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Society Hill

Wallpaper Flare
Wallpaper Flare

Society Hill is an inner-city redevelopment in a sensitive early settlement area of Philadelphia. Building on the integrative strategies used for University Gardens in Hyde Park, the complex incorporates a series of 3-story brick townhouses carefully woven into the surviving neighborhood of small-scale historic structures. Closer to the river, high-density apartments are concentrated in three 31-story towers (part of the family of architectural concrete residential buildings pioneered by Pei). The towers pinwheel around a central sculpture court, each on its own axis and placed far enough apart to reveal rather than obscure surrounding landmarks and important view corridors.

Society Hill was an invited competition of four developer-architect teams in which Zeckendorf and Pei participated as equals. Under the enlightened leadership of Edmund Bacon, director of Philadelphia’s City Planning Commission, the project became a masterwork of sensitive urban renewal, selectively preserving and revitalizing historic buildings and integrating them with new construction rather than the usual process of simply bulldozing an entire area and building fresh. Pei disregarded competition guidelines recommending 12-story slabs and instead concentrated 721 apartments in his three slender towers (with the possibility of two additional towers). The solution left open more space at ground level while creating a new skyline for Philadelphia — and introducing it to high-rise living. Society Hill was further remarkable among urban renewal projects in that the winning entry was selected on the merits of design rather than solely on cost. The project was additionally a pioneering application of the “1% for Art” program in which a portion of government construction funds was set aside for public art. Pei used the $400,000 to commission, not simply purchase, sculpture for the first time. The experience was defining as the Leonard Baskin and Gaston Lachaise bronzes made clear to Pei the scale limits of human form. Afterwards his buildings included only monumental abstractions.

Society Hill received Progressive Architecture’s 8th Annual Design Award in 1961, the Urban Renewal Authority’s Honor Award for Urban Renewal Design in 1964, and the American Institute of Architects’ national Honor Award in 1965, followed in 1966 by an Award for Design Excellence from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In 2000, it received the Twenty-five Year Award for Architectural Excellence, American Concrete Institute, Delaware Valley Chapter.


Proposed Greensward plan, with fuller development / Courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

Design Team: I.M. Pei, Design Principal; A. Preston Moore, Owren Aftreth, Project Architects
Webb & Knapp Real Estate Development Corp.