A Stitch in Time

MS&R Architects’ unusual adaptation of five historic industrial buildings made the move of Urban Outfitters’ headquarters from downtown Philadelphia to its decommissioned navy yard a seamless one.

When I first heard that Philadelphia’s Urban Outfitters (UO) was relocating its headquarters from its cozy Rittenhouse Square offices to the city’s decommissioned navy yard, it sounded like bad news for every­­one concerned. The idea of yanking more than 600 of Philadelphia’s most creative—not to mention best-dressed —workers out of downtown was the equivalent of exiling Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue fashion houses to an industrial park near JFK. Losing so many trendsetters would surely diminish the Center City District’s hard-won cool quotient. Meanwhile all those hipsters in skinny jeans and vintage boots would have to figure out how to get to a compound so far off the city grid it was practically tumbling into the Delaware River. There wasn’t a coffeehouse or magazine stand in sight.

It isn’t that the sprawling shipyard doesn’t have its charms. The 132-year-old base at the southern tip of Philadelphia resembles a cross between an idyllic small town and the depopulated set of The Prisoner. The tree-lined, traffic-free streets of Georgian-revival officers’ mansions give way to redbrick industrial workshops, where for decades muscled workers bent and riveted steel into battleships. But after the place was emptied out in the late 1990s as part of a national base-closing initiative, Robert A. M. Stern Architects was hired by a city development company to come up with a master plan and marketing concept for the yard’s historic industrial core and the surrounding 1,200 acres of undeveloped land. The gauzy watercolor renderings from the 2004 plan offer a bird’s-eye view of an orderly suburban office park, some vaguely Soviet housing blocks, and a variation on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. That couldn’t possibly be the right home for a fashion retailer whose very name suggests downtown bohemianism, could it?

But now that the company’s three brands—Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and Free People—have each taken up residence in their individual workshops, I can understand why founder Richard A. Hayne was ready to pioneer the Navy Yard’s uncharted territory. The company’s campus in the old core isn’t merely a collection of isolated loft buildings that happen to have great industrial-age bones; it’s part of a ready-made city with a civilized street grid and a deeply grooved texture. “It’s a real place,” Hayne explains. “It’s not Williamsburg, Virginia, pretending to be a real place, or a suburban version of what the past is supposed to look like.” 

Working with Minneapolis architect Jeffrey Scherer, a founder of MS&R, UO has repurposed the Navy’s war-making factories into a creative commune that is the opposite of the cookie-cutter corporate headquarters envisioned in Stern’s master plan. “Stern tried to sanitize the Navy Yard,” Scherer argued during an early site visit, as we made our way through Building 543, a gloomy hangar-size machine shop from 1939 that would become the company’s commissary and community hub. “The master plan is afraid to admit that idiosyncratic is beautiful.”

At lunchtime UO’s overwhelmingly female army of designers, buyers, and pattern makers drift over to the sparkling renovated building, which evokes London’s Crystal Palace in its vast scale and abundant light. The commissary—open to the public—has been warmed up by a bamboo grove that is fast heading toward the skylights and a koi pond in the old steel-bending pits. As employees wait for their stir-fry specials to be dished out by one of Philadelphia’s best restaurant operators, they might find themselves rubbing elbows with mechanics from the private shipyard next door or tenants from some of the Navy Yard’s other companies. Through the 65-foot-high wall of windows they can glimpse a container ship laden with South American fruit churning up the Delaware or watch a Navy detachment scavenge parts from the row of destroyers mothballed in dry dock. The location isn’t Rittenhouse Square, but it’s richly urban in its own way.

Hayne, an anthropology major who started by selling T-shirts and housewares out of an abandoned warehouse in the 1970s, has turned Urban Outfitters into a billion-dollar-a-year business by following what might be described as an anti-Gap strategy. While UO’s products are similarly mass-produced, its stores are often located in unique buildings that were once car dealerships, factories, churches, or mansions. Hayne has made an art out of mining the detritus of urban decline to outfit those stores. The company’s products are displayed amid antiques and vintage relics, an approach that individualizes the objects and steeps them in a past. The first time Hayne visited the Navy  Yard, he realized he had found a mother lode of industrial artifacts. The Navy simply locked the doors and walked away in 1996, leaving behind such treasures as Egyptian-style cast-iron columns, 2,000-pound overhead cranes, and walls decorated with the graffiti musings and naive paintings of Navy carpenters. Hayne picked it all up for $1–5 per building. His first  impulse wasn’t to clean up the buildings but to keep them exactly as they were.

Hayne knew he had found his aesthetic soul mate in Scherer when he discovered that MS&R’s office was constructed around the fire-scarred ruins of a flour mill. Scherer isn’t interested in traditional historic preservation, which he feels embalms architecture as it appeared at one moment in time. He would rather capture the memory traces of those who inhabited a building over its lifetime, which can mean retaining everything from graffiti to old communal sinks. Like his Minneapolis office, UO’s headquarters “has an incredibly layered history,” Scherer says. “How do you infuse such buildings with a new atmosphere for the company while respecting the historical thread?” The last thing he wanted was smooth perfection.

More than 100 bases around the country have been decommissioned since the U.S. military began its post–Cold War contraction, but Philadelphia’s Navy Yard is among the most architecturally significant. Starting around 1874 with a single Georgian-style house, the Navy constructed a miniature city on a marshy spit of Delaware waterfront. It picked up the street grid that began in the Center City District (CCD), located 3.5 miles north on Broad Street. At the peak of World War II the yard employed 60,000 people and included almost 300 buildings. By 2000, when the Navy handed the place over to the city’s Industrial Development Corporation, most of the yard had long been abandoned. Hayne and Scherer found mushrooms growing in some of the buildings. Decades’ worth of peeling paint spalled off the walls in varicolored sheaves.

It took years for the city to wrap its mind around the huge site, which is almost as big as Philadelphia’s downtown. The Stern master plan, produced jointly with developer Liberty Property Trust, offered a basic framework, explains John Grady, who oversees the Navy Yard for the city. Turning the main section of the yard into an office and industrial park seemed like a good way of retaining businesses that might otherwise be tempted by inexpensive low-rise suburban spaces with wide-open parking lots. The gritty shipyard, with good highway access, was rechristened the Philadelphia Naval Business Center.

Grady’s agency renovated one of the historic redbrick workshops to demonstrate to prospective tenants how the old buildings could be adapted for modern offices. Susan Maxman & Partners, a respected Phila­delphia architecture firm, restored the exterior of Building 10, which was built in the style of an Italian palazzo, and fashioned an elegant interior that included bright red Masonite walls, a stainless-steel elevator core, jaunty glass-walled offices, and raised floors. The project won several local awards. Then Hayne came along.

He had been struggling to find a CCD space large enough to house his growing workforce. He was on the verge of taking several floors in the downtown Curtis Publishing building, where the legendary Saturday Evening Post was produced, when the owner refused to allow UO’s employees to bring their dogs to work. Hayne initially thought the Navy Yard was too far from the action, but changed his mind as soon as he saw the four Italianate workshops with the Dela­ware rushing by. “We wanted a place where you could get your hands dirty and work,” he says. “It didn’t seem right for us to be in a conventional office building.”

Here, each of the three brands could have its own home and still leave room for UO to double its workforce. Hayne believes that keeping the brands separate is crucial to maintaining their creative identity. At one point the company even considered spraying the buildings with their own scents. Although UO decided that would be going too far, the three interiors have been decorated to reflect the spirit of each brand. Anthropologie’s home, in Building 10, is the sleekest of the three; Free People signals its hippie-chick spirit with giant balls of yarn at its entrance. The fourth palazzo serves as the company’s administrative headquarters. Building 543 houses additional management functions, along with the restaurant, a fitness center, and a coffee bar carved in India. It’s a nice irony that UO’s designers now manufacture frilly clothing in the same rooms where the Navy turned out implements of war. They even store their patterns in the same cubbies where Navy engineers kept their blueprints.

It didn’t upset Hayne that Building 10 had been already renovated, but Scherer was horrified. In the winter of 2004, he walked me through the building, pointing out the damage he felt had been done. “Can you believe anyone would cover up a floor like this?” he fumed, lifting up a corner of plywood to reveal the original maple boards, deeply scored from the weight of the machinists’ equipment. “These floors are fantastic,” Scherer said. For him the ruts and dark oil spots were the marks of human labor, physical links with the past as dense with meaning as cave paintings. Scherer considered it desecration to conceal them. “All this stuff will have to come up,” he declared, waving at the new walls and plywood.

Given barely two years to transform the five derelict structures, Scherer spent the first several weeks making lists of what to preserve. “It was an intense process to decipher the literacy of these buildings,” he explained. Some of the most spectacular details had been covered up, such as the cast-iron columns in Building 7, which dated from 1889. Yet Scherer was equally moved by the evocative beauty of the vernacular accretions, such as a pair of immense sliding doors that Navy workers had painted with stars and stripes. He went into the project vowing to  freeze-frame the buildings in the condition he found them, doing just enough to make them safe and comfortable. His signature phrase became, “Just wire-brush that and give  it a coat of sealant.”

As work continued, the preservation issues became less straightforward. The facades of the historic buildings were easy because UO was obligated by government rules to restore their original appearance. But renovating the interiors involved hundreds of minute decisions. It was difficult at first to communicate to the demolition crews that they were serious about preserving the rust and peeling paint. Scherer arrived one day to find them tearing out an elaborately sculpted metal staircase. It was even harder to convince them not to scour off all the old wall paint. In a typical renovation, Scherer explains, the contractors would go in and sandblast everything. “We had to teach the workers that the blasting nozzle was not to remove the paint but to paint the column,” he says. “They’d say to us, ‘What are you talking about?’ But finally they got the hang of it.”

Still there were occasions when Scherer reluctantly had to conclude that it wasn’t practical to preserve all the layers of the past. He and Hayne “fell in love” with some numbers Navy workers had scrawled on a wall for unknown reasons. In the end the mysterious digits were obliterated when new rooms had to be inserted into the space. And remember those original floors that had Scherer swooning? The boards in buildings 12 and 15  proved beyond salvaging, so the surface was covered up once again—this time with reclaimed maple floors from a Chicago convent. UO’s store designers have been practicing such sleights of hand for years, importing the old to give a pedigree to the new.

Historical accuracy has never been the point for Hayne. Scherer also had no qualms about rearranging the historical fabric to put his own stamp on the project. The single most dominant element in UO’s five buildings is the monumental staircase he designed for Building 12, the company’s administrative nerve center. The three-story structure laces together fir-wood risers (old) and steel-and-glass rails (new) in an ascent of  near Piranesian complexity. Because of the way the four redbrick palazzos line up, the staircase is a visual connector for the buildings. That mix of the sleek and the rough is not unlike one of UO’s vintage-inspired ensembles. No wonder the company’s downtown fashionistas have been able to slip into the military architecture like a hermit crab insinuating itself into a mollusk’s shell.

Anne Wertz, a former in-house architect who supervised the construction and jokingly called herself the director of quality of life, admits that she missed being able to walk to work. “I’m not a gym rat, so that’s how I got my exercise.” She drove from CCD to the Navy Yard; others prefer the 30-minute trip by subway and shuttle bus. But any regret Wertz had was tempered by the spell of Building 543, which has become the company’s community center. She remembers being swept off her feet the first time she saw the ruined factory. She was working for another company, having left the first time to pursue other interests, when Hayne telephoned, bubbling like a child with a new toy. “Dick said, ‘Come back. You’re going to love these buildings.’”

Wertz had an office in Building 12, but it was just as easy to work while sipping coffee in the lounge alongside the koi pond. Hayne, whose responsibilities include feeding the fish, stopped by one morning. He was followed by some employees who were having trouble with their key cards. Soon the space was buzzing with employees from around the Navy Yard, lining up for chow at the commissary.

Among them was Grady, who likes to lunch in the soaring space. The activity reminds him of Rittenhouse Square on a warm spring day. “What Urban Outfitters has done here has made us rethink our approach to the Navy Yard,” he admits. He sees now that it can be more than a traditional office park. Meanwhile, back at Rittenhouse Square there seems to be no shortage of fashionable people.

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