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Remembering Louis Kahn’s demolished work in Philadelphia

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From a shoe store to an affordable housing complex

The American Federation of Labor Medical Services Building was designed by Kahn and demolished in 1973.
Courtesy of the Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Louis Kahn is considered one of the most influential architects of the 20th century. But most people connect Kahn with the Yale University Art Gallery or the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, while Philadelphians are more familiar with his modern homes and public housing projects scattered throughout the region.

But despite Kahn’s prolific portfolio, there are a few of his projects in Philly that have been lost, demolished to make way for new mixed-use developments or, in one case, a highway. Here are just three buildings designed by Kahn that are no longer standing in Philly.

American Federation of Labor Medical Services Building

Courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection, Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

This granite and glass building was designed by Kahn in 1954 and built three years later at 1326-1334 Vine Street. Because the four-story building’s purpose was to provide free health care to the labor union, Kahn said his goal was to design a proper palace for the working people, according to Louis Kahn's Situated Modernism, by Sarah Wiliams Goldhagen.

It was one of his first large-scale projects that used Vierendeel beams, a V-shaped system of exposed steel and concrete trusses that were commonly used in the 20th century. But despite his efforts, the AFL Medical Services Building never really produced a commanding presence on Vine Street, writes Goldhagen, and it was demolished in 1973 to make way for the Vine Street Expressway.

Mill Creek Project

Courtesy of Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Mill Creek was one of the many public housing projects in Philadelphia that Kahn had a hand in designing. The earliest drawing dates back to 1950. Built in two phases, the development between 44th and 52nd Streets in West Philly consisted of three 17-story high rises. In 2002, the project was demolished in 2002 to make way for more public housing, this time low-rises. In a letter to the New York Times, Peter D. Schneider wrote:

The Mill Creek public housing complex in Philadelphia, an important example of Kahn's mature work, was demolished in 2002 in favor of a so-called ''mixed-income'' development of suburban-style townhouses that will provide far fewer low-income housing units than the Kahn project it replaces. It is not just 1960's architecture that is out of style, but also the 1960's ethos that government has a responsibility to provide for its less fortunate citizens. Both will be missed.

Coward Shoes Company

Courtesy of the Free Library of Philadelphia

This store at 1122 Chestnut Street was co-designed by Kahn and Oscar Stonorov for the shoe company in 1947, a time when Chestnut Street was a thriving retail corridor. The architects designed a modern storefront with a free-floating glass display that aimed to emphasize the shoes over actual architectural elements, wrote William Whitaker in Hidden City Philadelphia.

Yet this stretch of retail began to flounder as tenants and residents began to move to the suburbs in later years. In 2014, the Coward Shoes Store was demolished to make way for a new mixed-use development by Brickstone. The block now features an apartment building, a Fine Wine and Good Spirits, and a Target.