Written and drawn by Ben Leech
Unlisted is a series of portraits highlighting Philadelphia buildings not yet listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. To learn how to protect a building by nominating it to the Register, click here.
Address: 15-21 S. 11th Street
Architect: Sauer & Hahn? William Steele & Sons?
Standing on the corner of Ludlow and 11th Street, in the heart on Center City’s low-rent district, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the nameless building at 15-21 S. 11th Street was abandoned. Unless, of course, you were one of the city’s lonely souls who frequent the Sound of Market, aka JazSound, a two-floor music store that occupies most of this disheveled but perseverant jewel of a building. You enter through a ground-floor storefront selling cut-rate perfume, luggage, incense and lottery tickets, head for a stairwell in the back, and ascend to find one of the best record selections in town spirited away behind the boarded-up windows and weathered shell of a once-resplendent commercial block. A forgotten CD emporium in the age of iTunes, it is a fitting (if also fleeting) use for a building that could very well be the most underappreciated piece of architecture in Center City.
Its pedigree is surprisingly unknown. In a twisted echo of its current incarnation, the building replaced the Eleventh Street Opera House, a nineteenth-century church-cum-vaudeville theater with the dubious distinction of staging the last black-face show in America (Dumont’s Minstrels) before it finally shuttered in 1911. Built in 1912, the new building’s original tenants included a Horn & Hardart Automat and a Gueting’s Shoe store. It was possibly designed by Sauer & Hahn, since the well-known commercial and industrial architects are listed as doing work for both Gueting’s and Horn & Hardart at this address in 1912. However, the owner of the building was Joseph M. Steele, whose William Steele & Sons empire was responsible for the design and construction of numerous other office buildings in the teens and twenties, including the iconic terra cotta Market Street National Bank and the Terminal Commerce Building. But regardless of whether the design was by Sauer & Hahn, Steele & Sons, or a collaboration between the two, the building stands on its own as good architecture.
Perhaps best described as “beaux-arts-and-crafts,” its rich polychrome palate and geometric details represent an important transitional era in architecture when terra cotta started to outgrow its role as an imitative stand-in for traditional carved stone. Classical ornament evolved into colorful, abstract geometries. The rich hues of ceramic glazes were celebrated. The structural grid was emphasized. In many other cities (Chicago, Pittsburgh and St. Louis spring to mind), this moment in architecture produced a veritable cornucopia of architectural classics, paving the way for Art Deco. In Philadelphia, however, this is one of our only examples.
Like Goethe said, architecture is music frozen in time, but a music store can only stay frozen in time for so long. The building is in surprisingly good shape, with most of its original wood sash and steel casement windows in place and its distinctive cornice intact. But for how long is anybody’s guess. If and when the Sound of Market goes the way of Tower, Virgin, and countless other dinosaurs of the CD era, this once-grand automat will be just another semi-abandoned building in a shrinking low-rent patch of Center City. Why not recognize it as a landmark while we still have the chance?