“Sleeping in the Tents of Our Fathers”: the Youth Study Center as Failed Modernist Project

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Philadelphia has always quietly scoffed at the Youth Study Center: a strange modernist (near brutalist) structure located on the parallelogram of space between 20th and 21st Sts. and Pennsylvania Avenue and the Parkway. There behind a screen of trees it squats shabby and toothless, its bare horizontal face offering scant clues as to its function. The open field fronting the Parkway: a kind of private space in limbo — owned by no one but the discommoded and dispossessed. Yet the structure’s dilapidation, its tent cities, and its ominous silence does not jive with the touristy “museum mile” where everything is made navigable and self-evident by signs and guides. Soon, though, the YSC will be no more (moved to West Philly) and on its site will sit the newly-designed home of Albert Barnes’ 2 billion dollar art trove. With the Barnes move, the great uneasiness caused by the YSC’s presence will be lifted and the Parkway restored to a kind of original intent.


But is this too glib a treatment of a building whose placement on the Parkway signalled its once-vaunted social value? Penn historic preservationist Anny Su’s thesis on the YSC attempts to rehabilitate the structure and acknowledge its purely architectural significance within the context of the Parkway as a kind of historical menagerie of styles. But her claim that the YSC’s “infamous reputation is often mistaken for its dismissal as being of architectural importance, despite its remarkable architectural resolution” is a statement born of preservation myopia and represents a dangerous severance of a building’s effectiveness from assessments of its form.

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As Su herself points out, despite the great promise of a modern, rational approach to juvenile delinquency embodied in the Study Center, competing postwar forces ensured that the YSC would be a shoddy compromise built only for proximate needs. Space and cost constraints saw that the modernist form failed almost from the outset. By the early 1960s, cartoons reprinted in the Study Center’s own annual report show a portly William Penn trying to hold together the swollen, overcrowded center. The building, it was clear, was a flimsy failure and before it was an interesting artifact or a modernist meditation on Cret as Su argues, it was an awful building built in a style of fetishized rationality.

Perhaps when the YSC is gone forever, Philadelphia will awaken to the strange paradox that the most unique feature of the YSC was not its material existence, nor was it the features of its plan and program but rather that the YSC represents the worst in practical/aesthetic compromises. The flawed Center owes its existence to an uneasy peace between forces representing the “practical” needs of the city and another the aesthetic coherence of the Parkway as an unfinished cultural oasis. Throughout the late 1940s, as juvenile delinquency experts noted the sharp peak in delinquency rates because of the wartime absence of male role models, a plan to construct a new house of correction near the Parkway sparked a rancorous debate over the propriety of placing a penal institution beside Beaux-Arts jewels. There was also the unfinished business of Pennsylvania Avenue which the House of Correction would block. In response a coalition of city councilmembers, the chairman of the YSC’s board of managers Judge Frank Smith, Mayor Samuel, and then-controller Joseph S. Clark claimed just as vociferously that a progressive postwar city like Philadelphia needed a new juvenile correction facility as part of a new social welfare system. “We’re sleeping in the tents of our fathers as far as the House of Corrections is concerned,” claimed Dr. Irwin Underhill of the Pennsylvania Commission on Penal Affairs. To allay the Art Jury’s concerns, the House of Corrections proponents decided to build a smaller facility on a smaller plot and Judge Smith suggested that the building’s noble social purpose entitled it to join the Parkway’s ranks of institutes, libraries and musuems. But these concessions prevented incorporation of probation consultant Sherwood Norman’s suggestions that the new facility consist of “a spread-out building or separate building units” in order “to avoid the regimentation which comes from housing a large number of children in structures which must go up several stories.”

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By 1948 the contract for designing the House of Correction, now euphemistically termed the Youth Study Center, went to Carroll, Grisdale and Van Allen, an undistinguished firm versed in adapting factory space planning to institutional buildings. According to Su, CGVA engaged in collaborative “functional planning” sessions with teachers, probation experts, psychologists, and juvenile delinquency academics to assure that the building’s design would allow the incorporation of treatment approaches to antisocial behavior, truancy, and criminality. Yet Su’s thesis is unclear how the building’s program actually enabled the engagement of these new methods or how the building lent itself to a more nurturing, less punitive approach to juvenile delinquency. It is altogether unclear how the the YSC’s adaptability and emphasis on “ease of motion” made any difference as the facility became overcrowded. Instead she’s quite clear that the building suffered from the obvious hallmarks of failed modernism: shabby, cost-cutting construction and physical alienation due to its spartan institutional high-rise form. At about the time when the YSC was completed in 1952, the environmental psychologist D.O. Hebb was showing that understimulation or partial sensory deprivation produces similar damage to the CNS as overstimulation. Further, as research into the failure of modernist high rise housing projects has revealed, cheap construction of public buildings reflects civil society’s valuation of its citizen users: a fact that is not lost on residents who rebel at this wanton disrespect by physical rejection of the structures themselves.

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The ways in which high architectural paradigms like modernism are disseminated to lesser practitioners working in compromised situations deserves closer scrutiny. When this process is spurred by a belief in better living through rationality and economy as it was in the postwar era, what ensues is a mass popularization of a type with less and less quality and ingenuity. [The cost factor is how Philip Johnson explained the success of modernism]. Whether buildings that reflect this devolutionary trend deserve preservation is a tough argument to make. In some ways the YSC functions best as a memorial to dreams deferred or to the dangers of compromising on social welfare. Seeing the YSC today as this kind of memorial explodes the meaning and implications of “sleeping in the tents of our fathers.” But the failure of the YSC’s form should not eclipse the memory of the great promise it held in the eyes of Philadelphia’s postwar progressives. Because it won’t be memorialized by a historical marker or interpretive signage or even an entry in a guidebook of Philadelphia architecture, all we have to remember it by when we gaze adoringly at the new Barnes’ museum was its spirit and purpose — a purpose that made the YSC worthy to join the Parkway.

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9 thoughts on ““Sleeping in the Tents of Our Fathers”: the Youth Study Center as Failed Modernist Project

  1. Notice the new Parkway signs already have the Barnes listed on it? No mention of YSC, and those really amazing sculptures.

  2. the above critique is well-taken, however contains some hasty comments (preservation myopia??). it misses the major point of the argument, as well as glosses over many of the nuances of how the YSC came to be. when the YSC was constructed, it met the expectations of those who planned it and designed it, albeit for a short while. moreover, it WAS an architecturally remarkable solution, design wise and programmatically. HOWEVER, as philosophy in terms of how to care for youth changed, and as the facility became overcrowded, it then became functionally deficient. furthermore, the YSC did not have a vast amount of funding, nor was it cheaply made or of flimsy construction.

    it is admittedly effectively deficient as a youth prison today. but is the YSC still architecturally significant? absolutely. the issue here was, had it been CONSIDERED from this point of view, had it been given a chance, could it have been preserved? absolutely. it cannot function as a prison any longer, but were other uses considered? could it have been adapted in some way shape or form? YES. given the funds and time, anything is possible.

    the point wasnt to establish that it should be preserved as a youth prison. and it wasnt to ignore the plain fact that it failed. the point was to give it a little consideration and shed light on why and how it came to be–to open up a dialogue and to show that the building represented an immensely important and unrecognized period in philly’s architectural history. a building in less than optimal condition should not be the sole grounds for demolition.

  3. I remember discussing this location with you a while back and am glad to see you do an article on it. Did you ever come across any plans about relocating the statue or otherwise?

  4. I will be in Philadelphia in August and hope to see this building. I hope the sculptures will be preserved and displayed elsewhere in the city.

  5. Thanks for the background on the YSC. I’d long wondered “what were they *thinking*?” when they decided to build what is essentially a prison on the Parkway, and now I have some idea.

    Still… The Parkway, Logan Square, and the Public Library and Juvenile Court just north of the Square, are all modeled after the Champs-Elysees and Place de la Concorde in Paris. Last time I was in Paris walking down the Champs-Elysees, I sarcastically commented to my wife, “oh look, a prison, *there’s* the inspiration for the Youth Study Center”. (Hint: there is no prison along the Champs-Elysees.)

    One of many differences between Paris and Philly, I suppose!

    I’m slowly going through all your articles on this site. Awesome work, and right up my alley. Thanks!

  6. At the age of 12, I was housed in the “Youth Study Center” in 1976 from Friday night until Monday morning. My crime? I had violated curfew. Nevermind that a 19year old man had raped me for hours in the subway system off of Allegheny.

    I don’t know what kind of “study” they were supposed to be doing on me. Some of my fellow youths on the floor were murderers. I never got any help. I left Monday after a 9AM court appearance.

    I wish they’d tear that building down.

  7. As a minor,and a delinquent, I was placed in the Youth Study Center several times in the 1970’s. I honestly can’t complain about being placed there because I was guilty of the petty crimes of which I was accused.
    My only complaint would be of the staff and the administration that trained them. There was no academic programs to speak of, nor was there any recreational activities offered. Things like that may easily dismissed by people who have no tolerance for criminaml behavior, but offering a school program and providing time for sports is essential to any child regardless of what wrongs they may have done. Being stuck on a housing unit(a hallway with a dozen small rooms and a small day room with a tv to watch cartoons) is not the road to rehabilitation. Violence, theft of what belongings(food, clothing) you were allowed, physical and emotional abuse by staff and sexual abuse were common in the almost 16 months I spent at YSC at various times.
    Again, no exscuses for my behavior which put me there. But it made my already bleak world much darker, and contributed to an elevation in my anti-social behavior.
    I spent much of the next twenty years in places like Graterford and Holmesburg prsons.
    Detention facilities for minors should, ideally, be comprehensive and prepared for all types of offenders. Academics and athletic programs, along with counselling and self esteem building should be the priority.
    Punishment and isolation can come later, I guess.

  8. Pingback: The Unmaking

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