PHILADELPHIA BUSINESS JOURNAL, October 10, 2008
Philadelphia architect Wesley Wei said his challenge in helping renovate the old N.W. Ayer building on Philadelphia’s Washington Square was twofold.
First, he had to respect the brilliant original Art Deco design of architect Ralph Bencker.
Second, he had to respect the realities of modern living.
“It was always a very beautiful building,” said Wei of Philadelphia-based Wesley Wei Architects. “Our charge, at least the way I saw it, was to make sure our work complemented what was already there.”
The result of Wei’s design – and $75 million in extensive rehab work – is the Ayer Condominium, a stunning high-end apartment community that is home to 56 units and has, according to its developers David Mercuris of the Goldenberg Group and Gabe Canuso of Brown Hill Development, set a new standard in Philadelphia condominium living.
“At The Ayer, we set out to create the most extraordinary modern condominium residences in Philadelphia,” Canuso said.
Added Mercuris: “It solidifies Washington Square as a wonderful place to live in Philadelphia, without exception.”
Just as Mercuris and Canuso envisioned from the start, the Ayer balances historic design and modern amenities to create a truly rare residential environment. It’s a tough balance to achieve, and one that may have been particularly difficult to pull off at the Ayer, which has long been recognized as one of the city’s finest pieces of architecture.
The developers knew their project would need the blessing of both neighborhood groups and preservationists if it were ever going to get the green light. But they were up for the challenge. In fact, they say they welcomed it. The chance to give the old building new life, they say, was too good to pass up.
The Ayer was built in 1929 for the N.W. Ayer Co., a titan of Philadelphia business at the time and the first advertising agency in the United States. The firm, responsible for such well-known campaigns as “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Snap! Krackle! Pop!,” commissioned the well-known Bencker to design a headquarters befitting its grand stature.
Bencker delivered one of his most celebrated – and most ornamental – designs. Drawing up plans for the Ayer soon after a visit to King Tut’s tomb, Bencker outfitted the building with a variety of reliefs, sculptures and other rococo touches inspired by his Egyptian experience, including a set of massive bronze entry doors that may have been the building’s most striking feature.
It was precisely those features that Wei, along with his design partner Michael Skolnick of PZS Architects, worked so hard to save.
Wei wanted to complement those features “in a very new and modern way.”
“Just like Art Deco in its own time was fresh and modern,” Wei said. “That’s especially true of the kind of Art Deco that Bencker was doing, and so our work had to be respectful of that. I wanted to restore what we could – the façade, the lobby – and then insert very crisp, modern details on the interiors.
“The building was still being used as office space, as it was originally intended to be used. Most of the interiors were fitted out for offices, so that was inappropriate for residential use, but the bones of the building were just a little worn out and tried.”
During renovation, the building’s façade was restored to its original condition, work that served to accentuate Bencker’s original reliefs and metal work. The old bronze doors were revitalized, too. The lobby was spruced up to give residents a grand entrance.
“When you enter the lobby, it just takes your breath away,” Mercuris said. “It is understated and very rich in design.”
Because all of those old details were saved, the building retained its historic character and its standing as a jewel of the Philadelphia skyline. Preservationists liked it, too.
Both the Philadelphia Historical Commission and the National Park Service signed off on the design. So, too, did the Washington Square West Civic Association and the Society Hill Civic Association. The building even won the 2008 Grand Jury Preservation Achievement Award from the Preservation Alliance.
“Creating parking on-site, in the basement and on the mezzanine, presented unique challenges in a historic building on Washington Square,” Mercuris said. ”But community groups supported the project from the very beginning.”