Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Great American Architecture Vol. 3

I suppose this was bound to happen at some point. Planning to dig up a resoration article or two this week, I set out in search of a proper topic before realizing that googling 'building restoration' only leads you to the websites of contractors who restore buildings. Even if there was restoration credit to their name, I was unlikely to be able to dig up structure history easily.

From there I turned inward. In April of 2006, I had produced a 10 minute film in documentary-style on the architecture of my hometown, the city of Scranton, Pennsylvania (no, I don't watch The Office). For imagery I used the high-res still photography of my friend Justin Jackson (I can't show it here or on YouTube due to background music copyrights, though I may work on something without sound for the Scranton case study) and worked in various pans and transitions to tell a story of its building rebirth.

So here I am blogging about 'home' a bit prematurely in the process of creating a non-news driven restoration story. The building I'd like to focus on today is the Oppenheim Building at the corner of Lackawanna and Wyoming Avenues. While I am somewhat short on historic details at the moment (my Scranton history book is likely in a bin in my friend Joe's attic), I do know that this magnificent structure actually houses eight floors of rentable office space and was originally known as Jonas Long's department store before it was purchased by the Oppenheims to house their growing Scranton Dry Goods business. (Photo Copyright 2006 - Justin Jackson)

I am far from an architecture connoisseur, but I can say with confidence that this building, contructed in 1898, is an example of the Neoclassical Period (1890-1929) based on Greek architecture featuring symmetrically balanced windows and doors. In its day, it was the first store in Pennsylvania to have escalators. The company's 50th anniversary was celebrated in 1962 when it employed an incredible 500 full-time workers.

As was seen in all former coal mining locales, the 1970's weren't so kind to downtown business. The 80's culture of having no culture (read: greed and neglect) went to work on the structure. From the time I was aware that I was living and breathing until April 5, 1992 (four days after my 11th birthday), all I ever saw of the Oppenheim Building was broken windows and deteriorating facade. Not only unable, but also unaware of architectural virtue, I adopted the Williams company policy of my mother, characterizing the state of downtown as 'a shame.'

Thankfully the proverbial white knight for not only this building, but also the adjacent Lewis & Reilly Building (pictured - Copyright 2006 - Justin Jackson) as well as the Samter's Building at Penn and Lackawanna, rode into town in the form of a federal Urban Development Action Grant and state financial assistance (and tenant commitment in the case of Samter's) on the part of then-Governor Robert P. Casey, a Scranton native. All of this was part of a larger project to create the Mall at Steamtown and link downtown with the Steamtown National Historic Site.

By October of 1993, the exterior restoration and conversion of a department store of yesteryear into an office building was complete. Today this gem on the National Historic Register is occupied by offices of the IRS, Social Security Administration, Pennstar Bank, Dial America, WSWB Paxson Communications, The Department of Agriculture, The Office of Community and Economic Development, The Criminal Investigation Division, Cipriani & Werner, and Margolis & Edelstien, providing a strong daily workforce that exceeds 1,000 jobs.

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