The city of Jerusalem is often referred to as “The City of Gold,” but what is a “Golden City” exactly? 

It’s not Thomas More’s Utopia or Plato’s Republic, but a majestic concept enshrined in a classic book, The Golden City: An Argument for Classical Architecture by Henry Hope Reed (1915-2013), a New Yorker, whose work inspired and fueled the preservation movement in the United States and influenced New York City’s Landmark Law, noted as one of the most important milestones in the preservation movement in the country. 

A deluxe reissue of Reed’s book — with essays by Philadelphia architect Alvin Holm and architectural writer Catesby Leigh — was celebrated by the Philadelphia branch of the Institute for Classical Art and Architecture (ICAA) at Carpenter’s Hall this month. Both Leigh and Holm were in attendance and autographed the deluxe $40.00 edition as guests mingled and thanked Carpenter’s Hall Executive Director Michael Norris for hosting the event. 

Carpenter’s Hall, the site of the 1774 First Continental Congress, was also being celebrated that evening. The Robert Smith-designed Hall looked its resplendent best despite the devastating Christmas Eve fire in 2022, the result of arson. The fire affected the basement area, destroying some archival albeit contemporary material from the 20th century, making it, as Norris told reporters then, “a sad Christmas.” Since there were no security cameras in the Hall in 2023, the arsonist remains at large.

Of course, the year 2022 was the year when historic statues were being dismounted and carted away by cultural Marxists bent on erasing history. This was the height of the Christopher Columbus statue controversy in the city — the Rizzo statue and Kate Smith in South Philadelphia statue had already been hauled away — so perhaps Carpenter’s Hall was on some radical hit list. We will never know. 

In any event, Henry Hope Reed would have been proud of the ICAA gathering, especially since his book went unread and unnoticed throughout the 1960s and 70s when modernism in architecture — and the destruction of most things considered “old” — reigned supreme. As Leigh told the gathering of 30-plus people in attendance, “Reed’s work is getting some attention today, so the situation has changed for the better.”

When I spoke to Leigh, he mentioned that one of his pet projects was saving Confederate monuments. Leigh believes that saving Confederate monuments is just as important as saving historic buildings despite the influence of “woke” politics on many preservation societies. In a piece for City Journal, Leigh wrote about the removal of four stunning Confederate memorials in Arlington, Virginia: 

“[They] all ran afoul of racial-grievance activists, whether black or Native American, and their indispensable coterie of woke white allies convinced that the monuments’ removal will somehow improve the lives of historically marginalized minorities. It won’t, and the grievance community will just move on to the next hot-button issue…” 

Among the attendees at the ICAA event was Daniela Holt Voith, co-founder of Voith & Mactavish Architects LLP. Voith recently joined the board of the Philadelphia chapter of ICAA. A few years ago in a piece for another publication, I described Voith as “a tall, regal sort of woman with an Anne de Harancourt manner.” The self-described “pull up her sleeves” worker is a 1976 alumna of Bryn Mawr College, and a lecturer in Growth & Structure of Cities. Voith was a member of Philadelphia’s Zoning Code Commission during the Nutter administration.

Voith & Mactavish (Co-founder Cameron Mactavish was made partner emeritus in 2023) began as a two-person Mom and Pop operation in Manayunk-Roxborough area. 

In 2009, Mactavish celebrated the firm’s 20th anniversary with the exhibition Structure, Purpose, Beauty: 20 Years, at The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, which showcased the firm’s wide range of projects including educational facilities, performing arts venues, houses of worship, residences and historic preservation projects. This exhibition consisted of original drawings, photographs and models. 

“For 20 years, the Philadelphia firm of Voith & Mactavish Architects has been producing context-respecting, quietly innovative architecture,” Eve Kahn wrote in her introduction to the VMA exhibition catalog. “The firm operates with breadth and depth, grace and flair…..The architects have managed these feats without developing any signature style, without imposing on clients any Voith & Mactavish ‘look’…”

Philadelphia architect Alvin Holm, who was also busy signing books along with Leigh, describes himself as a “once happy modernist.” 

The affable white-haired head of a small firm on Samson Street in Center City says he changed his mind about modernism about 20 years after getting his Masters in architecture at Penn. “I always loved the old style,” he tells me over lunch at the Irish Pub, a restaurant he designed in the classical manner. “… But when I began teaching architecture… something happened.”

Holm says that what he realized then was that continuity mattered. “And that was not what we were taught in any architecture school courses. We would look at these old buildings and ask our instructors, ‘Well, why can’t we do something like that?’ and they’d say, ‘Well, you can’t do that anymore!’”

I think that’s one of the problems with modernism in general. It’s idealistic without any particular ideal.

Alvin Holm

His conversion from a modernist ideologue to passionate classicist didn’t come easily. Holm remembers being charmed by Louis Kahn. “He was a totally lovable human being. I don’t think there wasn’t anybody who didn’t like him — cab drivers, professors; he was charismatic, absolutely. But I think he was wrong. I think he took us down a path that led nowhere. And I think that’s one of the problems with modernism in general. It’s idealistic without any particular ideal.”

Though Kahn is credited with providing a link from classicism to modernism, many critics would agree with Martin Filler’s essay in The New York Review of Books that Kahn “possessed neither the inventiveness of Le Corbusier nor the elegance of Mies.” Filler writes that architecture remained a struggle for Kahn because, “he lacked extensive practical experience until well into middle age, and never mastered the appearance of effortlessness that many creators use to conceal their labors.” 

Kahn, Holm says, wanted to go back to the beginning, or to Walter Gropius’ Ground Zero, that ideal-less world where the history of architecture doesn’t exist. “Kahn would sit on a stool frequently and his disciples would sit on the floor, and he’d look down for the longest time and then he’d look up and say, ‘I’d like to remember that moment when the walls parted and the columns became….’ That’s quite a poetic saying,” Holm points out, “but there never was such a moment, because there were columns before there were walls, there were columns before there was anything structural. By going back to the beginning he erased 4 or 5,000 years of history. He erased the knowledge that was accumulated for a very long period of time.”

Holm compares what Kahn did to the kind of amnesia that old people get. “That’s what modernism did. How can you call that progress? That’s called losing your marbles.” 

Tough words from a man who in the 1970s worked for Vincent G. Kling, at that time the most famous architect in Philadelphia. “I was an unapologetic modernist until the 1976 Bicentennial got underway with its focus on looking back and taking stock. These were also the years when most architects had little respect for preservation and traditionalism. Architects, who celebrated Classicism, such as the work of Henry Hope Reed, were seen as part of a lunatic fringe.” 

Perhaps the most bothersome issue for this 2009 Clem Labine Award winner — given to an architect for advocacy of humane values in the built environment — is modernism’s grip on the architectural schools, where architectural history and classical architecture are simply not taught. 

Today’s architectural students are not looking towards the classical world for inspiration. “To my eye,” Holm says, “the dominant style is continuity. And this was not what we were taught in architectural school courses. From a modernist point of view, all the old buildings are artifacts from a culture that doesn’t exist anymore. All the books in architectural school are written from a modernist point of view.”

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

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