Historic Preservation

Posted May 26, 2020
  • A view of the "ghost structure" of Benjamin Franklin's house in Franklin's Court

    Photo credit: The Preservation Alliance

  • Properties owned by Benjamin Franklin on Market Street now part of Independence National Historical Park

    Photo credit: The Preservation Alliance

  • David Hollenberg

    Adjunct Professor David Hollenberg

David Hollenberg Celebrates National Preservation Month with The Preservation Alliance

In honor of National Preservation Month, the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is featuring 31 historic preservation leaders in Philadelphia and the local buildings that have inspired them. The Preservation Alliance recently revealed Historic Preservation Adjunct Professor David Hollenberg's choice for his most inspirational project: Franklin Court, part of Independence National Historical Park. Read David's words on the brilliant interpretation of the site of Franklin's house and its associated environs on Market Street as well as his experience as a young draftsperson working with two different preservation-minded firms on the project below.

What a pleasure to have been asked by the Preservation Alliance to reflect about “a building in the Philadelphia region that has influenced you, and why.” My response is Franklin Court within Independence National Historical Park, designed by a remarkable team: Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown Architects, National Heritage Corporation (later John Milner Associates) as Associated Architect, and, Keast and Hood, Structural Engineers.

A team enriched by the passionately applied expertise in history, archeology and interpretation provided by the client, the National Park Service. That expertise had long researched and debated how address the recognized absence anywhere of a tangible and appropriate memorial to Benjamin Franklin. The known historical presence of his house within the block plus his ownership of the five properties on Market Street were tangible connections to Franklin, as powerful as his pew a few blocks away at Christ Church. NPS was ultimately driven by its extreme caution about undertaking reconstructions absent sufficient evidence. Here, though there was much documentary and archeological evidence, it was far from enough. The brilliant design that emerged showed that this seeming dilemma actually could provoke a design response that remains unexpected and resonant.

I love Franklin Court for:

  • Its clear expression of the interdisciplinary necessities of its own making
  • Its urbanity, generosity, and sheer design intelligence
  • Its combination of the historic and the contemporary -- beautifully realized, for example, in its small but complex garden design, with its tough but perfectly scaled 18th c. garden intimacy
  • The candor of the equal weight it gives to knowledge and its absence – especially in the ghost structures’ blunt sculptural acknowledgement of what was and what was not known about Franklin’s houses. They remain a fresh and stirring answer to the perennial challenge of reconstructing historic buildings.
  • The inclusion in the overall mix of the meticulous restoration of the exteriors of the five houses at 314-322 Market Street, and, within 318, of the stunning collage of the raw and the modern, revealing and explaining along the full height of its open multi-story metal and cable stairway the bits of physical evidence that in turn informed the broader restoration.
  • The delicious ploy of injecting overt and covert interpretive gestures into the public circulation through the garden and along Orianna Street between Market and Chestnut Streets.
  • The satisfying surprise of the underground Museum, especially the enticing long ramp within its modest on-grade entrance building -- a museum that upped the detail of the Franklin story from that offered on-grade above.
  • The forthright expression of the fundamental role in the project of archeology, with exposure of the historic houses’ foundations and other features from viewing wells inside the ghost structure footprints.

To add a personal and grateful note: I was fortunate to work on Franklin Court as a young and VERY inexperienced draftsperson, in two offices. First, at Keast and Hood, an office where preservation and contemporary design were not separate. Any of the three remarkable partners (Carl Baumert, Nick Gianopulos, and Tom Leidigh) could nimbly shift between engineering design for the best new or old buildings. I vividly recall them grappling with the ghost structure design, in which the gable ends met not at their apex (very desirable structurally) but rather at a void -- the hollow box that was an abstraction of the house’s unknown original chimney mass. They figured it out – with mutual commiseration – making clear to young me the impact of orchestral teamwork and collective respect. Then, as a perhaps slightly less inexperienced young draftsman a year or so later, at National Heritage Corporation (later John Milner Associates), where I worked on documents associated with the ongoing construction of the Market Street houses, in particular the beautiful interpretive stairway and interior within 318.

So, for me, Franklin Court is a career starter, inextricably interdisciplinary, where excellent contemporary and historic urban design, architecture, landscape and preservation design, plus interpretive planning and archeology all converge. Those are the situations I’ve consistently loved the most in my career – whether within a historic district, a national park, or an urban campus.