Tag Archives: Philly Skyline

The Flat Earth and the Philly Skyline, Far Out

Shoutout to Atlanta rapper B.o.B for his courageous campaign against a spherical Earth. He’s doing God’s work (or perhaps not!), and in at least one case, he’s bringing the Philly Skyline into the discussion to back his claims.

As you can see in his tweet above, B.o.B uses a photo of mine to explain that the skyline is visible 40 miles away at Apple Pie Hill in the Pine Barrens because, of course, the Earth is flat, and if it was a sphere, the curvature would hide it. Never mind that the buildings visible—from atop a 200-foot fire tower—are all over 500 feet tall. Plus Apple Pie Hill is actually about 32 miles, not quite 40. Oh, and . . . well, that photo is not from the Apple Pie Hill fire tower. It’s from a helicopter in North Jersey, somewhere near Metuchen, closer to 75-80 miles.

Chopper Jerz
Chopper Jerz

This photo’s a little blurry because we were flying pretty fast, and the hatch was closed, so the curvature (of the hatch, not the Earth) made it a little difficult to shoot through. Also, I shot this with a 200mm telephoto lens at full zoom, and the edited photo is slightly cropped.

One can see the skyline from the fire tower at Apple Pie Hill in the Pine Barrens, though.

Mmm, Apple Pie
Mmm, Apple Pie

This photo was taken with the same 200mm telephoto lens, but it was panned back a bit to maximize the canopy of pygmy pitch pines in the late day light. Apple Pie Hill is about 32 miles from Center City, about the exact same distance as the Ridge Road overpass on the PA Turnpike Northeast Extension near Lansdale.

Over the years, folks have alerted me to distant skyline views in Boyertown, Holland, and other places like the Delaware Memorial Bridge near Wilmington, DE. My friend the kayaker Rob Danner once told me that you could see it from the fire tower in Reading, PA. Knowing that Reading’s a good 60 miles away, I said no way. I was wrong.

Whoomp, there it is
Whoomp, there it is

Visiting the William Penn Memorial Fire Tower requires pretty precise calculation, as it’s only open one day a month. A lot of people know about the Pagoda, a tourist attraction built in 1908 that stands on the edge of Mount Penn above Reading; it’s a symbol of the city. It was even an alternate logo of the Reading Phillies for a time.

Billy Penn goes even higher in Reading
Billy Penn goes even higher in Reading

A little farther up the ridge, the Fire Tower stands 120 feet tall and 1,015 feet above the Schuylkill River. Built in 1939 of stone and concrete, it was used by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry until 1988, and is now cared for (along with the Pagoda) by the nonprofit organization Pagoda Skyline (no relation).

On a clear day, you can see over 60 miles in every direction, all the way to Pottsville in the north, way down past the cooling tower at Limerick facing southeast, the Philly Skyline. (This is to say nothing of the stellar view of Reading and the Schuylkill just below.) I measure it to be about 52 miles in a straight line (58 by car); you can clearly make out the tops of Comcast Center, One and Two Liberty Place, Mellon Bank Center, and the Bell Atlantic Tower. Soon, Comcast Innovation & Technology Center will join the view.

Here’s the full crop:

Hey Philly Skyline
Hey Philly Skyline

Needless to say, the view is pretty spectacular, and at the right time of year, the very distant skyline reflects the sunset. Plan ahead and make a day of it in Reading. The fire tower is open the third Saturday of each month, noon-4pm.

Click any of the thumbnails to launch a mini-gallery of the William Penn Memorial Fire Tower and Reading Pagoda.

(Thanks to Doc for the heads up, and to Nick Vadala for checking in with Derrick Pitts on the matter.)

Drop It Like A Tetrimino

Move left, homie!
Move left, homie!

Spring greetings, yous guys! Hate to sound like one of them blogs saying “sorry I ain’t blog on the blog” but I been a hog in a bog in the fog, sloggin’ like a cog in the smog. Need to groove more. I know that’s right.


Tell you what else is right: Playing Tetris on a 29-story building is pretty right and righteous. Beaucoup props to Philly Tech Week for turning Cira Centre into an arcade game for a second straight year. Because I am aging, I suffered a serious injury to my back while scrubbing the kitchen floor on Saturday and opted to self medicate with Wild Turkey in a very hot bath rather than transport a heavy camera and tripod via SEPTA and a long walk (at least when you’re injured) up the river path to the Art Museum. Imagine my surprise on Sunday morning when I got an email with the subject “Surprise! You’ve been selected to play Tetris on Cira Centre for a surprise second night.”

I was in fact surprised, and considering I ruled at Tetris as a teen with a Nintendo, I chose to play through the pain and not pass up this awesome second chance. The old Philly Skyline in me thinks it’s ridiculous that they STILL don’t turn out all the lights in Cira Centre overnight. I just can’t fathom that there are that many people across multiple floors at all hours inside that building. The LED dots are the nighttime half of the building’s design—how are there still blocks of several floors with the lights left on after almost ten years of this building, particularly when there are events programmed using the building’s exterior? But then the older me is all “who cares, we all die anyway.”

At any rate, the experience was rad, even if it only lasted like 30 seconds. As I was at Eakins Oval, I played Tetris against someone on the south side of the building. As my Tetriminos fell, the height of my opponent’s Tetriminos were measured in a stack of white dots on the far right of my board. Having gauged actual play by watching the first couple dozen players in front of me, I knew it unwise to wait around for a full, four-line Tetris. I just wanted to jam a few lines while I had the chance. So I did, and I beat whatever chump faced me!

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Once upon a time this web site documented the construction of Cira Centre, photos you can still find in the old version HERE.

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I would like to thank Delicias food truck for a simply delightful Philly Tech Week beef arepa, and also the dude who pulled up the old Tetris theme on his phone while his buddy played. Which reminds me, man, this is one excellent Youtube video:

Peace Through Power: USS Somerset on the Delaware

Focus on the ship, not all the riverfront surface parking
Focus on the ship, not all the impervious riverfront concrete and macadam

As a matter of posting more content and connecting with the other stuff I do, I really oughta link over to the essays I publish on the Hidden City Daily. Is there a way to put an RSS feed for a specific author on a site like Hidden City? [Let me google that for you.] [Thinks out loud.]

After a week calling Philadelphia home, the USS Somerset will officially become the US Navy’s newest warship this morning at a commissioning ceremony. Docked at Penn’s Landing since arriving last week, the Somerset (LPD-25*) is a San Antonio class amphibious transport dock, named for the victims of United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Somerset County, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.

*The LPD series stands for Landing Platform Dock.

(Side note: my late grandfather DJ Maule is from the village of Bakersville in Somerset County, about 15 miles from Shanksville, and we went to family reunions at a picnic ground there when I was little. Additional side note: the Oakhurst Tea Room has called Somerset home for over 80 years, and to this day it is still the most incredible, gluttonous German smorgasbord I’ve ever seen. Highly, highly recommended for your next drive across the Pennsylvania Turnpike.)

Peace is life, buoy
Peace is life, buoy

USS Somerset was built at Avondale Shipyard on the Mississippi River near New Orleans in Louisiana, the last Naval ship to leave that facility whose fate is uncertain. The Somerset was the last Navy contract Avondale had, and a shipyard workforce that once totaled over 5,000 is now down to 700 with no major contracts secured. (New Orleans Times-Picayune.)

As a warship, the Somerset will transport Sailors, Marines, and supplies. Its flight deck is large enough for two V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to land/depart simultaneously, a feat the Navy demonstrated with the landing of an Osprey and a SuperCobra attack helicopter during the media tour on Thursday.

A 9/11 theme pervades the deepest interiors of the ship, from the massive “Let’s Roll” facing the flight deck to Heroes Hall (the mess hall); from a quilt memorializing all the passengers of Flight 93 to items collected across Somerset County, including road signs, maps, and photos. It’s also got a commemorative bell emblazoned with “PEACE THROUGH POWER”.

Following today’s commissioning, the Somerset will set sail for the homeport of San Diego. For a full photo essay of the ship in its Delaware River surroundings, check it out on Hidden City HERE.

Once upon a PSFS Sunset

What light through yonder window breaks
What light through yonder window breaks

Leaving the studio of History Making Productions last night, producer Andrew Ferrett and I walked south down 12th Street toward Center City. It had been dark and cloudy and rainy for most of the day, to a point we even lost power in the studio for 15 minutes or so. But at about 5pm, things stabilized and started showing a hint of the spring-like Saturday ahead.

Waiting for the light at Vine Street, I could see a break in the clouds to the west, the direction from which our weather patterns originate, with a small but growing line of clear sky coming our way. At Race Street, it looked even better; at Arch and Filbert, the same line was already reflecting in the buildings of Penn Center. By Market Street, going to the 33rd floor of the Loews Hotel inside my favorite building in the city seemed a foregone conclusion.

This set of photos might illustrate why I did. In chronological order from the last of the rain through the breaking of the clouds to the setting of the sun …

Talking CITC, Skyline, with Liberty Property’s John Gattuso

Philly Skyline, CITC enhanced, from the Art Museum | Rendering by Foster + Partners, courtesy of Liberty Property Trust
Philly Skyline, CITC enhanced, from the Art Museum | Rendering by Foster + Partners, courtesy of Liberty Property Trust

Philadelphia’s soon-to-be new tallest tower is settling in to all the usual places. The Comcast Innovation & Technology Center (CITC) already has a Wikipedia page and a Skyscraperpage discussion, six pages and counting. Inga Saffron has already reviewed it. Liz Spikol’s devoted half of this week’s Property content to it. A couple clicks over on Philly Mag, Dan McQuade has issued a proper annotated guide. Even old Philly Skyline has relaunched with a truly new Philly Skyline.

The biggest news in the 2014 local building world, unsurprisingly, involves the biggest media company in the whole world. With 48 hours to let it sink in, I have to think it’s about as Philly a building as we could get: it’s full of conflict. Its design comes from Norman Foster, at the top of the top tier of architects, but it’s not his best work. It’s very good, but it’s not the Gherkin. It shows a loyal, hometown commitment from Comcast–one of the most unpopular companies in the world, especially after the net neutrality ruling earlier this week. It’ll be the tallest building in the city–thanks to a technicality. The 125’ blade–the functional spire topping the building’s core removed to the western side–sits atop a pedestal that itself is on top of the building’s roof, which is shorter than Comcast Center’s roof.

But make no mistake, in spite of such quintessential Philadelphian conflict, the Comcast Innovation & Technology Center is an incredible project that will have eyes on it from around the globe. As Inga mentioned, California’s sprawling monsters of tech, Google in Mountain View and Apple in Cupertino, will use CITC as a litmus test against their own model. Sure, you’re working for Google and Apple, but you’re working in Mountain View and Cupertino, not San Francisco, where Cesar Pelli’s Transbay Tower (currently under construction) will give the City by the Bay its very own supertall.

With CITC, workers will come directly upstairs from a train station that serves every regional rail line and is a five minute walk to the subway, the el, and every trolley line. And where they’ll ascend to is a whole other thing: spacious ‘lofts’ whose arrangement is The Thing.

Liberty Property's John Gattuso, left, and Comcast's Brian Roberts at the grand opening of Comcast Center, June 2008 | Photo: Bradley Maule
Liberty Property’s John Gattuso, left, and Comcast’s Brian Roberts at the Comcast Center confetti party, June 2008 | Photo: Bradley Maule

Liberty Property Trust’s Senior Vice President & Urban Regional Director John Gattuso, a 25-year veteran of the Philadelphia development community who’s had a hand in so much of what Liberty has built from Malvern to Comcast Center to the Navy Yard, sat down with me on Wednesday to talk about the process that’s brought us to the Comcast Innovation & Technology Center.

“This process started in August 2011,” Gattuso says, alluding to the purchase of the parcel then owned by Walnut Street Associates, who had proposed American Commerce Center. “The conversation with Comcast started in earnest in fall 2012, and we were initially thinking in terms of phase 2,” the shorter building initially planned as Two Pennsylvania Plaza on the northeast corner of 18th & JFK. But they realized early on that the programming wouldn’t fit the site.

At that stage, Gattuso and Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts led an RFP for a range of architects–established and up-and-coming, local and international. That coalesced into a group of five firms—which included Robert A.M. Stern Architects (already a client both at the first Comcast Center and at the Navy Yard) (New York), Foster + Partners (London), Renzo Piano Building Workshop (Genoa), and Bjarke Ingels Group (Copenhagen), and Atelier Jean Nouvel (Paris)—to transform the surface parking lot at 18th & Arch into the 21st Century facility representative of a company that both produces and provides content. “This was a compensated design competition,” Gattuso clarifies, “and we stayed in active conversation with each throughout the process.”

After selecting Foster in June, Gattuso, Roberts, and Comcast Vice President of Administration Karen Buchholz began weekly meetings, often directly with Foster, to craft an invigorating workspace. “We asked ourselves, ‘what is office space today?’” Gattuso explains. “Office space used to announce status within a company, or where and how you controlled your workers; now, it’s got to be somewhere people want to work, like Glaxo for example, a place people choose to go to.” The offices Liberty built for pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, designed by Stern, opened last year and achieved a Double LEED Platinum certification.

In factoring how to do that—how to design a place people want to come to work—Gattuso says technology dictated the conversation. “In this building, we’re making technology. You don’t end up driving it, or putting it in your pocket—in its essence, it establishes connections, so the building’s floors are open for those connections, for interaction.”

How much of this open space was required? “We had a certain amount of office space in mind, and we knew we also wanted a hotel,” Gattuso says. “Once that’s determined, then you can think of how it looks on the skyline, how it relates to Comcast Center. To that end, this building has been extremely deliberate in its thought process.”

Though there are clear differences between the first and second Comcast towers, they too have a connection, an interaction that feeds the other. “The new building has a different approach than the first one, but each one enhances the other,” Gattuso says. “Comcast Center is classical in its axial planning, but with a modern, glass skin. If it’s guilty of anything, it’s its emphasis on elegance. [CITC] is on an axis too, with Arch Street Presbyterian Church and Comcast Center, but it expresses itself in a more robust way. This building tells you how it’s built, with a textured skin.”

“This is a vigorous, sophisticated building,” Gattuso ultimately explains. “That’s because it’s Lord Foster himself; in it, you can see elements of Swiss Re (in London), of [the] HSBC Building (in Hong Kong).” Likewise, Inga points out CITC’s similarity to Foster’s still-unbuilt Three World Trade Center in New York, and my own first impression likened its appearance to Foster’s Commerzbank tower in Frankfurt.

L-R: Liberty Property's John Gattuso, and Comcast's Karen Buchholz, Brian Roberts, Ralph Roberts, and David Cohen (December 2007) | Photo: Bradley Maule
L-R: Liberty Property’s John Gattuso, and Comcast’s Karen Buchholz, Brian Roberts, Ralph Roberts, and David Cohen (December 2007) | Photo: Bradley Maule

Considering the first Comcast Center took the better part of a decade to come to fruition, and with the advancement of technology in the same 10-15 years since the first conversation began, surely it’s interesting to see how the development process itself has evolved since the Stern collaboration. “The only difference in that regard is a new drummer [in Foster],” Gattuso says. “The band is still the same. This team has traveled a road since starting [Comcast Center], and as you’d expect, communication is vital,” Gattuso describes of Liberty’s ongoing relationship with the communications giant.

“You don’t always have to agree, but you need to establish trust. Because we have trust, we can take risks; we can create a platform to push the envelope and build something great.”

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Upon its completion, the developer, architect, and tenant hope to achieve a LEED Platinum certification with the Comcast Innovation & Technology Center. Comcast Center received a Gold certification in 2009.