization of space and energy use, often relate to their surroundings by the use of natural materials and finishes, and their design focuses on the basic needs of human life. THM continues to awe us with smart and beautiful designs and pique our interest with an off-the-beaten-track way of living. Stemming from far bigger and more challenging issues at hand, tiny houses and simple living, for some, is a small solution. For me, I think they are onto something big.

1. Dwell Magazine, Huffington Post
2. Dwell Magazine, DWELL MAGAZINE
3. Koda by Kodasema – Archdaily
4. Dwell Magazine, Dwell Magazine
5. L2Partridge

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Lauren Walker Interior Designer Welcome to a periodic series in which I take a look…

BLOG | Port Fishington Bars, Part I

Lauren Walker
Interior Designer

Welcome to a periodic series in which I take a look at bar and restaurant design in an old-guard but newly-trendy part of Philadelphia. Fishtown, Kensington and Port Richmond are three adjoining neighborhoods in Philadelphia, an area informally known to many as the River Wards. (Technically “River Wards” also includes the Bridesburg sections of Philly.) The area is deeply working class, often industrial, and very residential. It’s also been hugely popular in recent years, with many new bodies moving in and corresponding amounts of attention (and money) following. For an area with until-recently compressed real estate values and relatively low population density, this has meant huge changes to these neighborhoods.

The commercial corridors of Frankford, Girard, Lehigh, Allegheny, Richmond, Front and Delaware Avenue, bordering and crossing through the Wards, are refilling and redeveloping. In some areas this occurs at a much faster clip, in others, hardly at all. The Market-Frankford line and Girard trolleys lend proximity to the Northeast and Center City, feeding growth along their routes. I-95 is a direct shot to a few major arteries on the river-bordering side. In general, these neighborhoods are filled with far more people than have lived or spent money here in decades, and it’s not hard to find someone willing to gamble on opening up shop.

All over, older establishments are being purchased, redesigned (or not), resold, gutted, demolished, rebuilt and re-imagined. Vacant lots are disappearing two or three at a time on some blocks, spider-webbed with framing and then gone. The formerly longer, grittier views are being replaced with contemporary-industrial metal panel fronts, the newest kind of cookie-cutter row homes, or deliberately hand-turned artisan style designs.

In part because I’ve lived in the River Wards myself for 11 years, in part because I like to go out for drinks and snacks, and in part because I find hospitality design interesting, I am taking it upon myself to lend a very biased opinion of watering holes in the area. I will mainly focus on bars, but I’m not unwilling to talk about a restaurant serving excellent drinks. I’ll have one drink at each place and I’ll talk about how the place looks and feels. As a person, I’m explicitly “new” to the area to anyone who’s lived here from birth, a characteristic common to the general population. There’s much that sets me apart from my neighbors, some of it superficial and some of it not. However, I’m also explicitly settled in here. I have spent untold warm heavy nights listening to the lives of the people around me and percolating into theirs, intentionally or not. The walls are thin here in so many ways.

I love the cobble-stoned corners, older residential detailing, industrial buildings and unexpected green caves. I despise the noticeable distrust of outsiders, even as I observe how painful the distance to wealthier parts of town can feel. All the relatively recent interest in Fishtown, Kensington and Port Richmond is built on decades of inequality (in terms of services, infrastructure, funding, et cetera). Class and race aren’t absent factors. I can only offer my own view, cringe a bit at the inevitable outing of my sociocultural positioning, and move on from there.

For this first installment, I’ll talk about Fishtown Tavern and Fishtown Social.

Fishtown Tavern
1301 Frankford Avenue | Sunday May 29 | 9:45pm
Dark & Stormy, $8

This corner bar was a fixture in its current location long before being purchased, redesigned and reopened under Buffalo Billiards’ Curt Large and Josh Semesh in 2012. Since then, it’s grown steadily in popularity with a generous selection of craft beverages, low-commitment yet energetic DJ nights, definitive dive-bar aesthetic, and a quality late night kitchen menu. The Frankford Avenue address is within walking distance from Frankford and Girard, a popular commercial epicenter where out-of-town and college crowds swarm on weekends. This means a steady stream of new faces appear at the bar. But enough Fishtown residents call this a favorite spot to keep it feeling like the solid local it is.

The footprint of the space represents one of my favorite Philadelphia small-business trademarks: the pie-slice shape created by a street cutting acutely through the grid. The entry door is located at the apex of the triangle and opens directly into the larger portion of the bar. The total square footage is about the size of an average row home, maybe 18′ x 35′ x 10′ high at it widest measurements, and it feels as cozy as it sounds.


There are two main rooms: the front room with bar, polished chrome metal pipe bar stools and high-top tables, and the back room with wooden black painted banquette seating and low checkerboard-top tables edging the walls. The ceilings throughout are painted red and scattered with black 12″ x 12” direct-glue ribbed acoustic panels. In the front room, the bar runs parallel to the length of the room and terminates into a wall with a single large window filled with glass block. The long wall is finished with painted charcoal-gray panels. A few tiny old casement windows are cut high into the exterior wall. The floor is matte dark-red brick. In the back room, the walls are paneled with nearly full-height black painted wood and painted red plaster above. A half partition separates the toilet rooms from the rest of the space, simple and black like everything else. The floor is laid with worn black-and-red checkerboard vinyl composite tile.


The vibe is distinctly do-it-yourself rock-bar, with exposed-bolt steel legs on the banquette, pipe-mounted wall speakers and industrial wire cage sconces. Electric is run through surface mount conduit and the fans are numerous, a 15″ double-headed metal-cage style. The air conditioners are plug-in yet built directly into the wall, another classic Philly row home move. The walls are hung with beer can folded-metal art pieces, and a light up plastic dog and dismembered mannequin perch atop the beer fridge. A lone string of gold tinsel runs above the chalkboard menu behind the bar. The bar itself is steel-edged with a tiled floor detail just beyond a stone-topped footrest, and it still looks enough like a urinal trough to elicit the jokes, if not the function. There’s a TV mounted in the corner of the bar, at the time of my visit showing back to back episodes of The Honeymooners. The space is dim, lit sparingly with low voltage track heads in matte black, a splash or two of red neon, and a back-lit stained glass panel depicting a ship at sea. It’s a dive.

For my drink I honor the wet summer night and order a Dark and Stormy. It’s sweet and refreshing and served without much fuss in a pint glass. The cocktail menu here is filled with old classics and a smattering of artisanal-liquor concoctions. The by-the-glass wine list includes a canned sparkling rose. The beer selection is prolific. The food menu reminds me of a combination of snacks your friend’s parent would slap together after school, like the beef tacos or spicy mac-n-cheese, but also items a foodie friend would serve you at their BBQ, like the lamb burger or mushroom flatbread. The main thread here, as in the rest of the bar, is one of cozy familiarity, but just different enough to make you want to leave your house. It’s a good position for a space that has been operating as a local watering hole longer than many of its patrons have been alive. I like coming here because it doesn’t feel like a huge departure from the reason I like this part of town in the first place. It’s a bit worn and a lot loved.


There is no discussion of change in Fishtown without a reflection on the relative set of experiences visiting a bar like this. To me, Fishtown Tavern strikes the right balance of old and new, but that’s also because I’m one of the types it’s catering to. It feels comfortable to me. It’s dim, so you’re not on display, but it’s public, so you could run into someone you know. It’s not so expensive that a drink or snack here needs to be a special occasion. But I’m sure to someone who lived on this street for 40 years before it was sold and reopened, it’s a yuppie paradise. I have been called a yuppie in these neighborhoods enough times to know what it means here: Anyone who didn’t grow up close by, who moved in as an adult, who doesn’t really belong. It’s a way to distinguish us vs. them. This is Philly. It doesn’t mean that I stop showing up, or even feel unwelcome anymore. It’s more a recognition that creeping gentrification is essentially the reason real estate prices change in an area like this, and there’s interest to purchase an existing old bar and rebrand it in the first place.

To continue the conversation, I wait for a break in the steady downpour and run the few blocks northward to Fishtown Social.

Fishtown Social
1523 Frankford Avenue | Sunday May 29 | 11:00pm
Arabako Txacolina, Xarmant Txacoli, $15

Another corner, another pie-shaped bar: Fishtown Social is similar to Fishtown Tavern in a few high-level ways, such as the new ownership, Frankford address, and small footprint, but it strikes a different note entirely. Here the old mosaic-tiled stepped entryway opens into a warmly lit and distinctly high-end space, with a white stone-topped bar dominating the single room. The floor is finished with dark engineered wood in an artful hand-scraped look, planks running parallel to the bar and offsetting the pale water-blue painted walls and embossed tin ceiling. The tall window frames are new, stained to match the dark wood of the floor with simple high-top tables and barstools running along them. Behind the bar, glossy subway tiles are set neatly above a narrow stone shelf. Classic dark-stained bottle shelves frame the mirrors listing featured wines in an airy hand.

Fishtown Social is a wine bar specifically, serving curated by-the-glass selections in all the usual categories and only a small offering of mixed drinks. I take the bartender’s suggestion for the Arabako Txacolina white, and I won’t pretend to know a single thing about it but I can tell you it’s from Basque, Spain, has a very long pedigree of grape varietals and is described as follows: jalapeno, crisp, zippy. It’s lovely.


The space is clean, organized and deliberate, maybe a bit reserved. Polished chrome wine taps gleam softly; serveware is neatly arranged on a residential-style wall-mounted unit at the back. The bartender is young and extremely polite. There are candles flickering on all the tables, tiny-petaled white potted flowers in tumblers on the crystalline bar, and Edison bulb brass pendants giving off an inviting glow. The framed art is spare, monochrome or abstract, and framed in black wood with large white expanses of mat around the prints. Overall, the palette is limited, with dark browns, blacks, ivories and a desaturated blue-green tint dominating the space.


This is absolutely an upscale bar, thoughtfully designed and executed. Not a single wire is astray; everything unsightly is hidden and finished. The toilet rooms are literally sparkling with cut-glass mirrors and burnished-metal look porcelain floor tile in a 12” x 24” brick format. It’s very tasteful and classic, so orderly I feel a bit bedraggled sitting at the pristine bar with my rained-on bangs. Aside from me, only a few other patrons are enjoying the glow on this damp Sunday night, sipping on wines and looking over the menu. It doesn’t feel anything like Fishtown – or, should I say, the Fishtown I’m used to.

It’s soothing, but in a generic way. I am impressed by the quality materials and careful detailing. This renovation was well-done and it shows. But frankly I find myself wishing the cracked and repaired mosaic tile of the exterior step lent its taste of salvage to the design of the bar inside. The satisfaction of something useful saved and made beautiful is hard to beat. It’s one of the best markers of good design in any older-environment renovation. Philadelphia can be a lovely city for the most beautifully preserved details. I like seeing anything to celebrate that. The ceiling in Fishtown Social gets close, with its embossed painted designs and beautifully timeless grey-green mint color. But overall the bar is so perfect I wish it weren’t.


Vanessa Wong is an attorney and the owner of the bar, along with her husband Ryan Slaven. The two live in the neighborhood nearby and purchased the building as an investment. They first installed tenants in the apartments above then moved onto developing the street level commercial space. In a Zagat article from earlier this year, she described their decision to open it as a wine bar: it filled the need for a spot with “grown-up appeal.” To her, there were more than enough places to get drunk amongst mannequin parts. Aesthetically, it’s exactingly successful. You could take your rich suburban relative here, or your boss, or a date you wanted to impress. There is truffle-parmesan popcorn to snack on and charcuterie to order and cut into impossibly tiny pieces for tasting. These are excellent snacks, trust me. But they are not particularly low key (as another article describes the intended experience). At least, they don’t seem that way to me.

That Fishtown Social could be summarized as the answer to one woman’s desire for a comfortable local tells you everything about how much these four blocks on Frankford have changed in the four years since Fishtown Tavern reopened. The boom here has been long in the making, but the pace has accelerated tremendously in the last one or two. Fishtown Social opened in March of this year. I am certain it won’t function as shorthand for the new elitism much longer than the next place to top $15 a drink, but it is a new sort of normal to someone, isn’t it? Meanwhile, the corner pub on my own block, buried in Kensington off the main drag, advertises $2 beers. But in the seven years I’ve owned my house, have I ever had a drink in that bar? No. So I can make the joke, but not really.

The essential point is one of relativism. Both Fishtown Tavern and Fishtown Social are authentic; both reflect the people who live and drink here. As a marketing exercise, the aesthetic of any bar ideally represents the persons likeliest to leave money there. Watching how people design their investments reveals their picture of success. Whose interest becomes most valuable over time? And how is it borne out at the point of sale? A bar is a social place, so these articles could be social profiles: how the people living in the River Wards spend their time, and who investors imagine them to be. It’s the same with the bars themselves. Some will stop, some will stick, and some will stay.

Next up: Martha Bar. (coming soon)

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Mike Louison Architectural Designer Outdoor spaces in Philadelphia have been booming with activity. It seems everywhere…

BLOG | Outdoor Essentials

Mike Louison
Architectural Designer


Outdoor spaces in Philadelphia have been booming with activity. It seems everywhere you look, there’s a new park or beer garden popping up that quickly becomes the new outdoor hotspot to meet friends and spend a weekend afternoon. Of course, spending time with friends outside isn’t a newly popular concept—it’s pretty much a given that people love to enjoy the nice weather when we have it. I’ve noticed lately that the most successful outdoor digs seem to follow a certain criteria of elements. Interestingly, this combination of elements seems to determine the likelihood of people showing up and hanging out for the day. So let’s break it down and look at six of these “Essentials” that have gotten the locals excited about Philly’s most successful outdoor destinations:

1. Atmospheric Lighting


If you’re going to have any chance as an outdoor destination in this city, one Essential to activating any space is great atmospheric lighting. Who doesn’t see string lights hanging above a city street at night and say “That looks like a great place!” It’s obvious that people don’t want to sit outside in the dark, but that’s not to say they want floodlights illuminating them like an interrogation. The string light approach is by far the trendiest way to provide a calming warm glow for your visitors to dine, drink, and laugh under. String lights suggest festivities, activity, fun, and comfort! La Peg, the restaurant across from Race Street Pier in historic Old City, is a rehabilitated century-old pump house which used to pressurize water for the city’s network. This 10,000 square foot building showcases salvaged tanks, a 46-ton ceiling crane and its original glazed brick. The 45-foot ceilings are more than accommodating for the 230 seat theater. The 2-story glazing surrounding the restaurant space, combined with the dim interior lighting, allows a strong connection to the outdoor patio and scenic views. The beer garden used the hanging of their string lights as a welcoming way to let people know that they were open for business. Not only is there plenty of ambient light outside the new home of FringeArts, the view is graced by the presence of the impressively illuminated Ben Franklin Bridge. It’s no doubt that this nighttime scene is perfect for family, friends, and of course, romantics.

2. Mixed Movable Seating


Do you ever sit down in a chair without moving it first? People love a customizable experience. Most people tend to orient and congregate their furniture based on what they want to look at, who they want to talk to, and what they’re doing. It’s essential to have seating in an outdoor space but, more importantly, it’s important to have seating that you can move around! The PHS Pop-Up Garden is a prime example of a “backyard” type of social scene. The same way you would set up a circle of chairs at your family picnic, you can pick and choose your type or color of chair to pull up next to your friends. The PHS utilizes sustainable practices to transform each site for their pop-ups. They use bicycle parts, old show props and repurposed chairs and tables to create their city getaways. The only obstacle is finding enough chairs, since the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society seems to host some pretty popular beer gardens, bringing through tens of thousands of visitors in a season! Check out both of this year’s PHS Pop-Up Gardens at 15th and South Street and 10th and Hamilton Street!

3. Mix of Hardscape & Softscape


The transformation of Dilworth Park has been met with some mixed reviews since it was unveiled in 2014, but the softscape elements introduced into the project seem to be the most appreciated elements of the plaza’s face lift. You can tell just by walking through on a warm summer day what everyone’s favorite parts of the park are—the green space and the softscape seating areas. Who wants to lounge solely on stone or concrete? Of course, any large-scale urban park needs some solid infrastructure like curbs, walkways, and barriers, but all that important stuff needs to be balanced with a little grass! So perhaps there is much to appreciate about Kieran Timberlake’s strategic design and placement of hardscape and softscape areas throughout site. The stair head house on the northern end of the plaza serves the site well featuring Rosa Blanca, a café launched by a well-known restaurant company, Garces Group. Most of this architectural structure is comprised of twenty-one custom steel pieces, specially fabricated in Broomall, Pennsylvania. These steel components are carefully welded, grinded, and finished to achieve its high-level ‘exposed’ aesthetic. The structure is softened by the surrounding greenery and accented with colorful bistro seating. The park’s expansive water feature is a lot of fun for the kids, and it’s appealing to parents as a closer and cheaper alternative to a water park!

4. Lush Greenery


Whether it’s in the form of planters, gardens or tabletop pots, one element that is an Essential to an outdoor space is the actual “outdoors” part – greenery! The more greenery you have, the more you feel like you’re lounging in the great outdoors, which can be difficult to achieve in an urban environment like Philadelphia. Philadelphia Parks & Recreation partnered with the Fairmount Park Conservancy to find a great location to take advantage of the city’s green space and provide an accessible “Park on the Parkway” called The Oval. Now in terms of greenery, this park is tucked strategically in between tree lines and has more of a large-scale ‘woodsy’ vibe to it. Of course, the park does have an expansive area of asphalt which has been repurposed into a colorful activity zone for all ages, but being surrounded by the tree line and the addition of plantings during the summer season makes this park a great success. Visitors can gather here for programmed events or just simply enjoy their time in a picnic-like setting. This green space brands The Oval as a family-friendly, park-like retreat in the midst of the surrounding parkway vehicle traffic.

FYI: What else does the PPR & FPC have up their sleeve? This year they are mobilizing with Parks on Tap, Philly’s 1st full-fledged, fully-tapped traveling beer garden!


Another great outdoor retreat with generous green space designed by yours truly, L2Partridge, is the City Tap House. This 4,000 square-foot outdoor extension of University City’s own contemporary rustic beer emporium and restaurant features a large green roof with fireside seating surround by lush green plantings. The teak furniture and stone benches provide seating for an additional 200 people on a unique elevated terrace, so gather your friends for the upcoming cool summer nights to Instagram that perfect fireside group selfie. #wedidntstartthefire

5. color


If you want color mixed with your warm weather, Spruce Street Harbor Park is the place to soak in the sun! Everything from the furniture to the umbrellas to the shipping containers to the handmade hammocks are bright and colorful enough to excite the crowds of visitors. Sure, sitting at the harbor sounds nice but Spruce Street Harbor Park takes it to the next level. The boardwalk is designed to be ADA-compliant, which provides a fully accessible path for everyone to enjoy the snacks and beverages from satellite locations of Philly’s popular restaurants. The extension off the boardwalk consists of three landscaped barges surrounding beautiful floating gardens constructed from non-toxic post-consumer plastic. During the daytime the park is a colorful world of amusement, and when the sun sets it becomes a whimsical world of magic with color-changing lights illuminating the trees and rainbow tinted waters. This is a prime example of how color can make all the difference anywhere outdoors. It’s a simple idea and when beautifully executed it can enrich the outdoors and enhance the natural world to something much more stimulating and inspiring.

6. Beer


One thing’s for sure, you can have all the parts and pieces that make a great outdoor venue but one indulgence that will make visitors come and stay is BEER! Philly locals love their beer, and Independence Beer Garden wasted no time and opened their doors in mid-April this year. With 40 taps of local and domestic craft beers available and over 20,000 square feet of outdoor seating and game space, this is definitely one of the most popular destinations for locals and visitors. And it’s conveniently located in Philadelphia’s most historic neighborhood near many visitor attractions. The transformed outdoor retreat is located at the DOW chemical building at 6th and Market Street and accents the building with reclaimed timber, distressed steel girders and Tivoli Lighting. Does it have the most impressive beer list in Philly? Some would say not, but looking at the bigger picture shows that they meet the criteria to give other beer gardens a run for their money. They’ve got ‘cozy’ lighting, moveable furniture arrangements, a mix of hard- and soft-scape areas, lush greenery and pops of color. Beer is just the final piece of the puzzle that keeps this place booming through the warm seasons.

So when you venture through Philly this summer season, take note of the outdoor hotspots and how you see people using the space. What’s most important to you in an outdoor space? Do you lounge outside and sunbathe in concrete plazas? Do you drink beer where you can’t sit down and relax in the shade? Do you like to sit outside at night in the dark while you catch up with your friends? Maybe you tend to go against the grain and like to drink beer in the dark on the ground in the city…which is fine, I guess. I think we can all agree, though, that any combination of these “Outdoor Essentials” makes any exterior urban space that much more enjoyable for those sunny summer weekends!


Image credits:
1. Sketches. George Little
2. Photograph of la peg. philadelphia magazine
3. Photograph of phs pop-up garden 2015. philadelphia magazine
4. Photograph of dilworth park.
5. Photograph of ‘the oval’. visit philly
6. Photograph of city tap house rooftop. l2partridge
7. photograph of spruce street harbor park. uwishunu
8. photograph of independence beer garden. uwishunu
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