Face Lift: The Curtis Institute of Music’s expansion project

Tuned Out—Historic facades on Locust Street stand alone for now (right). When completed, the project will reflect the architectural character of the block (left).
story by Lee Stabert | photo by Lucas Hardison

For the last few months, observant Philadelphians strolling down the 1600 block of Locust Street have no doubt been startled. When you first catch a glimpse of the massive Curtis Institute of Music expansion project, it feels a little bit like you’ve stumbled onto a movie set.

On either side of a gaping hole are two perfect townhouse facades, standing there like empty masks. The adjoining structures have been removed, leaving only the historic exteriors. By the time the project is complete, the beautiful facades will provide bookends for a new, LEED-certified wing of the prestigious music school. The building will house an orchestra rehearsal room, greatly expanded teaching and practice facilities, and a nine-story residential wing set off from the street.

Architect Seth Cohen of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates is in charge of the project. Respecting the surrounding streetscape was an invigorating challenge for his team. “Context was a very important design goal that relates to aesthetics, sustainability and historic preservation,” says Cohen. “As you know, Locust is a very historic block, with St. Mark’s Church right across from the site. It’s mostly two- and three-story townhomes, and we wanted to match the feel and the scale.”

They achieved that through both the façade preservation (which was required by the Historical Commission of Philadelphia) and aesthetically resonant window design on the infill elements of the structure. “There is a series of vertical bay windows,” explains Cohen.“That scale is very similar to the scale of townhouses. Also, if you look at that overall streetscape, most of the historic facades are not completely flat. They have ornaments and bay windows that project out. We’re doing that in a way with a bay over the entry. It’s our interpretation of the bay window—it acknowledges the power of St. Mark’s and acknowledges the surrounding context.”

The building is also aiming for LEED certification upon completion. Besides building on an existing site and integrating the existing facades (both earn sustainability points), the architects have chosen high-efficiency plumbing and mechanical systems. They have reduced the amount of water typically used in these kinds of projects by as much as 40 percent.

The building will be completed in summer 2011. When added to Curtis’ existing facilities on the 1700 block of Locust, it will create what the school is calling a “Curtis Corridor” running from Rittenhouse Square to the Avenue of the Arts, where students often perform. ■